From the series “How to use sloppy thinking for disinformation”. This series contains the following blogposts:
Part 5. Jérôme Sessini, photographer for Paris Match.
In the information war that was ignited moments after MH17 crashed, a lot of stories appeared in (pro)western mainstream and social media in which statements from separatists were misinterpreted. This was done to construct a story that actually an implicit admission of guilt was conveyed. Actually in all cases the conclusion was based on rather biased and sloppy thinking or even on deceitful intentions.
Another example of finding evidence for the fatal mistake narrative based itself on an interview with French photographer Jérôme Sessini, who made photos at the crashsite not long after the plane had crashed. Again, wordings from a separatist were interpreted in a logically unsound way, like what we also have seen in parts 1-4 of this series.
A tweet from the pretty biased Radio Free Liberty reporter Carl Schreck shows exactly where it goes wrong again.
The interview with Sessini, to which Schreck is referring, was made in 2015. Sessini said:
“When we got the phone call from a press officer of the separatists, he said first: “We shot down a military plane, from Ukraine, and for me it was like he was giving us an information to cover this.
And when we were underway, and after 15 minutes, I got a call from friends, from a journalist, I don’t remember, and he said: ‘They shot down a civilian plane in Ukraine. Where are you?’ And I asked: ‘Are your sure it’s civilian?’ And he said: ‘Yeah, yeah, we have the confirmation.’ He said: ‘Malaysian Airlines plane with two hundred people on board.’
Sessini was on the crashsite on that evening, and was even interviewed at least twice. In an article published by TIME.com on July 18 he already gave an account how he arrived at the scene:
“Sessini, who had been working in a nearby mining village in Donetsk, first heard about the crash when his driver received a call from a local journalist, who explained that a plane had been downed in nearby Torez, apparently by pro-Russian rebels. Initially assuming it was a Ukrainian military plane— the pro-Russian rebels had already destroyed a military transport plane and reportedly brought down two other military aircraft —Sessini and his driver headed out.”
“As we made our way to Torez, we learned that it was in fact a civilian plane,” the photographer told TIME. It didn’t take the pair long to reach the scene and they had no trouble accessing the crash site, as there were very few people in the area at the time. Yet the rebels soon arrived, and they initially gave Sessini trouble, taking his memory card away. They eventually returned it and allowed Sessini to take photographs.”
Most salient point that can be made from text analysis alone, is the appearing difference in Sessini’s testimonies on a crucial point. In the TIME article from the day of the crash, he received the information about a plane being downed from a local journalist. In the video, made a year later, this has metamorphosed into a DPR press officer, which conveys an offical glow to the call.
In the TIME article it is said that Sessini himself is assuming its all about a Ukrainian military plane, as his source seems to formulate in the more neutral way, that is: in passive voice without mentioning type of plane altogether: “A plane has been downed”.
In the video interview clear suspicion is added. Its not Sessini himself any more, but the “press officer” who claims, in active voice and with specifics about plane type, that “we shot down a military plane, Ukrainian”. Of course, this is closely resembling the story that was concocted after the retraction of the Strelkov_info message, a story that entered common knowledge despite being false.
So a year after the crash the story took on a familiar course. Someone connected closely, as is assumed, to the chain-of-command, and who therefore is amenable to presumed first-hand knowledge about a downing, is tacitly and unconciously giving away a clear admission of guilt.
From the text we could draw conclusions about the time of the phonecall that his driver or Sessini himself got from a local journalist or a DPR press officer. In the video interview Sessini says he got info that a civilian airliner from Malaysian Airways had been shot down. This specific information, officially made public for the first time at 17:10 local time in a Facebook posting from Ukrainian politician Dmytro Tymchuk, arrived from friends, amongst whom a journalist.
Even if we assume this befriended journalist got the information at the crashsite himself, seeing it with his own eyes, this contact could not have been established before, let’s say, 17:10 local time. According to Arnold Greidanus, a separatist reporter named Vtulkin arrived at 17:00 and was about the first on the scene. So Sessini’s possible friend at the crashsite arrived later. If we give him some time to be able to find proof of Malaysian Airways origine, we must add at least 5-10 minutes. Hence, Sessini received this information on 17:10 at the earliest.
By the way, in an article of the Belgian newspaper The Standaard, who also interviewed Sessini on the day of the crash, Sessini only appeared at the crash site at 19:00 hrs local time. This is more than 2.5 hours after the crash. At this time it was already established for more than 1.5 hours that it was a civilian plane that crashed – which was also the case 15 minutes before, when the press officer should have called.
So we have a contradiction at hand here. An account of a phonecall from a local source 15 minutes before 19 ‘o clock – journalist or otherwise –, the one that put Sessini on track without saying it was all about a civilian plane, can not be trustworthy.
Anyway, even with the most conservative estimatation, Sessini got the call from the local journalist aka press officer 15 minutes before 17:10, which is 16:55 local time. As the narrative stays the same – only changing between sources of alleged evidence – the counter arguments also are pretty much the same.
At that time there still was a lot of confusion about the event, as we have seen in the parts of this series on this blogsite. Locals posted, chatted, tweeted and called in all kinds of information. Only consistent part of the information from the first half an hour was that some plane, or even two, was/were crashed, as the remains fell in the fields nearby.
We cannot derive conclusions and establish proof from circular reasoning. In a neutral, logically sound approach we have to discard the a priori axiom that the separatists are guilty per se. This entails that we have to set aside the hidden premisse that officials or other people of the separatist side MUST have had inside first-hand information from the shooters or their superiors in the chain of command, when they briefed their men or supplied the internet with news.
The local reporter or DPR “press officer” who called Sessini need not have had this inside information. Its conceivable he also had gathered pieces and parts from local residents and made assumptions based on events from the past. A plane was downed. It was assumed it was an Ukrainian one. It was also assumed “we” shot it. Everybody did this, on both sides. So why not call a western photographer to shoot some trophees?
Actually, its not that difficult. Its not my task to exonerate anyone or defending a guilty party. But it is – or at least should be – the job of every citizen to keep thinking straight and with sound logic.
In a logical evaluation of the second, 2015, Sessini statement you have to prove the press officer had first hand information from shooters or chain of command. This is not done, can not be done – which at the same time shows the practical limitations of OSINT research. So its conceivable the local journalist or press officer who tipped-off Sessini, ASSUMED the separatists had downed a plane, as did the entire populace.
Anyway, the only thing the Sessini interview does prove – again – is that people are prone to fill in the blanks to fit a desired story. This is what makes OSINT, on its own useful, also very dangerous. Parts of seemingly neutral information are glued together with a whole array of assumptions and biased inference to build a narrative that contains “the facts”, but also a lot of speculation.
This is the way the dots have been connected.