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Camera Phones vs. Kalashnikovs in Ukraine's Separtist-held Luhansk

This article is part of an extensive RuNet Echo study of Russian-language blogosphere in Eastern UkraineExplore the complete interview series on the Eastern Ukraine Unfiltered page.

Ukraine's media landscape has never been subject to the sort of top-down state control found in Russia (though the Yanukovych regime certainly tried its best to change this). It would be misleading, however, to describe Ukraine's television channels as “independent.” Almost all TV stations belong a handful the country's most powerful oligarchs. Inter and NTN are owned by Dmytro Firtash, who was arrested in Austria in the wake of Maidan and is wanted for money-laundering in the United States. Ukraine's richest individual, Donbas steel baron Rinat Akhmetov, owns Ukraina. Ihor Kolomoisky, the Dnipropetrovsk magnate who funds much of Kyiv's war in the east, owns 1+1. Channel 5, one of the few stations to support the aims of Euromaidan openly, belongs to Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's new president. While he has promised to divest himself of most of his business interests, Poroshenko has tellingly ruled out selling Channel 5.

Maksim Osovsky, a streamer from Lugansk region. via Facebook.

Maksim Osovskiy, a streamer from Lugansk region. via Facebook.

It's perhaps unsurprising then, that during Ukraine's revolution, many turned to the Internet for footage of what was taking place in and around Maidan. Much of this footage was uploaded live via services like UStream by so-called “streamers” — amateur camera operators, occasionally equipped with nothing more sophisticated than a mobile phone. Online television stations like Spilno.tv and Hromadske.tv would rebroadcast the best of these “streams,” giving people around the world a realtime (if occasionally shaky and badly lit) view of the pitched battles between the Berkut and the protesters.

Streaming grew in popularity during the Maidan protests and has continued to appeal to news consumers in Ukraine's post-Yanukovych era, particularly in the country's volatile east. Maksim Osovskiy, a native of the town of Lisichansk in the Luhansk region, is one “streamer” who became active during Ukraine's separatist crisis.

До этого я занимался, ну вообще ничем не занимался. Просто сидел дома. А потом когда начались события на майдане, я понял что могу чем-то реально помочь. И когда началось все в луганской области, я так подумал что не надо далеко ехать, можно попробовать себя в этом деле. И начал связался с активистами в Луганске. Они мне представили оборудование и я начал работать в этом направлении и стримить всякие акции протесты, всякие митинги стримить.

“Before this, I was doing… well I wasn't really doing anything. I was just staying home, but then, when events started at Maidan, I understood that I could help in a real way. When it all started in the Luhansk region, I realized that I didn't have to go far. I could try my hand at it. I started getting in touch with Luhansk activists. They supplied me with a camera and I started working this way, streaming any and all sorts of actions, protests, and demonstrations.

Osovskiy began streaming because he thought there was very little verifiable information coming out of Luhansk, due to the volatile political situation.

В тот момент когда начал стримить, все журналисты, все стримеры были уже, (как это сказать) ‘засвечены.’ То есть, их знали их прогоняли потому, что знали что они проукраинские активисты. Я был новый человек, незасвеченый и решил помочь показывать Украине что происходит на самом деле в Луганске.

When I began streaming, all the journalists and streamers [in Luhansk] had been “marked,” that is to say, they were known as pro-Ukrainian activists and had been driven out. I was a new person, who hadn't been “marked” and I decided to show Ukraine what was really happening in Luhansk.

After streaming events around the region as a volunteer, Osovskiy and a friend (journalist Vyacheslav Bondarenko) were offered work covering the May 25 presidential elections for a small Lviv-based television station, ZIK. Osovskiy happily accepted the chance to work for pay.

Returning home after covering the election, militia at a rebel checkpoint stopped and questioned Osovskiy and Bondarenko.

Когда увидели у нас оборудование дорогое для стрима, увидели журналистские удостоверения, решили нас взять и допросить уже подробно в здании СБУ… в начале нормально, культурно допрашивали, как бы “Что? Почему? Как?”

When they saw that our equipment was [unusually] expensive for streaming online, and that we had journalists’ accreditation, [the militia] decided to take us into an [occupied] security building for additional questioning… at first they questioned us normally and politely, your basic “What? Why? How?”

But when Osovskiy's interrogators discovered he and and his colleague were working for a TV station based in western Ukraine, the rebels changed their tone.

Начали говорить что мы продались фашистам… и уже более агрессивно начали нас допрашивать с пытками с избиениями, я так понимаю они хотели узнать как мы связанные с правым сектором, с проукраинскими активистами… но естественно что в луганской области уже никого не осталось из тех друзей моих с которыми я раньше работал, ибо уезжали.

They started saying that we had sold ourselves to the fascists… and started questioning us more and more aggressively with torture and beatings. As I understand it, they wanted to find out how we were connected with [the nationalist group] Right Sector, with pro-Ukrainian activists… but naturally none of my friends or former colleagues were left in Luhansk. They'd all gone.

Osovskiy and Bondarenko were released two days later. Osovskiy went to recover in a sanitarium in Lviv. He currently works in Kyiv, but he continues doing “the same things [he] was doing before, but with more professional equipment, in a more professional manner,” still for the Lviv-based television station. Despite becoming more professional, Osovskiy still fields requests from his followers on Facebook, who continue to ask that he stream footage about various events and news.

Osovskiy admits that its difficult for Ukrainian journalists of any background to film anything in Luhansk now, “even just with a mobile phone,” due to the interference of the rebels. Asked about the Russian journalists who seem to enjoy greater freedom of mobility in areas controlled by the militia, Osovskiy expressed his skepticism about their work.

У них конечно можно брать картинку про то, что происходит, но верить эти картинки так как ее комментировать я не бы стал. Язык не поворачивается назвать их журналистами. Они просто люди, которые выполняют определенные заказы.

You can get a picture of what's taking place from them, but I wouldn't believe the commentary they add… I can't even call them journalists — they're just people who follow orders.

Osovskiy's story shows the strengths and weaknesses of the streamer model of journalism. It allows anyone with the right motivation and just the simplest of cameras to broadcast events to the world, but it also exposes amateurs to the kinds of intimidation and violence that overwhelms even the most experienced reporters. The pen may be “mightier than the sword,” but few would like to test the theory that the cameraphone is mightier than the Kalashnikov.

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