Do Not Become a Piece of Meat

18.10.2016, Crossroads

In the last years, British journalist Oliver Carroll has been intensively covering Ukrainian events, and has gained interesting and useful experience, which he happily passes on.

Donetsk hostage

An incident happened in Donetsk. They kidnapped me for an amount of time, it was not very long, but still around 7-8 hours. It was terrible. That is why it is important for people to know where you are.

In an ideal situation, that person should be your editor, and it is even better if there are also people in the same location. For example, if you are a foreign correspondent, then your colleagues, let’s say in London or New York, should know when you would regularly communicate with them, and if in these circumstances they do not have information from you, they should sound the alarm.

Sometimes the anticipation is more negative than the reality, but the precautions are always justified. You will never be able to be prepared for every situation, but you should have some options in mind. For a war journalist, it is very important to have everything planned clearly. You should give phone numbers and identification marks with someone who will follow up, and in the case of the plan going awry, will take steps.

Danger and life

Everything must be balanced, there are GPS devices that show traces, but if the participants of a conflict see them, it is possible that they will think you are a spy.

In general, during times of war, this principle must be put forth: “is being close to military action justified.” Always ask yourselves if it is really worth getting close to heated areas. If you are a writer and journalist, then, in fact, you have no need to be right at the front line, since you could provide updates from a location very far from there, where those decisions are being made.

If you think that what you are covering will put your life in danger, don’t cover it. There are very few stories (if any) that are worth putting your life in danger for.

I generally do not like to take risks, but I am usually surrounded by people who do. Of course, for journalistic material you must take risks. But the important thing is that within the group there is an agreement that when anyone is not sure, no one will go. And the rules of the game must be agreed upon in advance.

Piece of meat

In Donetsk I feared the worst developments. They were keeping me in a location, which was called isolator, a military unit transformed from an old art centre. I knew what type of things happened there. I had heard stories about torture, and of course I could not get that out of my mind.

At the same time, I was worried for my American colleague, because they deemed her a spy and moved her with a different car. I was worried for her safety.

I was also very worried about my own safety. At some point, I had difficulty breathing, but later I decided to speak with them. I had heard this piece of advice many times: act in a way, for them to see you as a person, not a piece of meat. The moment you begin to speak, there will be a connection between you two. I began to speak about football, and the conversation was established. They released me.

Insurance

I am always insured, always, always, always.

Sincerely speaking, I think that this should be under the editorial responsibility, and that the journalist shouldn’t have to pay for their own insurance. But if that is the case, that the journalist must do it themselves, there should be no hesitation. I am always getting insured in my own ways. As far as I know, Reporters Without Borders offers very good insurance and it is quite affordable. Perhaps many do not know about that.

Patriotism

I think that it is possible to put patriotism aside. In Ukraine there are journalists who, through their work, have proven that. For example, Hromadske TV’s extraordinary team, with their journalist Nastya Stankon, who has a Ukrainian stance, since her husband was a freedom fighter for the volunteer battalions, but at the same time was one of the best journalists critically covering issues in Ukraine.

I do not think that balance imposed by force will work, but everyone must try to keep their opinions to themselves, state the facts, and seek to understand the lives of people who don’t understand.

Decide: do you want to be a reporter or be patriotic? I would say that if you want to be a journalist, you will also be a good reporter, because this is the most patriotic duty you can do. Be patriotic so that you can, as a journalist, work honestly to hold government accountable, wherever you are.

Describe it to me

Each person sees their topic and the work that comes along with it in their own way. But you must always be careful during times of war, because people have post-traumatic stress, and there are issues that are not worth addressing to them.

Allow people to speak for themselves, request that they describe what has happened, what they have seen, what they have felt. Extract information from them, don’t give them accusatory questions, such as ‘why didn’t you tell the Ukrainians that there was a group of fighters here?’ Try to do it in a way that makes them feel more comfortable. They are not used to giving interviews, you must be gentle with them.

There is no need to change a person’s real information, if there is no real reason for it. I sometimes changed the dates, some descriptive information, and certain identifying features.

Be aware of your prejudices

Think about what can restrict you: physical information, issues of security. Think about what you might be able to see. Think about your prejudices and remember them. To sum up, what you know, what you don’t know, and all that which is possible that you don’t know that you don’t know.

Sara Khojoyan

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