Flight MH17 – Searching for the truth

David Crawford, senior reporter at CORRECT!V
Christian Humborg, executive director at CORRECT!V

The crash of the Malaysian Airlines flight 17 (MH17) in eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014, which had 298 passengers onboard, has still not been officially explained, neither by Western nor Eastern sources. German online investigative media CORRECT!V decided to look for the truth. David Crawford, senior reporter at CORRECT!V was at the International Journalism Festival to present the results of his investigation into the crash (available in German, English, Russian and French at https://mh17.correctiv.org/).

“We tried to fact-check what happened and to provide the basis for a discussion, so people could talk about the crash without using false information,” he said. “In the end, we ended up getting close to how it actually happened.”

Crawford said that at first, it was alarming to see that people had a certain version of what happened to the plane according to where they were based, or what political party they were from. So CORRECT!V’s first job was to find out what people agreed on, and start from there.

CORRECT!V could establish that the plane had indeed been shot by a missile, and that there was a conflict in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian air power and Russian tanks. Someone from the German miltary told him that tanks always move around with their missiles because they are like “sitting ducks”, easily taken out.

“Everybody” we talked to “told us that Russian tanks never go anywhere without their missiles. They can travel as fast as regular tanks. They can shoot at 70km per hour, as they are moving.”

Next, CORRECT!V tried to find out if it could have been an air-to-air missile that shot down flight MH17, as some sources said the plane had been shot down by another plane. Sources in the military told Crawford that it couldn’t have been so because those missiles are heat-seeking and would have targeted the tail of the plane where the engines are located. The investigators into the crash said the damage was done just in front of the plane and straight above it.

“Tank missiles try to explose just in front” of their target so that “the plane flies into the shrapnel and gets ripped apart”, Crawford said.

CORRECT!V then looked at the locations of the Russian tanks. They checked the accuracy of the information given by the Russians by pin-pointing the said locations of the tanks on Google maps, and then checking on the ground in Ukraine. They also cross-checked their information with what the United States and Ukraine were providing. Finally, they were able to establish that it couldn’t have been separatist groups who shot the missile at the plane as you would need special training and a special team to operate the military equipment.

“Those people had to be part of the Russian military”, Crawford said.

To dig further, CORRECT!V used images collected by Bellingcat, an online investigative team, who used online resources (social media, videos, etc.) to trace
the path of the tank (a “BUK”) as it crossed from Russia into Ukraine (the Bellingcat report is available at http://bit.ly/13ZHf63). CORRECT!V fact-checked the Bellingcat results.

Later, CORRECT!V identified the Russian military unit they thought was responsible for the shooting down of the plane. The unit, 53rd Russian air defense brigade, was based in Kursk. They looked at social media platforms on which Russian soldiers were publishing information, and got in touch with them to corroborate what they read and saw. Some talked, some didn’t.

This information was cross-checked with what people on the ground, in Ukraine, told another CORRECT!V reporter, Marcus Benssman (David Crawford said he
can’t get a visa for Russia because of stories he wrote for the Wall Street Journal). Benssman found people on the ground, close to the launching site of the missile on 17 July 2014, and went door to door at 8am to interview as many people as possible. As Crawford explained, the more people Benssman talked to, the safer they were as the information he collected couldn’t be traced back to anybody in particular. Benssman went to different villages as well to get a feel of what people thought happened.

“Journalism is about finding that one person in the world” who can you for your story, and then “figure out how to make them talk”, Crawford said.

Time came to discuss how to publish the story. A comic artist sketched the photos they took during their reporting so that they protected the identity of the people they had interviewed while still giving readers a visual idea of the investigation.

An animation, called “The human shields” (https://apps.correctiv.org/mh17), was created showing the discrepancies of flight patterns over a week, starting from 17 July 2014 and until a week later, over the zone where flight MH17 had been shot down. It shows that commercial flights continued flying over the dangerous area after MH17 had been shot down. The data came from a database that collects information about flights, called flightradar24.com (FR24 in short).

The story came out on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. CORRECT!V published it in collaboration with “Der Spiegel” in Germany and
“Algemeen Dagblad” in the Netherlands. Later, a partnership was made with “Mediapart”, an online media based in France, who republished the MH17
story online. CORRECT!V also published a book about their investigation, to stimulate the debate around the crash. Christian Humborg, executive director
at CORRECT!V, said the story itself generated thousands of comments from readers in France, which led to another article by Mediapart about these comments. That story again led to a lot of online discussion.

“This subject was important because it was part of a war going on”, and civilians were killed, said Christian Humborg, executive director at CORRECT!V.  “Also, nobody wanted to speak about it”.

Humborg said governments like the Dutch and the German know more about what happened but that they don’t want to make official statements about it.

CORRECT!V is now going to court to appeal a decision by the German Foreign Office to turn down a request for information. CORRECT!V wants to get access
to a memo which would have been written by the German ambassador to Ukraine on 14 July 2014, only days before flight MH17 was shot down, about a meeting between the Ukrainian security services and staff from EU Member States, the US, Canada, Japan, and Brazil. The memo would be related to the security situation in eastern Ukraine at the time, and would have been sent by the German ambassador to the German Foreign Office. Recently, a memo written by the Dutch ambassador in Ukraine about the same meeting was published by Dutch newspapers (https://de.scribd.com/doc/261727946/MH17-Bericht-Original).
CORRECT!V translated the memo from the Dutch and published it online (https://correctiv.org/blog/2015/04/13/klage-mh17-auskunft/).

Delphine Reuter