When Gaza meets Ukraine – covering MH17, last post

No, Gaza has nothing to do with Ukraine, at least not that I know of. The headline’s an allusion to something that happened to me personally a couple of days into covering the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, for the Washington Post, from Amsterdam. The crash happened on Thursday 17 July, which was well into the Israeli attack on Gaza. On the Saturday morning, while I was up to my neck in the MH17 story and all its sad corollaries, I received a screed in my inbox from an old friend of the family excoriating me for not standing behind Israel and for condemning it over the Gaza offensive. Oddly, I had not written about Israel for years, and I was not about to either at a moment when I was dealing with a completely different kind of disaster. It seemed the rant was based on what I had said to people in private. It shook me up a bit but on the other hand brought home to me how emotional people become when confronted with their worst fears, even if these are not always entirely reality-based.

St Vitus Chrurch, Hilversum
Mother and sister of victim of MH17 sign condolence book in Hilversum

Emotion was also the focus of the coverage of flight MH17 in the days immediately after the disaster. The newspaper was clear: we want to have an insight into who the victims were and into what the next of kin are going through. The problem was that Malaysia Airlines and the Dutch authorities were doing there damnedest to keep the families away from the press, see my previous post. But several of them had taken to the social media, either to mourn their loved ones or express frustration about the slow pace of the flow of information. Jeanne Hornikx posted on facebook that she felt she was not being kept informed sufficiently on the fate of her daughter Astrid, who had boarded flight MH17 with her boyfriend Bart Lambregts, from the southern town of Roosendaal. Both teachers, they had been looking forward to a holiday before settling down, Mrs Hornikx told me on the Friday morning, less than a day after the crash had happened:

“They were together for three years and were looking for a house in Roosendaal to move in together. This was going to be their big trip before moving in together,”

Mrs Hornikx was in tears when I talked to her over the telephone but she saw no problem in describing what she was going through to a newspaper reporter. For her, it was not a case of being protected and being in a hotel with other families who had lost people on flight MH17.

“I feel more of a need to get support from family and friends here, who come to my home, rather than sit there all together. Everybody’s suffering is different.”

Plenty of Dutch reporters said they agreed with the idea of keeping the families out of the public eye but in practice their media organizations also scoured the land for next of kin to talk to. If you look at the photo above, there was a slew of photographers and other Dutch journalists on the Saturday after the crash in the St Vitus church in Hilversum, a town in the center of the country that had lost three families in the MH17 crash. The mother, sister and brother of one of the families, the Mastenbroeks, had come to sign the condolence book in the church. At first, they were taken aback by the media attention but eventually they talked to all the journalists present. It was visibly hard for them but they thought it important to explain who their daughter and sister had been. Tosca Mastenbroek, the sister, said this about Tina:

Before she left, she went to say goodbye to my mother, who’s 81 years old. She traveled an hour-and-a-half by train to say goodbye, because she knew my mother was alone. That’s the person she was, always caring about other people.

There were memorial meetings at football clubs and schools in Hilversum as well but there the doors were closed to reporters. Some of the people attending were willing to talk when they came out but even then, in some cases, they were warned by others not to talk to the media. It is certainly worth debating to what degree people who have lost family, friends or loved ones should be shielded from media attention, and what constitutes too intrusive a media approach but the Dutch did circle the wagons quite a bit and there was no debate on how this affected the national, and international, situation on flight MH17. After the weekend, starting with the Dutch government briefing parliament on Monday 21 July, politics would take over.

Duthc government briefing parliament
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte briefing the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs on MH17 on the Monday after the crash

The briefing was a remarkable object lesson in how the political mood can turn very quickly once politicians get hold of a theme they can work with and how a government scrambles to deal with any perceived weakness. To start with, all MP’s present at this briefing of the parliamentary subcommittee on foreign affairs, expressed support for the government’s handling of the crisis, while in my opinion it had done very little, apart from backing up Malaysia Airlines and keeping the next of kin out of the limelight. But the focus very quickly shifted to one aspect of Dutch policy. The government emphasized that the first priority was getting all the victims home and that pointing at the guilty parties and taking measures against them might make that harder, and therefore that had to wait for now. Other governments, such as the Australian and British ones, had been much more outspoken in their remarks. In a second round of questioning, MP’s pounced on this and took the government to task for not being robust enough in its response. The PM, clearly put upon, replied thus:

I realize that many people want us to establish as quickly as possible what happened so that we can state who was to blame but I have to point out the dilemma that we are facing, which is that never ever should assigning blame lead to diminished chances of recovering the bodies and carrying out an independent inquiry.

