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Do we know anything about Flight MH17?

The downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 highlights a fact long known to those watching the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine: You can’t expect reliable information about it from officials or media, whether Russian, Ukrainian or Western. As a result, relatives of people killed on the plane must now subsist on a familiar diet of rumors and falsehoods — often incredibly callous ones.

On Friday, Anton Geraschenko, an aide to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, wrote the following on Facebook (original spelling and syntax preserved):

“Just now I have received information that terrorists — death-hunters were collecting not only cash money and jewelry of the crashed Boing died passengers but also the credit cards of the victims. Currently they might as well try to use them in Ukraine or pass them on to Russia. My humble request to the relatives of the victims to freeze their credit cards, so that they won’t loose their assets to terrorists!”

Mainstream Ukrainian media immediately picked up the allegation and spread it as straight news. “The Russian mercenaries are openly looting the crash site of the Malaysian Boeing: taking not just cash and jewelry but credit cards from the dead passengers,” Censor.net reported, quoting Geraschenko only in the next paragraph.

Foreign media picked up the thread. The Wire’s item, headlined “Looters Stole Cash, Credit Cards, and Jewelry from Flight MH17 Crash Victims,” quoted Gerashchenko along with a secondhand account “from a photojournalist at the site” and a story in the New York Daily News. That story, in turn, cited a USA Today story written by a reporter at the site. The USA Today article, the only firsthand report in this chain of insinuation, didn’t claim that bodies had been looted. In fact, it described “credit cards and photographs carefully lined up next to each other on the wet grass.”

The looting story having acquired the contours of a fact, however, the Dutch Banking Union felt compelled to point out that Dutch credit cards, like those in most European countries, cannot be used without a PIN. They are equipped with security chips. In the event someone does manage to use a victim’s card, the Dutch bankers promised to reimburse the victim’s next of kin. As yet, there have been no reports suggesting such compensation is necessary.

Did separatists actually steal victims’ credit cards, cash and jewelry? I don’t know. I am none the wiser for having read numerous news reports on the subject in several languages.

I know nothing for sure about how flight MH17 was brought down. I suspect it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile launched by the pro-Russia rebels who hold the territory where the plane crashed. They previously had shot down a few Ukrainian planes in the vicinity and had bragged about it. Unlike the rebels, Ukraine has no need of anti-aircraft weapons. The rebels have no air force. I have no idea, however, where the missiles might have come from. Ukrainian officials and media insist that they were supplied by Russia. They have published a video of a Buk missile launcher being driven somewhere, which proves nothing at all. The Russian defense ministry, of course, has denied any involvement. Both stories are understandable; neither is trustworthy.

The media exist precisely to inform people in convoluted situations such as this. Yet even the relatively few reporters who have managed to get to the site are unable to get a clear picture of what’s happening. They have no access to anyone with knowledge who doesn’t also have an interest in lying. Ukraine wants Western help in crushing the pro-Russia separatists and in imposing sanctions on Russia for supporting the rebellion. Russia wants to avoid blame and sanctions without giving up on the rebels, who do Russia’s bidding by keeping Ukraine unstable. The rebels themselves see obfuscation as their only chance to avoid condemnation for shooting down the plane.

Though modern conflicts are awash in media attention, what readers and viewers get is often an incomprehensible garble. Failure to ascertain the truth is another real-time tragedy.

Bloomberg View contributor Leonid Bershidsky is a Moscow-based writer.

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