Democracy Lab

More Reporters Die in Eastern Ukraine

Should journalists killed in action be mourned less because they were working for the Kremlin?

Last week, another journalist was killed on the job in eastern Ukraine -- this time a correspondent working for one of Russia's state TV channels. His death prompted an agonized discussion about the role of Russian journalists in an increasingly polarized conflict.

Igor Kornelyuk was working on a story about refugees in eastern Ukraine. On June 17 he was standing at the side of a road with a group of pro-Russian militia when unknown assailants (presumably the Ukrainian military) opened fire on them with mortars. Kornelyuk was hit. He died not long after on an operating table at a local hospital.

Kornelyuk's colleagues recalled that he had zero experience of covering conflict. He spent years running a newspaper for children, then reported court and shipyard news for a TV channel in Russia's northern port city of Murmansk. Nobody could explain to me why the reporter eagerly accepted an assignment to cover the civil war in eastern Ukraine, where dozens of victims die each week. Apparently I wasn't the only one to wonder. A reporter for the Russian service of U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty asked why the country's main TV channel was sending reporters to the front lines without body armor or any special training for work in hostile conditions. Kornelyuk left behind a wife and a 7-year-old daughter in Moscow. (He was buried on Friday.)

On the day after Kornelyuk's death, a Russian TV cameraman identified the body of another colleague, video engineer Anton Voloshin, who was found dead near a checkpoint in the region of Luhansk, close to the Russian border. (Like Kornelyuk, he also had no prior experience covering a conflict zone.) That brought to four the number of reporters killed in less than three weeks in Ukraine. The deaths of Kornelyuk and Voloshin topped news reports in Russia. Kornelyuk's colleagues accused the Ukrainian military of specifically targeting him, saying that his status as a journalist should have been visible to those who fired on the group.

Journalists covering wars always risk their lives. When they die, we find in the eulogies differing degrees of truth about who is blame for our tragic losses. This time around, leading Russian officials quickly got into the act: the Russian parliament demanded that Ukraine open an investigation into the deaths. On Thursday, the deputy head of the State Duma, Sergei Zheleznyak, declared that the killing of the Russian reporters was an intentional act: "our reporters are being hunted, arrested, taken hostage for money, and deliberately killed." Zheleznyak blamed Ukrainian authorities for destroying reporters' lives, to silence "the truth they are trying to make public."

Tatyana Lokshina, of the Moscow chapter of Human Rights Watch, told me she agreed that parliament should investigate the deaths of the Russian reporters in eastern Ukraine. At the same time she drew a distinction between the "the deaths of journalists traveling in hostile war zones with a high professional risk" and the "targeted killings" of Russian journalists like Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova, two reporters who met untimely deaths after long careers after publicizing truths that ran contrary to the Kremlin-approved version of events. Both Politkovskaya and Estemirova earned official disfavor for their highly critical coverage of the wars in Chechnya, where they threw a spotlight on human rights violations and atrocities committed by both sides. (Putin famously went out of his way to dismiss Politkovskaya, after her death, as someone whose "influence on political life within Russia was very minimal.") Earlier this month, a court in Moscow sentenced five men to prison (two of them for life) for their involvement in Politkovskaya's killing. But trial left Politkovskaya's defenders with little sense that justice had been done, since the people who ordered her killing remain at large.

Lokshina has an all-too-intimate knowledge of the dangers facing journalists on the front. Last month, she and her colleagues made a narrow escape from mortar fire outside of the city of Slovyansk -- just a day before two other journalists, Andy Rocchelli and Andrei Mironov, were killed on the same road.

Kornelyuk's death quickly became the object of heated exchanges among activists and "patriots" over the role of state-employed journalists. Reporters at the independent Internet publication Slon started their obituary for Kornelyuk this way: "In spite of ideological contradictions, the editors at Slon.ru express sincere condolences" to the state TV company that employed him. That prompted a bitter reply from Aleksandr Kots, a correspondent for the popular newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, in which he assailed the Slon journalists: "He who expresses sorrow while adding ‘but' or ‘in spite of' is no longer a person." "I feel disillusioned by the entire journalist community," wrote Alexander Raskin, an experienced war reporter for the state-owned newspaper Izvestia. "This isn't an appropriate time to blame each other; it's a time to be together and to mourn our loss."

The reaction to Kornelyuk's death by official Kiev wasn't exactly characterized by sympathy. President Petro Poroshenko called for an investigation into the deaths of Kornelyuk and Voloshin, but then went on to report that the Ukrainian military had responded to "terrorist attacks" on its forces by killing "ten terrorists" (referring to members of the rebel groups that are trying to establish independent republics in Ukraine's East). By Thursday, the Ukrainian prosecutor general had begun its inquiry into the deaths of the two Russian reporters, and quickly concluded that both were killed by anti-government rebels rather than by Ukrainian forces. It's hard to regard that finding with anything other than skepticism, given the testimony of many who were at the scene of Kornelyuk's death. But will the official Russian report arrive at a more trustworthy result? As someone once said: "In war, the first casualty is the truth."

JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Mourning Lost Friends

Today is Journalists' Day in Ukraine. But in a time of war there's little to celebrate.

They could have chosen to work on a different story; they could have chosen to return to their hotel and have a nice meal. On that day, on May 24th, they could have even opted to skip the violent city of Slovyansk altogether. For that matter, they could have decided never to cover the venomous conflict in eastern Ukraine in the first place. The day was already winding down when Italian photographer Andy Rocchelli, 30, his co-author, interpreter, and long-time friend Andrei Mironov, 60, and their French colleague William Roguelon drove up to a railroad crossing in the village of Andreyevka, a spot reportedly known for almost daily firefights between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels. The journalists parked their car and got ready for work. They were reporting on civilians living on the front line, hostages of war. The story they had filed earlier to the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta bore the title, "We're Not Animals, There's No Need to Put Barbed Wire Around Us."

About 20 minutes later, a sudden burst of gunfire sent the reporters running for cover behind their car; they ended up in a ditch on the side of the road. As the men cowered there, unseen attackers targeted them with a grenade launcher, sending shells screaming across at their car; that was followed by a mortar barrage. Roguelon later recalled at least 40 mortar rounds landing on the top of a hill above the road; he was wounded by shrapnel but managed to survive. Andy and Andrei weren't so lucky. Their bodies were found the next morning in the same ditch, at the side of the last road they drove down together. Reporters working in Slovyansk at the time said it was quite likely that the three men had been caught in a crossfire. Indications are that the initial shots came from rebels. Already wounded, the two men were then killed by mortars belonging to the Ukrainian military. In Kiev, officials from the interior ministry later tried to explain the incident to me by saying that the journalists should have covered their car with big signs identifying them as members of the press.

Two hearts stopped beating in men who were trying to act as witnesses. They were in the midst of telling a human story about civilian families, children surviving in basements during nights filled with the din of gunfire. At the very beginning of a conflict that makes little sense, in Donbass, a part of Ukraine torn between Kiev and Moscow, both men believed their mission was to find proof of war crimes against civilian people. "For Andrei, his mission began in Chechnya, where he collected evidence of ordinary people used by rebels as human shields, of hospital patients taken as hostages, and of the use of vacuum bombs," Alexander Cherkasov told me. Cherkasov, the director of the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, still keeps in his office a fragment of a vacuum bomb that Andrei brought him from Chechnya.

"Why would Andrei, so experienced, take the risk of exposure in a combat zone, after documenting wars for the past 25 years?" The question came from war photographer Stanley Greene, whose life Andrei once saved during shelling in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Stanley could just as easily ask a similar question of himself. Having documented wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and a host of other deadly places, he, too, has been covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

War reporters often say that their job is a lottery. When they hear about the death of colleagues, they shake their heads and say: "Their number came up." It might sound like fatalism, but there's a grim realism to the thought: you simply can't predict what's going to happen in a war zone. It's June 6th, Journalists' Day in Ukraine, and we're remembering our friends on the veranda of a hotel in Donetsk, a green city of once hard-working people that is now sliding rapidly into economic chaos and civil war. One hears accounts of journalists being kidnapped, detained, beaten, threatened, or robbed in various parts of the self-declared separatist "republics" of Donetsk and Lugansk. And the number of such stories appears to be growing.

Some war reporters, the superstitious ones, keep careful track of every bad omen they encounter on the job. Others ignore the signs completely and carry on single-mindedly with their work. Today, I'm happy to say, the lottery passed over two of our friends, the talented photographers Sergei Ponomarev and Maksim Dondyuk. Just like Andy and Andrei, they came under fire on the road to a checkpoint (this time near Marinovka, close to the Russian border), and once again the shooting came from two different sides. As rebels struggled all week to punch holes in the border, the Ukrainian border guard commander in charge of Marinovka issued a statement warning that Russian armored personnel carriers were "pouring across" into Ukraine. That was the story the two photographers were trying to document.

It's still unclear who fired at Sergei and Maksim this morning on their way to the checkpoint. Luckily, they both survived; one of the bullets passed through Maksim's hip bag, leaving him untouched -- this time. I asked Maksim how he sees his mission. "It's important to cover both sides of the conflict in my own country, without taking sides: one day the rebels, the next day the Ukrainian military," he said. "That's just the way I reported on the Maidan revolution for three months, day after day: one day I took photos of protesters, the next day I reported on the riot police." He showed me a mark on his left leg from a stun grenade that hit him during his time on the Maidan.

Looking at the black hole from the bullet that passed through his bag today, I recalled a conversation I had with Sabrina Tavernise, another old friend who works for The New York Times; we recently went on a reporting trip together around Lugansk. She was telling me about her hospital visits with Joao Silva, a conflict photographer who stepped on a mine in Afghanistan in 2010. "Looking at how much pain Joao was suffering through, how hard he was fighting to live on for his loving family, I realized that I don't ever want my number to come up," Sabrina told me. I agree. And these days, especially in eastern Ukraine, there are far too many reminders of how high the price can be.

Photo by Emily Timoney