Behind the News: Newsgathering in Hostile Environments - MH17 and Eastern Ukraine

21 August 2014


Above: 19 July, 2014 - Mat Marsic stands on a cleared section of road near the main crash site of MH17 with one of the engines behind him. This site was the first location of impact, but debris was spread over 15km. (Photo: Shaun Filer)


Part 1: MH17 and Eastern Ukraine

Most of us have seen shocking visions of the aftermath of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by this point. It was a tragedy that cost the lives of almost 300 people, including 39 Australian Citizens and Permanent Residents. It was, and is, a horrible shock for the Australians, the Dutch, the Malaysians, the Ukrainians – and everyone. That shock was only compounded by the fact that the site was located in the centre of a rebel controlled region inside a war zone - with no assurances the remains of victims could be returned home.

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2 - Unnamed Above: 19 July, 2014 – Local villagers lay flowers on a section of the main fuselage of MH17. 
Below:  19 July, 2014 - Phil Williams and Mat Marsic arrive at the tail section of MH17, as local coal miners arrive to continue their search for mortal remains. (Photos: Shaun Filer)


Notification of the crash came through to us relatively quickly – when it was only rumoured that the aircraft had been shot down, but planning to head back in began immediately. The single comforting point while packing the grab-bags, emergency medical equipment and protective gear, was the knowledge that we’d be working with a trusted and tested team. Newsgatherers from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, with names that many of us know by heart and others whose names we should know. Teams that cover these events regularly in the most complex, remote and often hostile environments. Teams that approach these events with the sensitivity and professionalism that those close to the victims deserve. Teams with the local fixers, drivers and support staff that make it all possible.


5 - Unnamed 4 - Unnamed Above: 20 July, 2014 – Donetsk People's Republic Separatists dressed in regional Ukrainian police uniforms clear the road for international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Several locals stated many of these men were former members of the Special Berkut Police, who were identified as the snipers responsible for at least 76 deaths in Maidan Unrest in Kiev. 
Below: 20 July, 2014 – Phil Williams delivers a “live cross” with the main tail section (vertical fin) with clear Malaysia Airlines markings. (Photos: Shaun Filer)


This trip was also somewhat unique, because after several previous trips into the Ukraine, including coverage of the Crimean and Donetsk referendums for independence earlier in the year, we were very close to the fixer Anzor and driver Big Roman. I've always felt that a strong working relationship with your local support can be the difference between security and insecurity, or between success and failure in these locations. Failures can be especially hazardous when working in “the red water” – places where fear, desperation, panic and misinformation are commonplace. Now, after almost a month in the Ukraine, I would go as far to say that Anzor and Big Roman are two of my closest friends.   


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Above: 21 July, 2014 – International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) provide a “door-stop” press conference to the world’s media at the MH17 crash-site.
Middle: 21 July, 2014 – Phil Williams composes himself and gathers his thoughts to deliver a “piece-to-camera” and “look-live” to attempt to provide some context amidst the confusion of daily development. (Photos: Shaun Filer)
Below: 21 July, 2014 – Malaysian Officials conduct back-room meetings with Donetsk People's Republic leaders, as the world’s media await a press-conference. Rumours are confirmed as Donetsk People's Republic leaders hand-over both of MH17’s black-boxes to Malaysian Officials. 


I have also been grateful to work alongside the best at the ABC for many years now – as an advisor, as a trainer, as a responder, as part of their teams. Despite some very confronting approaches to covering the MH17 tragedy by a few – where journalists rummaged through passengers’ luggage, trampled areas where mortal remains were obviously present or attempting to refocus attention onto themselves regarding the difficulties they were facing in continuing their news coverage – it was known that the ABC would cover developments with integrity.


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Above: 02 Aug, 2014 – Australian Federal Police Commander, Brian McDonald, and his Dutch counterpart provide a “door-stop” interview to the remaining media at the crash-site amongst nearby artillery shelling. 
Below: 03 Aug, 2014 – Wayne McAllister with some of the Donetsk People's Republic fighters “protecting” the crash-site. (Photos: Shaun Filer)


Despite the demanding and often distressing weeks spent again in Eastern Ukraine, I am indebted for being allowed the small contributions to the ABC newsgatherers to ensure clear and essential messages associated with the MH17 tragedy were done safely.

Thank you for all the lessons learned and shared experience to Phil Williams, Mat Marsic, Stephen McDonell, Wayne McAllister, Stephen Long, Wayne Harley, Anzor and Big Roman. 

- Shaun Filer, Senior Consultant, Dynamiq Strategy

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