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‘We’ve all seen enough Hollywood movies’ Meduza speaks to one of the journalists who believes the Magnitogorsk apartment building collapse was terrorism

Source: Meduza deputy chief editor Dmitry Kolezev deputy chief editor Dmitry Kolezev
Dmitry Kolezev’s person photo archive

Before dawn on December 31, a 10-story apartment building in the city of Magnitogorsk suddenly collapsed. The authorities say it was a gas leak that killed 39 people. A day after the tragedy, on the evening of January 1, a local minibus caught fire and exploded, claiming the lives of its three passengers. Almost immediately, two news outlets — and the Chelyabinsk news website — published stories claiming that the apartment explosion had been a terrorist attack and the minibus incident was a firefight between police and the supposed bombers. That same night, when police evacuated a nearby apartment building, reported that the authorities were searching for a fourth suspect. Russia’s law enforcement agencies have not verified these reports, and officials have repeatedly stated that no bomb fragments were discovered at the collapsed apartment building. Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev spoke to deputy chief editor Dmitry Kolezev to discuss sources, trust, and journalistic ethics.

When did you first hear this might have been a terrorist attack?

After midnight on January 2, after the minibus exploded downtown and our sources started tying it [to the apartment collapse]. At 11:40 p.m., on January 1, the first information appeared on our site about the minibus explosion, and at about 12:50 a.m. we published a story citing a source who said the apartment explosion might have been a terrorist attack, and those killed in the minibus were allegedly terrorists. Our correspondents in Chelyabinsk spoke directly to their sources. Based on my information, we reported the possible terrorism connection almost immediately, as soon as we learned about it from our sources on the investigative team.

So you believed your sources immediately? How was that editorial decision reached?

We have a fairly decentralized system for publishing content. The story about Magnitogorsk being a terrorist attack, according to our source, was published by our newsroom in Chelyabinsk. I only learned about it the following morning.

But I would have published the report, too, if I’d been on shift that night. The point is that the investigative team in Magnitogorsk is large and includes people who work in Chelyabinsk, where we have a strong group of reporters with solid sources in local law enforcement. And it so happened that we immediately had several of these sources on the investigative team. So in essence we were able to cross-check the information by speaking to different people. And these were sources whom we trusted greatly — familiar people who had never failed us before.

Our journalist Marina Malkova and our Chelyabinsk editor Irina Kryuchkova made the decision to publish this report, and I support them. With this story, there is the public-importance factor. We’re talking about just one version of events, but it’s a version the public should hear. It should be discussed, verified, and refuted. Journalists in Magnitogorsk were working in conditions that were far from ideal, and it was simply impossible to get a textbook verification from three different sources or an official statement. You had one explosion, then another, and meanwhile the whole city is overrun with security officials. New information was appearing very quickly, and you have to make decisions just as fast.

The apartment complex in Magnitogorsk after the explosion, December 31, 2018
Russian Federal Emergency Management Agency / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Your first report cites a single source, but now you’re saying you had several.

The report about the minibus and the theory about a terrorist attack was originally published based on one source who was directly present at the site of the minibus explosion and where they removed the apartment building debris. Our correspondent has a long relationship with this source. He has provided information about the Magnitogorsk story that has been objectively verified. Given the story’s special importance, the time of day and that it was difficult to confirm anything quickly, yes Marina [Malkova, the story’s author] published the story with a single source.

Another news outlet — the website — also reported information about a terrorist attack and the exploded minibus. Do you believe this was based on the same source?

Yes, I assume so.

Within a day, you published an expanded text about “theories tied to the events of the past few days.” In particular, the article claims that an explosive was discovered at a local shopping center and a homeless man unintentionally defused the bomb. This report, too, lists “a source in law enforcement” — a single source.

No, by this time there were already two sources in Magnitogorsk and a third in Moscow at the Federal Security Service, where they verified this report to us. Listen, we basically wrote this text mainly to present the information in our possession. Maybe we should have devoted more attention to writing about the number of our sources, but we had other priorities.

But do you observe certain standards here? What kind of responsibility does the editor bear in these situations? When can you publish information based on one source, and when is that insufficient?

That’s an insanely complex question. You’re asking about standards. Honestly, I’m not sure that such standards could be written out accurately in some mathematical equation. I think it’s all case-by-case — it depends on the individual source, on your trust in that person, on the importance of the information, its significance to the public, and so on.

Marina relied on two main sources. Importantly, these sources were from different agencies, providing a certain balance. Also, when we were drafting the text, we contacted our sources at the FSB’s headquarters in Moscow and received confirmation that our information was not inaccurate.

In your view, were the security services in Magnitogorsk behaving unusually, compared to what typically happens in a disaster?

Two things stand out: First, an enormously large number of investigators and specialists came from different cities and regions. We were told that even the on-shift drivers for the Yekaterinburg Investigative Committee were sent to Magnitogorsk to conduct the initial inspection of the gas equipment. A huge investigative team isn’t very typical for a gas explosion.

Second, [Investigative Committee head Alexander] Bastrykin flew in after Putin. He didn’t leave the city for a long time, and took personal command of everything. That suggests there was a situation tied to certain criminal activities.

