The shell whistled over the wide valley with the clear river flowing over the pale, stony ground. It exploded somewhere far in the distance. The commander who ordered the shot looked at us with pride.
The statue of Mother Mary stood white and shimmering above the worn red-brick steps. Her painted concrete eyes stared down at us as we came across the mangled body hacked with machetes and spreadeagled on the steps below her.
These scenes are unforgettable reminders of the times when, as a journalist in a war zone, I have been faced with the paradoxes of seeing, finding and telling the truths that are evident before me. At the core of truth often is deep discomfort for someone.
In the first scene we were on the frontlines with the Northern Alliance on the Afghanistan/Tajikistan border. There was an abandoned Russian tank high on a hillside overlooking the Taliban positions and the commander was so happy to have journalists with him that he ordered his troops to fire. We were suddenly, without warning, forced to witness a staged moment of warfare. Somebody might have been killed as that shell exploded. I will never know. But one thing was certain: it was a murderous form of untruth, a propaganda attempt enacted at the single movement of a trigger. We didn’t report it.
In the second vignette we were at the church of Nyarubuye during the Rwandan genocide. The body on the steps was a genuine victim of the inhuman massacre that took place in April 1994. Our Rwandan Patriotic Front minder wanted us to film it. And we did, but months later in a magazine I saw a photograph taken before we arrived, and the body was lying in the grass many metres from the church. So, someone had moved the body to create a more poignant photograph for journalists visiting the site. Shortly after the actual massacre, people were already manipulating the evidence to further their narrative.
There is a gruesome inner struggle that I still wage with myself over that image. The massacre was undoubtedly real and utterly horrific. Yet, the effort by a nameless actor to manipulate the evidence before us weakens its reliability. Any act of propaganda plants a fatal seed of doubt in the minds of all of us. It distorts our very human hope of trying to find a moral reckoning for justice – a necessary but all too often thin promise that the perpetrators of such horror might one day be found guilty.
Those incidents that challenged the reporting of real facts were in the days before live television. Today, in the Ukraine war, evidence of massacres and possible war crimes is broadcast to the world every hour, sometimes every few minutes.
What do we, as viewers of this violence and the pain it causes, make of this supposed evidence? How do we make some moral sense of it all when we are bombarded with so many conflicting stories of what really happened?
This electronic ocean of suffering is something very new in human consciousness. As we view it, our minds are cast into turmoil, desperately seeking for meaning, for truth, or at least balanced reporting so that we may find some way to comprehend the utter awfulness of homes and apartment blocks being crushed by shellfire, of a devastating missile strike on a maternity hospital, of children dying in the rubble.
Balanced reporting is something we are not getting. We see the war largely through the literal lenses of the Western media. This infuriates many non-Western observers – as a quick scan through Twitter shows. They are not wrong, though, in their anger at pointing out the hypocrisy of the West, both in its treatment of refugees from outside Europe, and in the shameless and unrepentant lies that George W Bush and even the more level-headed Colin Powell uttered repeatedly at the United Nations to justify their pointless and blood-soaked invasion of Iraq.
However, these deep crimes against humanity in no way justify Russia’s criminal and now increasingly barbaric invasion of Ukraine, which is indistinguishable from the worst horrors of 19th century colonialism.
The world has rightly and overwhelmingly condemned Russia for its actions. (Why our beloved country has retreated into a shell of opaque and confusing reasons for not doing so is something that is likely to haunt us for years to come. One hopes the economic fallout will not be too great as we struggle to create opportunities for a more equal society.)
Russia lost the war of meaningful understanding from the moment Vladimir Putin called the government of Ukraine, led by its Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, “Nazis”. Like that long-ago Afghan commander’s action, it lost any moral credibility from the moment the first tank fired a single round in support of that baseless propaganda.
The eastward expansion of Nato and addressing Russia’s centuries-old insecurities are certainly burning issues which will ultimately require meaningful negotiation to address. The memories of Napoleon’s doomed march and Hitler’s utterly devastating invasion in which about 27 million Russians died are still deeply held in the Russian psyche. Balancing their fear of this treachery with eastern European countries’ equally valid fear and bitter living memories of Russian occupation and oppression, plus their right to choose a future for themselves without regard to Russian angst, will be no easy task.
But as the war grinds on, there is no way for Russia to address the imbalance of authentic information and to sustain any kind of ethical value to justify their invasion. Putin has shown himself to be an absurd liar. In addition, he has shut down almost all possibility of independent, verified evidence about the war to be either discovered or distributed.
It is increasingly difficult now to report accurately from the Russian side after Putin and his government passed a law imposing a potential 15-year jail sentence on those convicted of spreading allegedly “fake” news about the military or doing anything publicly to “denigrate” Russian soldiers in any way.
As a result, most independent news outlets such TV Rain, Ekho Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta have been forced to shut down.
Informed, substantiated balance is essential for good journalism, but under these circumstances in Russia at present, “balance” in reporting for the mere sake of appearing to be even-handed can become problematic. Simply reporting unverified Russian claims about the progress of the war or its malevolent justification is not journalism. At worst it is cowardice, at its dubious best it is likely an attempt at political or ideological manipulation.
