Hitting Brick Walls: Our First Political Investigation

Entry to the Manas Airforce Base, near where the shooting happened

We’ve learned a lot about journalism on this trip. We’ve made a lot of mistakes, too. Every story we’ve tackled has challenged our persistence, our resourcefulness, and our ethical boundaries. The last story we covered in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was no different. This time, we discovered how difficult it is to make politicians talk.

I remember the day I thought the story would break. I woke up in our tent at the Nomad’s home feeling energized and excited. Morgan and I had spent the previous days relentlessly tracking down a pair of officials connected with a murder investigation (even visiting their old apartment addresses and haranguing old secretaries for their phone numbers). Finally, we’d gotten a hold of both of them. Everything was set – we had meetings scheduled for 10 o’clock and 12 o’clock, and had hired a young translator from the American University to help us out. As I sipped my morning coffee, I felt confident this was our chance to crack the story wide open.

The day started off well; Alina showed up at the University entrance right on time. Our translator was a spunky 20 year old journalism student with some high heeled boots and a personality to match them. She listened intently as we briefed her on the story.

“So in 2006, a soldier at the US Air Force base named Zachary Hatfield killed a Kyrgyz truck driver” I explained.

The two officials we were meeting with that morning were involved with a Kyrgyz police investigation that found Hatfield guilty of premeditated murder. The Air Force Base, on the other hand, had flown the marine back to the United States and dismissed his case. The incident reeked of scandal, and we wanted to find out what was in those Kyrgyz police reports. No English language publications had ever obtained details of the murder investigation, and we aimed to be the first. Maybe we would get some evidence of a covered-up murder. Or maybe the Kyrgyz investigation would reveal itself to be far-fetched and politically motivated. Either way, it would be good. The shooting incident and media uproar it caused in Kyrgyzstan are major reasons why the base is closing next year.

With Alina prepped, we set off for our first meeting. It was with Galina Skripkina, the former family lawyer of the murdered truck driver. Since the shooting incident, Galina had become a prominent member of the Kyrgyz parliament, and it had taken some dogged persistence to get her to meet with us. Eventually she had agreed to see us at the parliament building.

It was a good thing we had Alina with us. She knew the process well, taking us into a dingy brick building near the parliament compound to obtain an entry pass for the gate guards. It seemed nothing had changed since Soviet times. After being led into a crowded room with jostling men and fading wallpaper, we made our way to two old phones mounted beneath framed lists of phone numbers. Alina found Galina’s, and called up to her office.

No answer.

We tried her cell phone.

No answer.

We paced back and forth outside for an hour, calling her every five minutes.

No answer.

So in rejection, we sat with Alina on a broken bench in a park, next to some sad looking carnival rides. The morning had started off as a disappointment, and it would only continue.

At noon, Sumar Nasiza actually showed up to his meeting at the Sierra Coffee shop. Okay, I thought – Galina was a bust. But now we’re finally going to get our hands on those investigative reports, or at least hear the details of what’s in them.

Two minutes talking to Nasiza it became clear this wouldn’t transpire. The former “assistant prosecutor general” wasn’t as involved with the shooting investigation as I thought. His name had popped up numerous times in Russian news reports, but it turned out he was only the media spokesman for the prosecutor’s office.  He had seen the report, but didn’t seem to remember any specific evidence.

“Look, it’s not okay to shoot someone. It’s unethical.” He kept saying.

“Yes I know– but we’re interested in the evidence, Mr Nasiza. The facts. How did the Kyrgyz police determine it was premeditated murder??”

“Because it’s not okay to shoot someone. The driver didn’t have a gun. It was unethical”

As the interview wore on, I didn’t get angry. I got depressed. We had spent so much damned time tracking these two individuals down, believing they were the most promising leads in a potentially scandalous story. Both led nowhere.

“I’m sorry guys.” Alina said, sensing our disappointment after Sumar left the coffee shop. “No Alina — it wasn’t you – you were awesome.” Morgan said. “We just didn’t get what we need.”

Later that day Morgan and I collapsed into a restaurant booth. We felt exhausted and burnt out after five days of pursuing dead ends. The Americans at the Air Force base and the US Embassy had been just as unhelpful as their Kyrgyz counterparts, Galina and Sumar. They’d brushed us off, claiming they didn’t have time to meet with us. So we decided to rent a couple of backpacks and trek up in the mountains. It was time to get out of Bishkek for a few days. We were still waiting for our Chinese visas to arrive.

The whole experience was a great lesson in how investigative, political stories work. We had dreamt of Woodward and Bernstein, of making it big time, of being the first to report the full story behind a major cover-up. But we realized our limitations as unknown reporters operating in a foreign country. It takes working on a beat, developing sources over long periods of time to generate the kind of trust or favors that lead to revelations of political cover-ups. Morgan and I simply dropping into Bishkek without contacts or established credibility among local politicians wouldn’t cut it.

Galina Skripkina would later blow off a second meeting we set. The contacts Sumar Nasiza gave us at the prosecutor’s office didn’t return our phone calls. And I realized I couldn’t blame them. If there was anything to hide, nobody but an idiot is going to meet with two American journalists who could create problems for them. They didn’t owe anything to us, and we had nothing to hold over their heads to make them talk.

It was a humbling experience, but I know it won’t always be that way. Someday, with a little more credibility, a publication behind us, and sources who trust us, pursuing a story like the Hatfield shooting will go differently. I can assure you Galina Skripkina would think twice about cancelling our meetings.

To read the story we wrote about the Hatfield shooting, stay tuned for a posting on our features database. In the meantime, check out our Forbes.com account about how the base’s closure will affect the Kyrgyz economy. 

 

 

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