RUG grad up for press prize

Former RUG student Christiaan Triebert has been nominated for the European Press Prize for his article about the failed military takeover in Turkey. From his apartment in Malaysia, he reconstructed the coup based on WhatsApp messages.
By Peter Keizer / Translation by Traci White

According to the jury for the annual award for European journalism, Triebert told the true story in a compelling way. ‘It’s a bit like a Charles Dickens novel from long ago’, according to the committee.

‘It’s a huge honour’, says the International Relations and International Organisation student graduate (and former UK contributor), ‘especially if you think about the fact that it was written for free and without the help of a professional newsroom. I did it because I was interested in it, even though I really should have been working on my thesis at the time. A nomination like this is recognition that others also appreciated the effort. That is really fantastic.’

Blowing up

Triebert’s telephone started blowing up back in July as tweets and news alerts came rushing in when Turkish soldiers began a (failed) coup. He has just woken up in his room in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur (‘It was cheaper than my room in London, where I got my master’s degree’). ‘I wondered, what is going on? Then this video of a WhatsApp conversation surfaced on Twitter and was shared by a lot of people. My first thought was, how can I verify this?’

The video showed a conversation among high ranking officers in the Turkish army. Triebert had already been working with research group Bellingcat which used publicly available information online to investigate the downing of flight MH17. When he saw the WhatsApp conversation, he decided to write the information down immediately and check it out. ‘On Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, you can search based on location. In every message that I had, I looked for evidence to figure out where it had happened’, he says.

For example, one message read. ’66 is on the way’ and ‘we passed by 212’. ‘That sounds like coded language. But by gathering photos of the coup and examining the license plates, I saw that there was a system. ‘66’ stood for the 66th motorized infantry brigade. When I had that, I googled ‘212 Istanbul’ and found that it was a big shopping centre’, Triebert explains.

Tanks in the streets

On social media, he searched for photos of places where the coup was taking place while it was happening. Triebert says, ‘That was  pretty easy, since it’s not every day that there are tanks in the streets. So I research the WhatsApp message and connected them to these events. The story became a reconstruction of what happened that night. It was really cool to be able to do.’

He spent more than a week working on it, together with a Turkish translator. ‘It was nice to do it. I was kind of a trance. I wasn’t sleeping much, I ordered in and then just kept plugging along. It was really interesting work’, he says. His work did not go unnoticed. The reconstruction became world news and was translated into French and Arabic, among others.

Air strikes

After graduating from the RUG, Triebert moved from Groningen to London to pursue a master’s degree in Conflict, Security & Development. At the moment, he is travelling the world to offer training and presentations about doing research based on public online sources. He also works for Airwars, an organisation that monitors and keeps track how many civilians are being killed by air strikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

‘We are trying to check on what is happening’, Triebert says. ‘The Netherlands is one of the least transparent countries when it comes to these activities, even less transparent than Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In January and February, there were more civilian deaths from the American coalition – which includes the Dutch services – than from the Russian sources. It just keeps going on.’

On 20 April, he will hear if he has won The Innovation Award 2017. Triebert’s piece is nominated alongside productions by the Norwegian Dagbladet, Politico in Belgium and the Spanish paper El Diario.  


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