The Media Today

The war crimes beat

April 11, 2022
Oleg, 56, mourns for his mother Inna, 86, killed during the war against Russia in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, April 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

In last Monday’s newsletter, I wrote about the death of Mantas Kvedaravičius, a Lithuanian filmmaker who had reportedly been killed in an attack by Russian forces as he tried to leave the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, a longtime subject of his work. On Saturday, Lyudmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian Parliament’s commissioner for human rights, shared what she described as “new information” about Kvedaravičius’s death, claiming, in posts on Telegram and Facebook, that Russian occupiers had imprisoned him, then shot him and thrown his body into the street. Denisova also claimed that Kvedaravičius’s wife had risked her life to recover the body, with the true circumstances of his death withheld to protect her safety.

In recent days, Denisova’s feeds and other public statements have featured a constant stream of allegations of appalling human rights abuses committed by Russian troops in Ukraine—from the claim that more than four hundred people have gone missing from Hostomel, in the Kyiv region, since Russia occupied it to the claims that there may be as many as three hundred dead bodies in a mass grave in nearby Bucha and that children as young as eleven have reported being raped by Russian soldiers—that have been widely cited by the international press, often with a disclaimer that the claims have not yet been independently verified. Indeed, the eyes of the world have been transfixed on the Kyiv region ever since Russia withdrew its troops, leaving behind evidence of atrocities whose full extent had been cloaked in a fog of war. In addition to Ukrainian officials, civilians have been speaking out about what happened there, not least via social media, continuing, as experts told the Washington Post’s Hannah Allam, a tradition of “citizen witnessing” seen previously in Syria, Gaza, and elsewhere—a powerful trend, even if this, too, presents challenges of verification and context. 

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Ukrainian and international journalists—whose job is documentation and verification, where possible—have followed in behind as Ukraine has retaken the abandoned towns, discovering scenes of devastation not only in Bucha, but in Borodyanka, Trostyanets, Irpin, and elsewhere. “I’ve covered decades of conflicts and wars,” Heidi Levine, a photojournalist, wrote for the Post from Bucha, “but I’m struggling to find the words to express how horrified I am—and all my colleagues in the press are—by what is happening in Ukraine, what people have endured and their immeasurable resilience.” Reporting from the ground has often been supported from afar. The visual-investigations team at the New York Times analyzed satellite and other footage to show that the bodies of civilians first appeared in the streets of Bucha when Russian forces still controlled the town—debunking the Kremlin’s claims of a Ukrainian hoax there. Journalists at the AP and PBS, both on the ground and remotely, have collaborated throughout the war to verify incidents that appear to violate international humanitarian law. Their “War Crimes Watch Ukraine” database has documented 112 “potential war crimes” so far. 

Particularly since Russia left the Kyiv region, those words—“war crimes”—and related charges have dominated Western discussion of the war, and not just in the media; a week ago, President Biden, who had already called Vladimir Putin a war criminal, suggested that he should face a “war crime trial.” Getting to that point is another matter—as Flynn Coleman, an international human rights lawyer, wrote for Foreign Policy over the weekend, while “public proclamations alleging violations of international law draw attention, these charges must be supported by a precise process, complete with vetted and permissible evidence, to convict.” Scores of NGOs, international forensics experts, and open-source intelligence hunters are working to gather such evidence (the latter before social media companies’ automated moderation systems take it down), and so, again, are Ukrainian officials. Levine watched police in Bucha separate out bodies bearing signs of war crimes. By one count, fifty thousand Ukrainian investigators, many of them themselves displaced, are busy interviewing civilians in minute detail. “It seemed like what happened was obvious,” Vira Kovtun, a Bucha resident who spoke to prosecutors for three hours, told the Post, “but then we realized that we need to prove this crime against peaceful people.”

Still, holding perpetrators to a legal standard of accountability will be devilishly difficult, and in the past week, a flood of coverage has reminded us of that fact, too. The culpability of commanders in individual cases must be established, which can be very tricky and time-consuming; even then, the Russian leadership—which has continued to brazenly deny any wrongdoing in Ukraine and accuse that country of fabricating the blatant evidence of atrocities—hardly seems likely to recognize the judicial legitimacy of the authorities overseeing any eventual trial, be it in Ukraine or at the International Criminal Court. As Max Fisher noted in the Times yesterday, the ICC only started investigating possible Russian war crimes in Georgia in 2016, eight years after the conflict in South Ossetia began, and only issued a first set of arrest warrants last month, none of which is likely to lead to an actual arrest. Michael Ignatieff, a prominent Canadian politician and human rights expert, went so far as to tell NPR last week that even investigating war crimes right now amounts to “virtue signaling”—a “diversionary activity” from military aid.

