Russia Update: TASS, RT Disavow Journalist Who Laughs as Militants Fire on Ukrainians

February 17, 2015
Photo of Russian-backed militants firing on Debaltsevo by Roman Saponkov February 14, 2015.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here, and see also our Russia This Week stories Ultranationalists Angry over ‘Capitulation’ of Minsk Agreement, ‘Anti-Maidan’ Launched by Nationalists, Cossacks, Veterans, Bikers, The Guild War – How Should Journalists Treat Russian State Propagandists? and special features Former Russian Intelligence Officers Behind Boisto “Track II” Talks – and Now the Flawed Minsk Agreement and Johnson’s Russia List Spreads Invented Story About Germany Preparing Sanctions Against Kiev

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Pro-Kremlin photographer Roman Saponkov, who filmed himself and another photographer guffawing as Russian-backed militants fired on Ukrainian forces at Debaltsevo, was disavowed by TASS and RT.

TASS and RT Disavow Photojournalist Who Laughs as Russian-Backed Militants Fire on Ukrainian Troops in Debaltsevo

We’ve seen them many times — videos made by the Russian-backed separatists bragging about their exploits and the “Novorossiya” film crews making war propaganda. They often swagger around their new Russian-supplied weapons systems, then cover their ears as someone shouts OGON’! [FIRE!] — and then often they will laugh.

They often joke that they are sending “presents” or “SMS messages” or that the Ukrainian side has sent the same to them, and now they must return them.

The laughter is meant to convey cynical indifference, calm, and superiority.

But the film uploaded yesterday to YouTube and CNN’s iReport page from the front showing such a typical scene struck people as more offensive than usual because it was so stark — Ukrainian forces surrounded on all sides in Debaltsevo, their ammunition and food running out, were being fired on by Russian-backed militants with howitzers in defiant opposition to the Minsk agreement’s ceasefire.

This is because the militants of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” believe that Debaltsevo is “on their land” and they are entitled to break the cease-fire there.

What was particularly striking about this video, however was the behavior of the journalist — who is supposed to be covering the scene at some remove, even if working for Russian state media. He was laughing — and continued to guffaw for some time.

Worse, he made cynical comments as he joked with another photographer. The Interpreter has translated the dialogue.

Saponkov: Now that was worthy.
Photographer: Did it turn out?
Voice: Show me.
Voice: What is it?
Saponkov: Yes.
Voice: F**k yeah. Good.
Saponkov: F**king.
Voice: Mine didn’t come out. My hand jerked.
Saponkov: Well hell if I know.
Voice: I got that one.
Fighter: Load up!
Photographer: That turned out well.
Saponkov: What will Russia Today say? [Laughter]. What will Moscow say?
Photographer: It’s a ceasefire.
Photographer: They’re shooting right away.
Saponkov: It’s a training ground, there is no kettle.
Photographer: It’s a training ground in Khabonsky Territory. They’re blanks, they’re blanks, yes, yes we have a ceasefire.

TASS, the official Russian news service, hastened to disassociate itself with this video and made sure the notice was in their English-language news feed:

In connection with the controversial video footage posted in the
Internet on Monday ostensibly proving that a TASS photographer
identified as Roman Saponkov, was making fun while an artillery battery
in the background was bombarding Debaltsevo the Russian news agency
officially declares that there is no such man on its staff.

“It is true that some images authored by this photographer can be
found in the agency’s data base. They had been provided by a TASS
partner — the agency Interpress. TASS has no contractual or other
relations with the photographer in question,” an official statement
runs. “TASS is asking the mass media and Internet users to avoid
replicating this falsehood.” also hurried to weigh in after blogger Dmitry Aleshkovsky brought it to their attention:

Translation: @aleshru I’m preserving this video for history. “Journalists” chuckling and guffawing over the shelling of Debaltsevo. Where there’s “no kettle.”

@RT_PressOffice The person in the video works as a freelancer for the video-agency Ruptly, however from this omment on, cooperation with him has ended.

Aleshkovsky added on his Facebook page:

And they could give a f**k that every mortar is delivering death. And they are not ashamed of this at all. They upload it — and proudly. They’ve lost their minds totally.

TV Rain reported the story, noting that a LiveJournal blogger named sape (evidently Saponov) wrote “Debaltsevo kettle, Howitzer firing, I took this a few days ago.” Saponkov’s Debaltsevo video was then covered critically by Flashnord.

Aleshkovsky, a frequent Twitter blogger and Ekho Moskvy radio host who runs the charity web site [Help Needed] and often photographs opposition rallies, then researched Saponkov and found him listed in the databases of TASS and

We note Saponkov also has photos at Corbis from 2005-2006 including of President Vladimir Putin at the G8 meeting in St. Petersburg, and the Debaltsevo video was also uploaded to CNN’s iReport by Euromaidan PR where it can still be seen.

TASS and are concerned about their own reputations — such as they are — more than
the larger problem of Russian state media’s participation in war
propaganda and disinformation — for which they take no responsibility — and are happy to participate in themselves.

Interpress, the agency TASS referenced, is a St. Petersburg-based photo agency where Saponkov is indeed listed among the authors.
He has contributed 55 photos. Most of his recent photographs
concentrate on scenes of destruction of homes and displaced persons in Uglegorsk; one
is of a police beating of a journalist during a demonstration in St.

(This Russian agency should not be confused with Inter Press, a non-profit news agency that focuses on the global South.)

The general director of Interpress, founded in 1997 is Aleksandr Nikolayev, who used to work at Chas Pik,
among the first independent newspapers founded in the late Soviet era.
This is an agency with hundreds of contributors, and likely management
there feels no responsibility for stringers — and they have not posted
his video on their web site.

The site iReport on CNN was begun at a time when mainstream media had to compete with burgeoning social media and introduce its own
“social” capacity.
Anyone can upload a video or photograph to this site on demand, and the
system relies on an abuse-reporting system to notice content that is
inappropriate. Saponkov’s video is labeled “Not Verified by CNN” and apparently uploaded by the pro-Kiev EMPR account to illustrate the bad behavior of some Russian journalists.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the first time Saponkov’s work has caused controversy. Back in May, Ukrainian forces were angry that he may have revealed their location when he filmed their troops at a position between Olginka and Blagadatnoye. Some were later killed.

Translation: This is the bastard who most likely betrayed the position of the guys. Here is his video.

The Interpreter covered this battle May 22 with a number of posts in which Ukrainian military and Western journalists reported and separatist leader Igor Bezler himself all conceded that this was a militant attack on a Ukrainian checkpoint. Saponkov claimed in the notes to his video, however, — which he titled “These guys were killed the next day” — that Ukrainians shot their own men in a conspiracy involving oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy, Right Sector, and Dnepro-1.

Saponkov also uploaded a very misleading video from Mariupol May 9:

He titles it “Junta’s troops shoot at civilians.”

As The Interpreter reported at the time, at this location in Mariupol, provocateurs in the crowd shot at Ukrainian troops first, after Russian-backed separatists took over the police station.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick