Sometimes what we journalists write doesn’t depend on our ideas but on the actions of a uniformed intelligence officer. Like the one who was standing at a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine on a cold day in January. He shook his head and said, “You can’t pass this way!”
We were standing at a checkpoint called “Oktyabr.” An icy wind was chasing across the flat plain, the sun reflecting in a frozen lake. Around about us were the remains of what once could have been a farm. Bullet hole-ridden walls, roofs torn to shreds, fields rutted by mortars. They had set up provisional barracks, from which emerged uniformed men, who wearily searched through our car for the fourth time.
We were here because we wanted to report on the work being done in Ukraine by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and on the separatist territory. We all had the necessary authorizations to do so with us.
To obtain them, we had pledged we would merely accompany the OSCE observers and under no circumstances would we strike off on our own. But now the separatists’ intelligence forces were interrogating our Ukrainian coworkers. It would appear that here, wedged in between two fronts, agreements are meaningless. This is where the control of the Ukrainian state ends. And the realm of arbitrary despotism begins.
It is now almost two years since the signing of the Minsk II treaty, which is being monitored by the OSCE observers. The agreement is supposed to guarantee peace in Ukraine, but it isn’t working. Every day the dull sound of mortar shells and Grad rockets can be heard somewhere. Weeks with no dead to report are good weeks, and they are rare. People are dying again in this war, not since mid-December have there been as many; the situation is escalating.
After an hour, our colleagues returned from their interrogation. They reported that one of the uniformed agents told them they had instructions not to allow the two Germans through – meaning the photographer, Sebastian Bolesch, and me. They knew our names and our car registration number. They even knew we would be traveling this way. Apparently, they were already waiting for us.
On the first day of our reporting trip, we visited school classes together with Alexander Hug, the deputy chief monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. These schools were near the “contact line,” as the front is called in the language of diplomacy. We lumbered beside deserted fields no one was plowing anymore because of the mines lurking in the ground. We went to see the village of Shyrokyne, where no one was living anymore and no house was intact, but where, after nightfall, the sound of gunfire echoed.
The suffering on this side and the destruction caused by the attacks carried out by the separatists is only one part of the story. The other part lies behind the checkpoint that we now cannot pass through. It lies in the Donetsk People’s Republic that was proclaimed by the separatists, where residential areas are repeatedly being shelled by Ukrainian soldiers.
The core of our work is to report about both sides of the conflict, to be better able to understand it, to be better able to put it in context. And that is precisely what we were attempting to do on that cold January day. But we were being prevented from doing so.
We remained at the front, except that we were in the territory under the control of the Ukrainian army. As a result, we now only reported about one side.
Not one of the separatists threatened us, nobody yelled at us. What was menacing was the stonewalling, the situation’s lack of transparency. We certainly had the necessary papers. So what did they want from us? Was it just our bad luck? Or are the various security structures fighting against each other? Is it still just them being arbitrary – or has it long since become systematic?
When I speak with readers at events organized by my publication, Die Zeit, some ask me how a topic finds its way into the newspaper. There are critical readers among them who have been reading our newspaper for 15 or 20 years. And they have become more wary and distrusting. These readers are interested in our work, but they understandably know little about it. They can’t say why a certain subject matter makes it into the paper and others don’t. The work of journalists is a black box to them, I believe, and hence the distrust.
To give an example, a married couple at one event was convinced that the editors determine the subjects for us correspondents and even the arguments in our articles. When I said that wasn’t the case, it not only surprised the couple but everyone else in the audience too.
Just for background: We correspondents are the ones who propose the subjects. Then we set off, ditch some ideas, develop new ones. Very often an encounter or chance decides under which circumstances we are able to report. It can happen that on an afternoon when nothing is working out as planned, we chance upon an interesting person – and along with that person we discover a completely new subject or new perspective. And sometimes we are also forced to change plans because the permits we’ve obtained are suddenly not worth anything anymore – as at Checkpoint Oktyabr.
My first long report from eastern Ukraine was published almost three years ago, when in the city of Donetsk the war still seemed far away, but the first pro-Russian protests had started. One evening I met with two women, both pro-Ukrainian activists, in their favorite restaurant. The two were already carrying pepper spray in their handbags. They sensed the times were changing. Since then, I have traveled together with the photographer Sebastian Bolesch time and again into eastern Ukraine. We described how the war gradually engulfed the city of Donetsk, and we constantly moved about on both sides of the front. Back then it was allowed and it was important.
I wrote about the Ukrainian volunteer battalions that were equipped by oligarchs, and about a ragged Ukrainian army that was let down and deserted by the state. I wrote about separatists, who had, thanks to Russian help, unleashed a war. We reported about cellar people on the outskirts of Donetsk, who had been living in bunkers for months because they believed on the day of the Minsk Protocol they would be able to return to their homes. But the agreement brought no peace and so they continued to hold out, 13 feet underground.
With each trip into the territory, the gathering of information became more difficult. The Ukrainian side introduced its own press card for the “Anti-Terror Zone,” as the war zone is called, and since its introduction every journalist has to first be checked by the SBU, Ukraine’s security service. Any journalist who wants to report from there must first declare at one of the military’s press centers which checkpoints he or she intends to pass through.
The opposing side also quickly became more professional. In order to work close to the front, at first we just needed a plain, unadorned paper document that served as press accreditation. A few weeks later, we suddenly needed a certain stamp on our accreditation. Then military accreditation became necessary. Then we were sometimes forced to provide our complete travel route before being let into the war zone. The checking by the separatists’ secret service took days, but up till then we had always been given accreditation.
But in November 2015 everything suddenly changed. We were standing at the last Ukrainian checkpoint on the way to Donetsk. From there, we made a last phone call that was supposed to announce us to the opposite side. But suddenly the response from the separatists was: “No! You can’t come in. You’re not getting any accreditation. Period.” No explanation, no reason, no opportunity to intervene. We were irritated and felt a bit of despair. How were we supposed to do our job? We called our editorial office, who, alarmed, informed the German foreign ministry – but no one there could help us either.
We asked the OSCE whether they could help. Someone there said a number of Western journalists had experienced the same thing. She said they were watching with concern how the territory was being sealed off. They couldn’t do anything about it.
We didn’t give up. Because, as said, it was vital to us to report from both sides. We called the Die Zeit office in Russia. Did we have any contacts in Moscow who could do something? These people exist, we know that. But the call proved futile. A government that denies being involved in this war can’t play the helper.
So we remained at the front, except that we were in the territory under the control of the Ukrainian army. As a result, we now only reported about one side, namely about what was happening in the Ukrainian controlled area. We were unable to write about the arrests and torture in the separatist territory. About the arbitrary acts, the expropriations, the shelling of residential areas from Ukrainian positions, about the anger the people living there felt toward the Ukrainian government.
In the self-proclaimed People’s Republic there is no one who can be held responsible for the travel ban and breaches of the agreement’s obligations – but in Kiev there is. Demands and pressure can’t achieve anything in the separatist territory – in Kiev it can. There is wrongdoing here as well as there. But when the Ukrainian president published a list of travel bans that included a number of journalists, the international protest was so overwhelming that the list was reworked the next day. That is the difference. In Ukraine there is a state that can be held accountable. In the separatist territory there isn’t. So what happens then?
When we were turned away the first time in November 2015, I spoke with other journalists who had experienced similar things. We pondered over whether we should make the entry ban public. Some were in favor, but one colleague was afraid that afterwards any attempt at quiet diplomacy would be in vain. So I kept silent and put my faith in time and the mood improving.
The lack of reporting was used politically against us journalists. The spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry accused the Western media of only reporting from the Ukrainian side. And that was true. For two years now, Die Zeit for example, hadn’t published any reporting from inside the separatist territory. It simply wasn’t possible, we weren’t being allowed to enter.
Since then, it has become even more difficult to get to the other side. Just recently a Deutsche Welle team was turned back. Western journalists traveling for the first time in the region apparently tend to be allowed in more than those who have been here since the beginning of the conflict. But why?
Hacked emails from the Donetsk “Information Ministry” prove that entry bans are no haphazard affair. The emails show that journalists reporting on the war have been systematically identified and recorded. Names colored in red had evidently not been reporting in a manner the authorities found desirable and as a result were no longer being given accreditation. Names marked in green were allowed to enter. Our names were also mentioned, but although they weren’t colored in, apparently some influential person who was not well disposed towards us had decided we shouldn’t be allowed in.
And that was exactly what happened again on that January day in 2017. Although we presented our accreditation, we were stopped at Checkpoint Oktyabr. The OSCE people were allowed to continue on their journey. We remained back in the cold, watching the taillights of their armored vehicle disappear over the horizon. Then we turned around to head back.
Our story could be at its end here, if it only dealt with the war in eastern Ukraine. But it doesn’t end here, because it tells the story of how journalists work in authoritarian and corrupt regimes.
When I ask fellow journalists how their work is being obstructed, one colleague told me that for the last one and one-half years she has been working in Turkey without accreditation, because it is still being “reviewed.” The correspondent from South America revealed in an email that he had been abducted when he was investigating a series of murders in the Amazon region. Other colleagues were hampered by non-approved visas or temporary entry bans. And still others found themselves blacklisted because they didn’t write enthusiastically enough about certain subjects.
Editorial offices very rarely make such constrictions public. Usually my fellow journalists try to carry on, persevere, and quietly work to get something done about it. But if the defense mechanism is systematic – as in the separatist territory – then all the waiting is in vain. That is why I am writing this article, even if it may completely destroy my chances of ever again traveling to the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine.
These days there’s a great deal of talk about lies, which are now no longer called lies but rather “fake news.” Many people are giving a lot of thought to how to expose invented stories and distorted news, so that societies will not become the victims of manipulation. But now and then manipulations are successful in ways that seems out-of-date in our digital world: They simply turn the reporter away at the border. That, too, determines our reporting. I think the reader ought to know that.
This article first appeared in Die Zeit, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: email@example.com