And third, for that matter, there’s the fact that the security agencies themselves weren’t sharing any information. Usually, when tragedies like this occur, the authorities actively report what they’re doing, what specialists they’re bringing in, what theories they’re reviewing, and how their work is progressing. But here they stonewalled us. In four days, there were just two short press releases from the Investigative Committee. Statements like “all possibilities are being reviewed, no bomb fragments were discovered.” And there was a strange silence about the minibus — no information about what charges were being made or who died in the car, not their sex, age, or anything.

There were claims that people with automatic weapons ran around the minibus, and they’re allegedly visible in video footage. Your report says that people in the minibus returned fire.

Once again, here we relied exclusively on information from our sources in law enforcement. They told us what had been established: the suspects’ SIM cards were being moved in the minibus. The authorities tried to stop the vehicle, the passengers opened fire, leading to the elimination of those inside the minibus. Reports that people armed with grenade launchers were there running around the minibus basically correspond to what our law enforcement sources told us.

When our reporter was in Magnitogorsk, I asked him to find any of the people who recorded the minibus video. Unfortunately, we failed. We didn’t find the people who made the video and might have told us what it looked like in their own words. So we can only compare the eyewitness videos to our information sources.

The exploded minibus in Magnitogorsk

What do you make of your colleagues’ reactions? There’s been a lot of skepticism about the homeless man defusing the bomb, for instance.

I’d break this down. First, there was a major campaign on Telegram and Twitter, just like with the temniki [news guidelines distributed to the mass media]: they say it’s all fake, don’t believe it, they’re lying, it’s Ukrainian trolls planting stories, and so on. This kind of thing wasn’t my colleagues’ reaction — it was a targeted campaign launched by the presidential administration. I don’t know why. Maybe it was to calm people down, and move the conversation from whether or not it was a terrorist attack to a discussion about journalists.

Real colleagues who evaluated our reports — that’s another story. But there’s no getting offended here. It’s our job to evaluate information critically. It’s normal for them to be skeptical about our reports.

When I heard the story about the homeless man who defused a bomb by pulling a cell phone from the trash, it threw me for a loop, too. On the one hand, it seems a bit anecdotal. On the other hand, we got the information from our law enforcement sources, and we had no other explanation. We took responsibility and published the information — yes, risking sneers and ridicule.

I should point out something else, as well: we’ve all seen enough Hollywood movies where someone has to decide between cutting the red wire or the green wire, otherwise the bomb explodes. I’m no bomb expert, but I suspect that you attach a telephone to an explosive device completely differently, meaning that you really could just walk up and tear away the phone, and nothing would explode. You’d be holding the phone and the bomb would still be sitting there in the trash can.

If another outlet had said “a source told us that a homeless man disarmed a bomb,” would you have reported the news?

If it had happened in another region and it was the only news outlet churning out details and providing any information, even with just a single source, and this information didn’t seem insane or implausible. And if the outlet had the right reputation and I knew some of the people who actually work there… Then, yes, we probably would have published a story citing that original report.

What would need to happen for you personally to believe that this was in fact a gas-line explosion and a series of coincidences? What evidence would satisfy you?

As a journalist and an editor, I’m ready to accept any convincing version of events supported by the most information. Right now, the information we have from the authorities is minimal. We still don’t know anything. In which apartment did the gas line explode? Was it gas? Who lived in this apartment? Who died in the minibus? What happened with the special operation in the nearby apartment complex on the night of January 2?

We don’t know a lot of things. If they provide us with information, show us documents, photographs, video footage, and everything, let’s say, suggests that this was a series of incredible coincidences, then of course we’ll say: okay, we made a mistake, our sources made a mistake, and you were right. It happens. We don’t want to deny the reality presented to us. If I’m being honest, though, I’m 99.9-percent certain that the reports provided by our sources are extremely close to the truth at the very least.

Why then do you believe the authorities have remained silent? Do they want to hide the truth?

I still tend to trust our security forces in a sense. I don’t think they would conceal it, if this was a terrorist attack. I still hope this is just a major investigation in progress, and maybe there are some things they can’t yet announce. Maybe they aren’t sure yet, they haven’t connected all the dots, and law enforcement agencies are trying to finish their work meticulously, so we don’t come asking them all our questions. I recall how the Investigative Committee needed 16 days in 2015 after the passenger flight exploded over the Sinai before announcing that it was a terrorist attack. [In Magnitogorsk] it still hasn’t been this long.

I still have the sense that there might be some interdepartmental conflicts here. Because the Investigative Committee is involved in this case, and so is the Federal Security Service, and there are certain contradictions in their positions. If this was in fact a terrorist attack, then responsibility for failing to prevent it would fall on the FSB, and the FSB has been less interested in acknowledging a terrorist attack here.

There are also suspicions that theories about a potential terrorist attack weren’t even being considered when the president flew to Magnitogorsk. It turns out that the president’s safety might have been at risk, and this also leads to interdepartmental conflicts. But this is all rumor and speculation, and I don’t know how much they ought to be trusted.

Terrorists have always claimed credit for their attacks, except with the 1999 apartment bombings. But in 1999 the authorities said immediately that it was terrorism and blamed Chechen terrorists. How do you explain that nobody except you is currently talking about a terrorist attack?

I also consider it strange that no group has claimed responsibility for what happened. Whether this was or wasn’t a terrorist attack, someone like ISIS could announce that they did it, and people would believe it, even if it weren't true. Personally, I can’t explain why no one has come forward. This is certainly an argument against the idea that this was terrorism. These arguments also exist, and they need to be heard, as well, if we want to be objective.

Interview by Ilya Zhelgulev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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