These unsupported claims should indeed be aired, but with caution and proper context.
I am reminded of the eloquent John Laurence of CBS News and his reporting on the Vietnam War. In his elegiac memoir, The Cat from Hué, he describes how the US military “manipulated, influenced and censored coverage… the army’s career public relations staff shaped reality to fit their version of events. An enemy ambush became “a meeting engagement”. A rifle company that had been outmanoeuvred and overrun “fought a running battle in hand-to-hand combat”. When the enemy finished fighting and withdrew its dead and wounded, it was said to have “fled the battlefield”. These military versions of events were reported by the press without judgement. Truth and falsehood got equal weight. Editors called it “balanced reporting”, believing it fair to report both sides of a controversial issue, no matter how much the facts might be in contradiction, no matter how certain the report was of the truth. In the name of balance, all kinds of lies and distortions were reported.
We all know how the lies of the US military in Vietnam ended. So, too, those in Iraq. And when they appeared in Afghanistan.
But so, too, the earlier Russian lies in Afghanistan. While early this century they secured victory in Chechnya and Georgia after pitiless, and well-thought-out, deliberate shelling of villages, towns and cities, leaving massive civilian casualties in their wake.
The same orchestrated mass sadism is taking place in Ukraine today.
Reporting this clear reality is not “Western propaganda”. You will notice the big networks on satellite TV have far fewer graphic videos of combat and destruction than you can find on the internet. This is because they spend a tremendous amount of time and energy making sure that they can verify the time, date, location and origin of these videos before broadcasting them.
There can be no doubt that the Ukrainian authorities will be doing much to turn the information war in their favour, but, crucially, Western, Arab and now, at least, South African journalists in the region are largely free to report as they see fit from where it is possible to go.
Fair and balanced war reporting is no easy task. Having covered the Iraq War in Basra as a “unilateral” journalist (i.e. not embedded) and having been embedded in multiple wars with the UN in the DRC and Mozambique, the Burundian army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the MPLA forces in Angola, and the US Marines in Afghanistan, there is a clear and unbreakable ethical line that you should not cross. Never can you report troop movements or plans that might risk the lives of soldiers you are with, or even more importantly, endanger the lives of the civilians around you.
It is either impossible or ridiculously foolhardy even to attempt to cross the frontlines to “get the other side’s point of view”. In addition, war reporting is hideously dangerous so you are often limited by circumstance in what you can actually witness and report on.
You are stuck then with the events happening around you on the side you are with. The best you can do is question the authorities around you strongly and use the basic tools of journalism – “Who, Where, When, What, Why and How” – to the very best of your ability.
These tools are the root of all human knowledge. They date back to Aristotle and his writings on human ethics. They are the basis of law, medicine, engineering and all scientific enquiry.
To answer them truthfully is the basis of all human progress. The chaos and violence of war mean that many of these questions can only be partially answered, even by the most diligent and committed journalists. It may take years before real clarity is possible.
So, Russia, with its brutal determination to control the message to suit its own oppressive ends, is the clear loser in the information war. They may well destroy Ukraine’s cities – as they seem resolved now to do. They may well install their own oppressive rule over the ruins they have created. But they will never be seen, now or in the future, as having fought an honourable war.
This is war, though, and famously its first casualty is truth and its close second is humanity. So, there will no doubt be instances of Ukrainian propaganda, downright lies and brutality that will be uncovered. Already there are dehumanising videos of killed Russian soldiers filling the internet. There is at least one eyewitness report of Russian corpses being propped up at checkpoints as a ghastly warning to their comrades.
Overall, though, the Ukrainians’ determined, courageous and principled fight against Russian greed and aggression will come to define the meaning of liberty for the 21st century.
And it will be because they largely chose to allow the freedom for the truth to be actively sought and then told. The balance of humanity falls on the side of the Ukrainians.
As it does on the awful, and often untold story of those brave Russians who are protesting against the war. Many have already been arrested. Others have vanished, presumably into the vast gulag of endless imprisonment and torture that still exists in Russia today.
Putin, like Tsar Nicholas and Lenin and Stalin before him, has no mercy for his own people. And certainly none for the Ukrainians and, terrifyingly, it would seem almost definitely none for any country that might oppose him.
Western society, especially the US, is said to have entered a “post-truth era”, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s disastrous and lie-strewn presidency. Putin’s Russia is a “pre-truth” society where reality is defined by the cruelty of his own vision of the world around him. Facts of any sort have little chance to establish themselves in the public mind before they are perverted by the violence of the state towards its own people.
In Dr Zhivago, the famous novel about the Russian Civil War by Boris Pasternak, one by one the characters simply disappear, forgotten forever – swallowed up into the horror of the revolution gone mad.
On our television screens we see brief, light-filled glimpses of this happening to thousands of Russians again today. The narrative as told by Putin and his hate machine is not where balance is lacking in this war. The great hole in the world’s view of this catastrophe is in the cruelly hidden fate of these brave people. DM