The German government has condemned the displaying before the media yesterday by pro-Russian separatists in the Ukrainian town of Slovanysk of the kidnapped members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE). In a statement the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said: “The public parading of the OSCE observers and Ukrainian security forces as prisoners is revolting and blatantly hurts the dignity of the victims.”
Some Western reporters were discussing the issue of showcasing prisoners yesterday afternoon after the press conference staged by the town’s thuggish separatist leader, the former Soviet soldier-turned soap factory owner Vyacheslav Ponomaryov. I missed the press conference, but asked if any reporters had abided by the old standard and asked if the OSCE team members were participating in the news event voluntarily or were being coerced? Apparently no one had.
And this is worrying. Old-guard journalists, with an eye to the Geneva Conventions, used to be more careful and would ask prisoners if they are willing to talk with the press before interviewing them or taking part in a conference featuring them. Also, there is a judgment call that needs to be made here. Even if a prisoner indicates they are willing, they might fear saying they don’t want to because they fear their captors’ displeasure.
In Syria I have interviewed prisoners when I have been convinced they are truly willing. On two occasions I have declined interviewing captives because I felt even though they agreed the circumstances suggested they were being intimidated into doing so or coerced.
The Geneva Conventions state: “Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. … Prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.”
In an article in Slate magazine back in 2003, law professor Michael Byers suggested, “journalists aren’t bound by the Geneva Conventions, they can’t be prosecuted for interviewing or taping prisoners.”
But it is a good yardstick for reporters to follow – and at various times they have done.
Even more worryingly, I am told none of the journalists who were invited to videotape three pro-Kyiv Ukrainian intelligence service, SBU, members who were displayed stripped to their underpants, bloodied and blindfolded expressed concerns about what they were participating in.
In fact, what may be happening here is we, the media, are encouraging the abductions, part of an intimidation campaign waged by thugs among the pro-Russian separatists, and colluding in the stage-management of suffering.
And we need to rethink. I am not going to attend any press conferences featuring captives staged by the pro-Russian separatists, unless I am convinced the captives are participating voluntarily.
As a footnote, it is worth pointing out that pro-separatist boss Ponomaryov claims he is holding people – OSCE monitors, pro-Kyiv politicians and activists and journalists who have offended him – under the “laws of war.” Well, the main laws governing the conduct of war are the Geneva Conventions. If the separatists are invoking the conventions, they should understand they are in breach of them by these shows they are putting on of the unfortunates who fall into their hands.