April 13, 2018

Resilience League Spring Seminar Features Six Stories About Journalism in Wartime

“What do you see in war? Ruins and people. I am not interested in ruins–they are similar everywhere– but people are different. I prefer to talk to people.,” – Ainar Ruussaar

On 13 April, the Resilience League Spring Seminar on journalism in wartime, co-organised by the Estonian Association of Journalists, took place at ICDS. Six very different journalists, each with their own varied yet interesting experiences, gathered in one room to tell their stories about war.

In his opening remarks, ICDS Chief executive Dmitri Teperik observed that “In the so-called post-truth era, journalists have a great deal of responsibility for covering events on the basis of reliable facts, even though this can be difficult for various reasons in crisis zones. At the same time, events related to wars or other armed conflicts are widely used in conscious disinformation campaigns and in the purposeful dissemination of hostile propaganda.”

The featured speakers at the seminar were:

  • Robert Dulmers – war correspondent from the Netherlands who extensively covered the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia as well as the war in Syria in 2014-2015. He also visited North Korea in 2017.
  • Oleksandr Klymenko – a Ukrainian photojournalist who currently works at the newspaper Holos Ukrayiny (Voice of Ukraine). He has taken photos during multiple conflicts in Africa as well as in the former Yugoslav states, Transnistria, and eastern Ukraine. At the event, Klymenko introduced his photo presentation “Feeling of War.”
  • Ainar Ruussaar – Estonian journalist with a great deal of experience in covering conflicts in the Caucasus and other regions; he has also recently visited the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
  • Oleksandr Demchenko – journalist and international news editor at the National Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine; he has been covering the war in the east of the country since it began.
  • Ansis Īvāns – journalist for the Latvian edition of the Delfi internet portal; he has visited the Donbas region twice.
  • Josef Škrdlík – editor at The Student Times from the Czech Republic; he has written about life in the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk.

“War journalism is not a nine-to-five job. At war, journalists work 24 hours, 7 days a week. They have to be resourceful, whether in dismantling mines, repairing telephone lines, or driving tanks. After all, life and death are at stake. The main asset is endless curiosity,” said Robert Dulmers in describing the work of war correspondents. “A dead journalist is a bad journalist,” he added.

The topic of the war in the Donbas dominated the discussion about the limits of journalistic objectivity. In the opinion of Oleksandr Demchenko, it would be meaningless, for example, to interview the head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Aleksandr Zaharchenko, because he is not an independent figure. By contrast, Dulmers argued that it is important to listen to everyone who is open to being contacted: “There are many sides in a conflict: there are many truths. Mostly, [these sides] believe what they say. To understand is not necessary to agree.” Josef Škrdlík, who visited Donetsk and Luhansk in December 2017, concurred: “People in Donetsk sincerely believe that an illegitimate coup happened in Kyiv, and that that their opinion was ignored.”

The topic of hostile propaganda, which creates alternative narratives, worried many in the audience. Ansis Īvāns said that as a journalist he does not consider himself a participant in any informational war, but nevertheless observed that “when I look at the comments under my articles [on Delfi], I see that war is going on there.” What is the role of journalists in these circumstances? The question has yet to be answered.

Another question from the audience was: “How does one begin such work? Who is your first contact in the conflict zone?” To this, speakers answered each in their own way. Īvāns said that only his personal contacts in the Armed Forces of Ukraine allowed him to enter certain territories within the ATO zone. Dulmers argued that the first useful contact could be virtually any person that one meets in the conflict zone, provided that the journalist be open and honest. Škrdlík planned his trip to the so-called DPR and LPR well ahead of time, making arrangements through Russian social networks. “It worked,” he confirmed. Ruussaar noted that he first gets to know taxi drivers in new places: “They are well informed, and after getting to know them you can learn a lot.”

Concluding the discussion, Ruussaar argued that work in the conflict zone is not as important as family and health. “Do not take thoughtless risks. You are needed by your family and friends,” he stated.

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