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Ukraine-Russia war: Courageous journalists on frontline remind us of the importance of free media... justice

My latest column in the Scotsman is below.

When in 1945, the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp was the first to be liberated in Germany, US Army Commander General Eisenhower ordered every detail of the horror be filmed.

Eisenhower explained he wanted an unimpeachable record, lest history be distorted in years to come. He was right, to this day a few crackpot Holocaust deniers still try to pick away at the hard facts of Nazi tyranny.

As it was, the meticulous records from Ohrdruf and other camps served another vital purpose: evidence at the Nuremberg Trials.

Now, nearly 80 years later, in a different war, the role of recording is being undertaken by courageous foreign correspondents and their crews. From across the free world, they are on the front line, and some have already paid with their lives.

Night after night, moving pictures are brought to us illustrating the depth of depravity and the very best of courage and generosity. It’s heart wrenching, but it’s also valuable evidence.

From the start of the war, millions of images, including those from thousands of smart phones, have been gathered and the pieces fitted together. Investigative journalism groups such as Bellingcat have developed techniques to interrogate open-source information and triangulate information to identify who exactly is responsible for acts of violence and terror.

By noting vehicle markings, the unit and regiment can be identified along with its commanders. The investigation into the shooting down of Malaysian Airliner flight 17 over Ukraine shows what can be done.

Using purely open-source material, Bellingcat not only identified the vehicle that launched the missile, but its commanders. Right now, two Russians and a Ukrainian are being tried, in absentia, at the International Criminal Court.

Social media has brought many ills, but since everyone with a smartphone now has a high-quality camera, it has also opened a new chapter in criminal investigation.

It may seem unlikely that Putin and his cronies will ever face justice in The Hague, but you never know. A good number of despots believed they were immune and now languish in jail.

Like many of my generation, I did not believe I would see another large European war. I thought my parents’ and grandparents’ wars were history. We were wrong and may pay a heavy price for our complacency.

But these dangerous times also give us the chance to reappraise, to admire the courage of the Ukrainian people and appreciate our news gatherers.

Lately it has become common for some in Scotland to denigrate our press and broadcast media. Every media outlet gets its share of bile, women more than men and our public service broadcaster, the BBC, most of all. Such abuse is one unpleasant side-effect of our toxic political divide, and it is vile.

We can only hope the Ukraine disaster allows us to reappraise the true value of our news media.

It is wrong to pick favourites with the media of the free world under fire but, for me, the BBCs Lyse Doucet and Jeremy Bowen stand out. They are, dare I say it, of an age and seniority that they could be safe behind a desk. Instead they choose to be on the front line.

I think they and their colleagues are magnificent, for they allow us all to bear witness.

My Scotsman article can also be viewed here.

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