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Caught in the crossfire

Eugen Theise / jsJune 24, 2015

How can international observers maintain their credibility in the middle of an armed conflict that is accompanied by an obscene propaganda war? OSCE observers talk about their mission during the DW Global Media Forum.

Ukraine Donezk Überwachungen
Image: Anatoli Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images

The conflict in Eastern Ukraine has been dominating the world news for more than a year now, with hundreds of journalists reporting on fighting and refugees. There is wild speculation about Russian participation in the conflict; and Russian, Ukrainian and international media outlets often paint completely different pictures of events. There is only one group that can claim neutrality there - the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE's 400-some observers operate on both sides of the frontline - a luxury that most journalists there do not have. Public expectations for OSCE observers' reports are therefore also correspondingly high.

OSCE public relations work: open, modern, cautious

Several representatives from the OSCE's observation mission spoke about how difficult it is to fulfill those expectations during DW's Global Media Forum in Bonn. Above all, they addressed issues such as how international organizations can, and must, adjust to the 24/7 news cycle.

It also became immediately apparent that the OSCE does not want to be seen as a dinosaur in the modern media world: one speaker was tweeting from the forum, at the same time interviews with OSCE representatives were being uploaded live onto the internet. "We never miss a chance to approach the public and to talk about our work. We are open and want to prove our credibility," says Alexander Hug, acting director of the OSCE observation mission in Ukraine.

Ostukraine Donezk Pro-Russische Separatisten Soldaten Kämpfer
Pro-Russian separatist soldiers are seen parading in Eastern UkraineImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gayuk

The OSCE observation mission may be getting more aggressive about putting its content online, but tweets from journalists that have been researching on the ground are still much more popular than reports from OSCE observers. Reporters that have fastidiously collected information pointing toward a Russian military presence are especially popular.

The fact that the OSCE still cannot say definitively whether or not Russian troops are present in Eastern Ukraine, after more than a year of conflict in the Donbass region, often finds the OSCE having to justify itself. Alexander Hug says he often hears the question, "Are there Russian troops in Ukraine, or not?" However, his mandate does not allow him to make that decision. According to Hug, "We report on everything that we see: People in Russian military uniforms, with Russian insignia, specific weapons systems that we then classify and order. But journalists and politicians have to come to their own conclusions."

We can only report on what we see

OSCE observer Paul Picard is also often asked about Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine. Picard has been stationed at a border crossing point in the hotly contested Donetsk region for a year now. "We always report everything that we see. We often see people in uniform crossing the border. Once a Russian military ambulance crossed the border to pick up a wounded soldier," he says.

Nonetheless, he underscores the fact that there are only two border crossings that are observed by the OSCE - along a section of the Ukraine-Russian border that is more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) long and not controlled by Kyiv. An expansion of the OSCE mission to include other border crossings has thus far been consistently blocked by Russia. The mission also bemoans the fact that in many areas rebels do not allow OSCE observers within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the border.

Ukraine Rückzug der Armee aus Ostukraine OSZE Beobacher
OSCE observers watch as Ukraine pulled troops out of the east.Image: Reuters/G. Garanich

"We often see how Russian media outlets manipulate our statements. They say that we have not seen Russian troops crossing the borders. But that only applies to two border crossings. We have no idea what is going on at the others," says Picard.

His Viennese colleague Frane Maroevic, an adviser to the OSCE's media representative, also speaks of the propaganda war in Eastern Ukraine that his organization is trying so desperately to resist. Maroevic criticizes that, "Propaganda kills. In this war, hatred is being sowed between the Russians and Ukrainians." The OSCE has found again and again that journalists stories are simply made-up. "That's why for instance, Russian state media recently reported on a girl that had been killed in Donetsk, even though she never existed," says Maroevic. He is convinced that propaganda can only be defeated with the truth, not with counter-propaganda.

In order to provide the public with more firsthand information, the OSCE has begun an experiment. Soon several observers will be equipped with small video cameras with which to film their rounds. After all, OSCE observers have access to areas that journalists do not. The films will then be made publicly accessible online with no commentary. Then, viewers will be able to see the situation on the ground for themselves and come to their own conclusions.