It is difficult to say if and how the situation could have been handled better but  some mistakes were made. It is not surprising that a small country such as the Netherlands has to work through its allies, in the first place the EU but also the US. And nobody wanted to insert themselves militarily into a shooting war some 40 kilometers from the Russian border. But one thing became clear, that apart from using the downing of MH17 to put pressure on Russia, the US did very little to back up its early assigning of the blame to the Ukrainian separatists, nor did it in any way signal a willingness to provide any kind of military or even diplomatic muscle to a potential Dutch, European Union or even UN response.

It seems in retrospect that the Dutch government made a series of crucial mistakes during the early days of the crisis. If the crash site was going to be secured, and for that to make to make any sense, it should have pushed for tough action immediately, within hours of the flight going down. When it was too late, it stated openly that it was soft-pedaling on dealing with the guilty party, thus making itself susceptible to being pressured to do more, leading to its third mistake: at a very late stage preparing to send an armed mission and then having to take that option off the table when it proved, as could have been foreseen, impractical. In the midst of all this came the return of the first remains of the victims to the Netherlands in what became a government-boosting televised spectacle with an embarrassingly self-congratulatory afterglow.

Return of victims of flight MH17
Return of the first victims of flight MH17 to the Netherlands, Eindhoven military airport

That the return of the remains of countrymen from abroad can become a controversial affair we’ve seen, for example, from the infamous American casket ban that left the arrival back in the US of some 5000 American military personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan not covered by the media, specifically not by cameras. In the case of MH17, the Dutch government chose to go the other way, drastically so.

It called the first national day of mourning in more than 50 years for Wednesday 23 July, the day the first remains were to be flown back from Ukraine. Rather than looking at who this was actually for and what were the politics behind it, the Dutch commentariat largely engaged in a round of navel-gazing over whether a national day of mourning was part of the national character. And true, it was all taken from a very un-Dutch script. Flags were half-mast, church bells rung throughout the day and some places of entertainment and festivals were closed. The arrival of the two military planes at Eindhoven military airport was again accompanied by church bells and when they were at a standstill, the last post sounded, followed by one minute of silence. Then, in a drawn-out choreography, the 40 coffins were taken out of the planes, one by one, by military personnel and placed in hearses. Then all the hearses left from Eindhoven to Hilversum in a long procession, for which parts of two highways were closed off, with throngs of people watching along the roads and on overpasses.

True, by many accounts the families of the victims felt strengthened by what was seen as a national display of solidarity and a dignified return of the first remains. And I don’t mean always to rain on everyone’s parade  but I have a couple of slight misgivings about the way this went down. First of all, and this was confirmed to me by officials, ‘sending a message’ had become part of the whole ceremony. A message to whom? I assume to a domestic public – that the government had succeeded – and internationally – that this was being taken very seriously indeed in the Netherlands. The other thing that bothered me was the collective pat on the back that the Dutch gave themselves for how they extended this most basic of courtesies to the victims and their loved ones. In all this, I too often missed a sense of basic humanity, of raw emotion and of sincere empathy. From beginning to end, from the moment the flight went down to the return of the first remains, I felt that stage-managing the ‘situation’ trumped almost everything else.

Drinks will have to wait – covering flight MH17

1st MH17 tweet
My first tweet on MH17

Yes, I was quick off the mark recognizing the impact of the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, look at the time stamp. All the more surprising that I totally, but I mean really utterly and completely, failed to see this as an opportunity for work or as something that I personally needed to engage with professionally. I was busy doing other things.

That evening, I had arranged to meet a friend, a fellow journalist, for a drink and I was rather looking forward to it. When I called him in the early evening he was distracted and rather breathless, “I’m leaving for Kiev right now. Drinks will have to wait,” he said. Still, I did not catch on.

“I’m leaving for Kiev right now. Drinks will have to wait,”

Instead of focusing on flight MH17, I arranged to go see some stand-up comedy with another friend, also a journalist but less on the news side. Shortly after, I actually received a phone call from a radio freelance service, asking me if I was available for interviews on the crash of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam, I declined, saying that I had really not read up on it and that I had a previous engagement (watching stand-up comedy, that is). But the request did finally get me to start the long-buried but still dormant routine of gearing up for a major news event. When the Washington Post approached me, via a friend and colleague, first by email and then by phone, I was almost ready. I still sputtered some objections, “I might be a bit rusty, I haven’t done this for a while.” The need in DC was clearly high, and the answer was an unperturbed, “I’m sure you’ll do fine”.

MH17 next of kin shielded by Dutch polcie
Dutch police at Schiphol Airport shielding family members of the victims of flight MH17 hours after it crashed

Having been pressed back into service as a hard news journalist by the Washington Post shortly after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 went down on Thursday 17 July, I creaked into action. It’s always a jagged balance between supplying the desk immediately with a file on whatever you have available at that moment, calling around to gather more information, and getting to where it all happens, which in this case was Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport where flight MH17 had left from earlier that day. Cancelling the evening’s planned entertainment and getting the first two items done, with my journalism saps slowly chugging into motion, took a little while but it’s like riding a bike; muscle memory takes over and so does the pain in the butt the first time you get into the saddle again.