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As Fisher notes, though, the international legal system can (eventually, at least) offer symbolic justice and monetary damages for victims, or simply establish the facts of what happened. The press—which can often itself dole out accountability without having to meet legal standards—should always welcome that, and though the process of proof can be slow, important evidence can disappear quickly, so acting to document it now is essential. As more alleged Russian atrocities come to light, the press must persist with its vital work along these parallel tracks of coverage, with journalists continuing to contribute to this work of documentation while assessing the progress of international accountability. The space between these tracks can feel jarring, with immediate, horrifying images and accounts couched, at the latter level, in terms like “alleged,” “accused,” and “potential.” Our job is to explain why, as Coleman put it, “the words and definitions used matter” here without muddying the devastating cost of the horrors being described—to ensure, in other words, that we hold factual and moral truths in clear proportion.

Of course, as well as continuing to come to light, atrocities are continuing to happen—not least in Mariupol and the rest of the Donbas region, which Russia is shaping up to blitz following its Kyiv-area pullback. On Friday, rockets hit a railway station in the city of Kramatorsk, where civilians had gathered in the hope of getting out. Afterward, reporters found the remains of a rocket with Russian words meaning “for the children” written on its side. The message was widely reported in international media, alongside words like “chilling.”

As the Times reported Friday, it wasn’t clear who painted the words on the rocket, or when; the English meaning of the words, too, was ambiguous, with linguists clarifying that the Russian syntax clearly implied vengeance (this is for what you’ve done to our children) or alignment with a cause (this is for Russia!), rather than intent (this is aimed at your children). Either way, the toll of the strike on the station was clear. Local authorities said that at least five children were among those killed there. This morning, Denisova claimed on Facebook that 183 children have been killed in total since Russia invaded, though she added two caveats: some of the sourcing for the claim requires verification, and the ongoing occupation makes the true number impossible to know.

Below, more on Russia and Ukraine:

  • An update on the press: According to Denisova and other official and journalistic sources in Ukraine, Yevhen Bal, a Ukrainian journalist and military veteran, has died after being tortured by Russian forces near Mariupol. Meanwhile, Russian forces are continuing to detain and otherwise threaten members of the press, as I detailed last week. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Russian soldiers detained  Oleksandr Gunko, the editor of a news site in Nova Kakhovka, after searching his home and seizing his electronic devices last Sunday. Gunko has since been released.
  • Another social media ban: YouTube moved to terminate a channel belonging to the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament; the precise reason was unclear, but a spokesperson for Google, YouTube’s parent company, cited “applicable sanctions and trade compliance laws” as well as terms-of-service violations. YouTube had already blocked the Russian state news outlets RT and Sputnik. The Biden administration sanctioned both the Duma as an institution and hundreds of its members last month.
  • “Tomorrow Will Be Worse”: Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith profiled Julia Ioffe, a Washington correspondent and newsletter writer for Puck who has emerged as “a go-to voice on the invasion” in US media. Ioffe “conducts interviews in her native Russian and often stays up late or wakes up early to speak with sources in Moscow, which is seven hours ahead” of DC, Smith writes. Ioffe told him that she’s “very cognizant of the limitations” of not being on the ground in Ukraine or Russia, but is “trying to give the reader what I can offer, which is a deep knowledge of the history of the place, of the culture of the place.”
  • A call to action: On Saturday, at the International Journalism Festival in Italy, the Global Forum for Media Development and its partners launched the Perugia Declaration for Ukraine, which calls on international media, journalism funders, governments, and tech companies to support Ukrainian reporters and capitalize on a moment that is demonstrating the necessity of independent journalism. “This nascent, new-found and rekindled recognition of journalism’s value among the public and policy makers is fragile,” the declaration says. “Ukrainian reporters and international journalists reporting from Ukraine have earned a window of opportunity. The greatest leaps of progress are often made in times of crisis. We, collectively, cannot afford to squander it.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.