A Fixer’s WarInside the Life of the Unsung Hero of Foreign Reporting
Iain Overton provides an insight into the local agents who act as a lynchpin of conflict journalism
“I hate being called a fixer,” says Anton Skyba as we settle down for coffee in a French café in downtown Kyiv. A 32-year-old journalist and photographer, he speaks eloquently, in clear English, with a considered, even academic thoughtfulness.
He looks like a younger version of the actor Simon Pegg, with a military hair-cut and a directness that leaves little room for misunderstanding. It gives him a reassuring authority. And that is what’s needed in his line of work.
The term ‘fixer’ defines the people who facilitate the journalism of foreign correspondents. They set up interviews, hire drivers, translate, carry equipment, investigate sources, negotiate access, and even work out where to stay and eat. But he worries that such a simple term diminishes the work asked of them.
Rather, he sees them as the heart of any overseas journalistic operation – without whom stories would never be told. They are also often the least paid of the crew, the bottom of a chain of news command whose presence is only fleetingly considered by the general public. They are often the least recognised in award ceremonies, and the ones left behind when the news cycle whirls on.
Having worked in Ukraine with CNN, CCTV, Al Jazeera and the BBC, along with media from Japan to Argentina, he has more insight into the life of the fixer than most. There is, he says, a certain, depressing inevitability to his work; a ‘time loop’. You sometimes cease to feel like a journalist and more like a travel guide.
“The Western journalistic view is very different from the local view,” he says, “that’s natural”. But this brings its own concerns. The foreign correspondents he works with want a certain type of story; a pre-imagined drama: specific people bearing a specific loss. Not missing a beat, he lists the stories international press are attracted to in a war zone:
- Recently destroyed buildings
- Woman as victims – ideally, they should be pensioners
- Mothers – better if they have more than one child
- Sexual violence – especially women raped by soldiers
- People who, in the contested territories of eastern Ukraine, supported the separatist movement
- People who supported the Ukrainian state in Donbas (ignoring the threat to that person for speaking out)
Such lists are repeated, Anton says, with each new crew. Some even arrive without a nuanced understanding of the long-term impact their reporting might have on the people they interview.
Perhaps lulled by the sense that such reports are going to be aired or printed thousands of miles away in different languages, some journalists – especially those from the smaller agencies – don’t take into account the army of interpreters and media monitors employed by the Russian state.
Stories Anton helped to line-up in the eastern city of Donetsk during the fighting that flared up in 2014 quickly found their way back into Russian media and, from there, back to the Russian-backed secret service of the newly-formed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Such evidence, on occasion, came back to haunt.
As for the focus on gender, “it’s very easy to victimise a woman,” he says. People don’t feel as much compassion towards the body of a young male civilian. The dead man raises the lingering question he may have been a fighter, but the image of a female victim is very clear. “Unequivocal,” he says.
This search for certainty, though, comes with its own moral dilemmas. He voices concern that some international journalists and researchers come to conflict zones and are so focused on collecting evidence that they over-step the mark.
He describes an unnamed human rights reporter who sought out a woman who had lost her child in a mortar attack. The researcher sat and asked her to describe, in detail, the aftermath of the strike that had obliterated her daughter and left her child’s body strewn in pieces. He translated, but was aghast at the directness of the questions. He says the researcher apologised afterwards – but that this was not a unique case. Some reporters would ask questions that were so direct, he would have to soften their tone in translation for fear of not just causing offence, but trauma, too.
To do so, though, came with its own risks. He was once translating for a foreign film crew an interview with a group of Russian-backed soldiers. He interpreted word-for-word the questions and the replies. Afterwards, one of the guards said that he had done a good job – the man spoke English and had understood the whole interaction. “If you had not been so accurate,” the soldier told Anton, “I’d have considered you a spy and put a bullet in your head.”
Threats of violence might seem exaggerated. But Anton’s experiences have proven how dangerous the life of a fixer can be.
On 17 July 2014, a disaster unfolded over eastern Ukraine’s skies. MH17, a passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew, was shot down in mid-flight. Everyone on board was killed and the carnage was strewn across the fields below.
The world’s media rushed to the site some 90 kilometres from Donetsk, and Anton was hired by a CNN film crew to cover the unfolding crisis.
At the end of the first day, 23 July, he and the CNN crew returned to their hotel and began unloading their van. Four men were waiting outside the lobby. One, armed with an AK47, said “that’s him”.