At Schiphol Airport, the telltale signs of a gathering media storm were already present, with satellite trucks parked outside the departures hall where the passengers for flight MH17 had just hours earlier checked in at the Malaysia Airlines desk. On TV I had seen journalists interviewing those about to board the evening flight. “It’s terrible what happened but I don’t have a problem taking the next flight,” was the typically sober Dutch response. Families of those aboard MH17 had been trickling in for a couple of hours, having been told to gather at the airport’s “Dakota bar”. Dakota, as in the old DC-3 military and commercial aviation workhorse, but the name may be a bit ill-chosen: As recently as 1996, 32 Dutch people died when a Dakota crashed in the north of the country.

The Dakota bar was closed to journalists and the next of kin were kept well away from the media. In fact, shortly after I arrived at the airport, the stricken relatives of those on board flight MH17 were shepherded into two buses outside the departures hall under armed police escort. Officers and airport security personnel set up a protective perimeter around the families and the buses, aimed specifically at keeping the press at bay. This remained the main focus over the next couple of days; Malaysia Airlines with the cooperation of the Dutch authorities sought to limit access to the next of kin and as a result, intended or not, monopolized the messaging around them.

The airline put them up in a hotel near the airport and flew in care-givers from Malaysia, even though not all of the Dutch family members displayed a thorough command of English. It kept emphasizing that it was doing everything to help the next of kin, and be that as it may, it was in fact relatively powerless in the face of the developing military and  geo-strategic situation at the crash site and in Eastern Ukraine, as was evidenced by its early continual emphasis on bringing the families to the crash site and then later having to abandon that idea. Nobody discussed the airline’s obvious interest in controlling the messaging from the family members – it greatly helped contain yet another PR-debacle – and the attitude of the Dutch authorities gave it all the room it needed.

The protective attitude of the Dutch authorities seemed to go beyond the appropriate measures to ensure regard of privacy in such situations. Of course, people who have suffered an appalling loss will have to be treated with respect and sensitivity but I wonder what the legalities are in ordering police protection against journalists, rather than against any likely security threat. At no point were the media given a chance to approach any from among the families who stayed at the hotel, had they volunteered to make themselves available. Such control over the messaging, again intended or not, did give the government a freer hand in shaping the message in the first few days, without anguished family members en masse turning to the media to up the pressure over the delay in access to the crash site and the return of the remains. Given what has transpired since, with investigators still not able to carry out their work at the site, we may well ask whether grieving and angry family members being more visible in the media, could have made a difference.

Listen to Malaysia Airlines VP Huib Gorter emphasize that the next of kin are “our main priority” at press conference announcing crash of MH17: 

And here he talks about the care-givers and flying the families to Kiev:

So, from the very beginning, the knowledge of what was happening on the ground in Eastern Ukraine was patchy and expectations about what could be achieved on the spot were unrealistic. I believe that this did not only affect the airline but also the Dutch government and possibly other governments as well.

One other remark that stood out at the chaotic press conference where journalists jostled for space and shouted to get a question in, concerned Malaysia Airlines choosing to fly over that part of Ukraine. It came up immediately, among the very first issues the media focused on. Mr Gorter said that Eastern Ukraine had not been earmarked a war zone in air traffic terms: “Had it been, then we would not have been able to fly over it.” This, and by extension how airlines cope with a multitude of conflicts of different intensities around the globe, has of course become a focus now, in the aftermath of the crash.

After filing a story on the press conference from Schiphol, my next priority was finding out where the airline had taken the next of kin, so I took a taxi to do do the rounds of the nearby hotels. Fortunately, I found them at the first address I looked, The Steigenberger Airport Hotel, just off the airport proper, on the edge of the Amsterdamse Bos, the city’s largest park. The police and ambulance outside were a dead giveaway. A small group of mostly Asian journalists was milling outside but nobody prevented me from entering the hotel and walking all the way to a conference room where the next of kin were gathering for a briefing. There I was stopped, though, and when I asked to speak to a spokesperson for the airline, the hotel manager himself escorted me from the premises with a curt, “you’ll have to go”.

Outside, several Dutch local care-givers or emergency services personnel were standing around, wearing reflective jackets. When I asked them if they had a spokesperson, to brief me on what was happening with the next of kin, they were even more hostile and one frostily told me, “you better leave”. I had to think back to that attitude, especially from care-givers, as the next of kin whom I talked to later on, where mostly happy to talk to the press and share their stories, it were the professional people around them who seemed hostile.

In the meantime, after I got home at what was by then 2 pm local time, another aspect of the crash had gained media attention: the presence on board of MH17of what was initially assumed to be a large number of participants in the AIDS conference in Melbourne. Almost immediately, particularly the names of those delegates started circulating on social media. That was another of the contradictions between on the one hand many people trying to observe an entirely justified restraint vis-à-vis revealing the names of victims and towards the next of kin, and what was happening on social media and in some newspapers on the other.

Retweets in the night from Thursday on Friday mentioning the AIDS campaigners who died on flight MH17
Retweets in the night from Thursday on Friday mentioning the AIDS campaigners who died on flight MH17

Very early on Friday morning, twitter was abuzz with the loss of so many AIDS campaigners and researchers, particularly from the Netherlands. The director of STOP AIDS NOW, Louise van Deth, received shocked messages from colleagues and others. I contacted her and she briefly answered some questions. This is one of the more general comments she made and I can see no harm in reproducing it here at this time:

It is a heavy blow that people who have been so active for so long in the fight against AIDS have been wiped out. Joep especially, is a dramatic loss for all kinds of research. He was a driving force behind the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development.”

That was the end of day one, well the early morning of day two. More will follow on what else happened, including the less than smooth sailing for the Dutch government, even though there was a massive closing of the ranks…



Recovering from covering flight MH17

After a week of covering the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from the Netherlands for The Washington Post I felt as churned up as ever after working a story. That had little to do with the awfulness of what happened, nor with the particularly iffy business of having to approach the Dutch next of kin and ask them for their stories. That’s all par for the course.

Eindhoven air base - return of victims of flight MH17
The reporter, with all the other reporters, at Eindhoven air base for the return of the victims of flight MH17 – photo courtesy TCF

I’ve seen bloodshed from close up in the Middle East and elsewhere, and just a couple of years ago I covered the aftermath of the attacks by Anders Breivik in Oslo. No, my misgivings and my agitation were entirely selfish in origin; back then I had done so while in a steady relationship with my newspapers. I knew why I was doing it and for whom, and I knew that despite the sometimes awful nature of the job, it was a necessary part of a still relatively varied palette of foreign coverage that I provided.

While covering flight MH17, the demands of disaster reporting, the intensity of  the work, and the ad hoc nature of my involvement made me feel I had been hired as a journalistic hit man, even though the Post request was entirely reasonable. A one-off contract killer at that; because beautiful execution or not, clients nowadays will move on with the news cycle, and not look back. This is no reproach to The Washington Post, they were fine and did what they had to do, it’s about the position of the precarious freelancer in today’s media landscape. (Note my craven sucking up to the Post. But seriously, it has nothing to do with them in particular).

So, what’s bad about that, you may well ask? Why not make a quick buck or two, really it’s not much more nowadays, and praise myself lucky that my name’s on a byline again and I’ve earned a couple of warm meals? Well, if it’s a one-off, the money is negligible, taken over the course of a year. If you’re in it for the money, you need to know that you have a reasonably regular source of income from a client, otherwise it’s hardly worth your while. For the exposure? Well sooorrryyy, all I can say: been there, done that. And what’s it done for me? You get the point. In the end, all you’re left with is a sense of obligation, to the story, to the profession, to your own sense of self, it’s what you do. But even then you don’t get to do it the way you know is right because you’re just the hired help.

Am I just an old, bitter curmudgeon? Yes, probably, but I have been active for a while in journalism and have my own ideas about how the media landscape has changed. For me, at least, not to have a certain type of relationship with a media organization means operating in a void. I’m not able to pitch the stories I think are worthwhile to a receptive editor and they cannot know exactly what I have to offer if they never take anything from me.  The old-fashioned journalistic enterprise was also based on trust from both sides. As a journalist you knew you could rely on your editor for support, or at least as regular an income as possible, even if you were a stringer. As a media organization, you were able to rely on these relationships to provide you with reliable information, timely signaling of interesting developments and total dedication the moment news broke. Now these bonds have been broken.

Compared to the loss felt by those with close connections to the people on Malaysia Airlines MH17, my self-involvement is distasteful and unseemly. But I’m not comparing it to their loss, plenty has been written about that both sincerely and touchingly as well as cringingly self-serving. If never another word is written about how the Dutch mourn, it will still be too much and too soon. Disasters get politicized and the grieving relatives become pawns in international intrigue and avatars for domestic bombast. But, oh no, don’t let them fall into the hands of the press, apart from Putin always the biggest villains on the block. At least that’s how the Dutch seemed to look at it, despite the overall meek nature of their domestic reporting, but more on that later.

If this jeremiad is unseemly in the light of a disaster such as MH17, then at least I’m doing it in the appropriate place, on a blog, the forum par excellence for unseemly expression. And if anybody has wondered (I doubt it) why I have not posted for almost a year, I’ll simply say this: I found out that I really hate writing for free, in a vacuum, and for no apparent reason other than self-publicizing. I’ll make exceptions, such as in this instance, when I think I actually have something to say. I’ll follow up this post over the next week or so with an account of how it went down…