Anton was bundled into a waiting car. The CNN cameraman began filming immediately, but by then their fixer was on his way back into central Donetsk. Anton managed to begin calling his friends, but when he arrived at the former Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) building in Donetsk, his phone and his liberty were taken away.
If you interview enough people about what happened in that building, a certain pattern of horror emerges. The sudden blow to the face. The boot to the mouth. The hands tied so hard that the prisoner loses all feeling in them for days afterwards. Knives applied to ears. Plastic bags shoved over the face, inducing a feeling of drowning.
The one thing that Anton says he was grateful for is that they didn’t torture him with electric shocks. But even so, he suffered concussion, and his skin was mottled with bruises.
A photo of him exists from that time. He sits, shaven-headed, black-eyed, broken. Having cut off his jeans, they had later given him a pair of fishermen-waders to wear, and the incongruity of him wearing them in that quiet, panelled office adds to the impression that something terrible had happened.
He was then thrown into a basement that had once been used for archives in that ex-Soviet building. He spent the next four days recovering from the vicious beating but, perhaps because he was linked to an influential news network, his treatment suddenly improved. He was fed at the same as the militant rebels. His prison room was carpeted.
Outside, news of his captivity spread. His girlfriend messaged all his contacts. The UN, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Red Cross condemned the arrest. CNN worked hard to secure his release and the pressure worked.
Out of the blue, Anton was told that he was no longer considered a spy. His father drove over and picked him up and, soon enough, with a grabbed bag of clothes, he was on a train to Kyiv. Liberty appeared to be returned as quickly as it was taken away.
The Wellbeing of Fixers
But trauma has a habit of making a prison beyond the walls of a cell.
Anton began to experience the reverberations of his abuse. His sleep was disrupted. Anxiety stalked him. He found himself resenting the Kyivites enjoying their summer – city-folk drinking and partying, oblivious to the war unfolding 750 kilometres to the south-east.
But he needed the work. So, within three weeks, he was back fixing. First to Sloviansk, then to Mariupol. And, as war has a tendency to do, the gravitational pull of the fighting brought him back to Donetsk. There – just more than a month after his torture – he was working again for international media.
The CNN crew had been kind. They had taken him out to dinner in Kyiv. They had filmed an interview with him, though it was never used – fearing his and his parents’ safety would be further compromised. But his wider concerns about the ways in which fixers are treated go deep. Issues of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are often not addressed. Contracts are rarely issued. There might be group insurance, but individual worker rights are often non-existent.
“When it gets very dangerous,” he says, “it seems the protocols surrounding fixer rights are suspended.”
Anton is not the first fixer to say this. In the thick of the fighting in Donetsk, as many as 100 people were hired to translate and facilitate interviews – many of them doing so without adequate media training or experience. Anton has been on media courses, but many others have not. Five conflict fixers approached for this article, in different parts of the world, said that they had never been given psychological counselling for the work they had carried out for the media, despite worrying they suffered from self-diagnosed PTSD.
Overall, he does not blame the media. He says it’s just the way things work. The story shifts. Priorities move. And there’s a sense you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you.
Many fixers will these stories will never go on the record because of the precariousness of their existence. Speaking out is never good for business – ironic when you consider that the best fixers are also the best at speaking truth to power. But some of Anton’s experiences – torture aside – are repeated across the industry.
He cites the Dutch journalist who asked to be shown, for free, around Donetsk. Or the network that offered to pay him for a quarter of a day to set up an interview. Or the journalists who arrive with such a clear editorial line that they pursue it regardless of the facts. News agendas and narratives are driven by editors far away.
In addition, there are the journalists desperate to be considered ‘conflict reporters’ for whom Ukraine was a ‘convenient war’: close and affordable enough to enable rookie reporters to fly out and try their hand at conflict journalism – driven by passion and ego, but often not backed up by budget or ethical awareness.
Of course, there are many foreign correspondents for whom their fixer’s wellbeing is paramount. Increasingly, work from organisations such as the Rory Peck Trust have made clear the moral commitment held by the media industry to care for its freelancers and fixers. But, what is equally true, is that between 2011 and 2020 some 544 freelancers worldwide were killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And what is still unclear is just how many of their families were financially assisted following their deaths. How many freelancers still suffer, silently, the traumas of torture and violence with little or no assistance from media organisations also looms.
In this way, Anton’s case is a salutary reminder: not only of how vicious the war in eastern Ukraine has been on civilians, but how terrible war can be on local fixers too.