behind the news

Truth and the Russian media

Unhinged claims about the Malaysia jet are part of a broader propaganda campaign
July 22, 2014

As the world reacted to the deranged explanations emanating from Russia’s state-controlled media about what really happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 17, it’s worth noting that these tales of flying corpses and nefarious Western plots are part of a much broader campaign of distortion and propaganda designed to bolster support for the insurgency in eastern Ukraine and rally Russians behind President Vladimir Putin.

On July 12, for example, Russia’s Channel One broadcast, without qualification, an interview with a sobbing woman who said she was a refugee from Slovyansk. The woman claimed that when Ukrainian forces drove pro-Russian insurgents out of the eastern city of Slovyansk earlier this month, they herded local women, children, and the elderly into a central square and staged a “show execution” to punish those associated with the separatists. One mother was forced to watch as Ukrainian soldiers took her 3-year-old son, and nailed him to a board “like Jesus.” The boy bled and screamed, people in the crowd fainted. The child died after an hour and a half of agony and his unconscious mother was then tied to a tank and dragged around the square.

StopFake, a website launched by Ukrainian journalists several months ago to debunk misinformation spread by Russian media, has documented dozens of fabricated stories and manipulated images. Russian outlets have presented photographs and video footage from previous conflicts or events as being from the fighting in Ukraine. They routinely cite unconfirmed accounts from “witnesses” without qualification. Two Russian television channels aired interviews with a man who posed as a supporter of the new Kiev government in one report, and as an opponent of the government in another.

To date, no photos, videos, or any other evidence has surfaced that would corroborate the account of the alleged atrocity on Slovyansk. In fact, the story of the public crucifixion of a toddler, told by someone who said her name was Galina Pyshnyak, resembled a Facebook post by Alexander Dugin, a Kremlin-connected pundit known for his imperialist and ultraconservative views, which was published three days earlier. In Dugin’s telling, though, the tormented boy was six. Pyshnyak’s account is also similar to an entry made on a social-media page associated with pro-Russian rebels, posted a day before her interview aired.

After the Channel One report aired, Yevgeny Feldman, a photojournalist with the liberal Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, interviewed the residents of Slovyansk about the alleged atrocity, but no one he spoke to had either seen or heard about it. Other journalists working in Slovyansk have also been unable to confirm the story.

Channel One so far has not commented on its report. Alexei Volin, Russia’s deputy minister of mass communications, told the Dozhd television channel that he doesn’t see any problems with the report, since Channel One simply aired an interview. “There is a person, she spoke, they ran the soundbite,” he said.

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The liberal community in Russia was outraged, with opposition leader Alexei Navalny calling for those responsible for airing the report to be brought to trial.

Throughout the crisis in Ukraine, Russian, Ukrainian, and Western media have offered starkly different interpretations of the Maidan protest movement that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia’s subsequent takeover of Crimea, the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and the Ukrainian government’s military campaign against it. But what the Russian media are doing now is dangerous mythmaking, says Viktoria Syumar, a Ukrainian journalist who was responsible for information policy in the interim post-Maidan government. “I wasn’t surprised,” Syumar said of the Channel One report. “This was the apotheosis of what we have been observing all this time. This has nothing to do with journalism.”

While most of us would find it hard to believe the story of the crucified boy, many in Russia and eastern Ukraine, who have been subjected to intense propaganda for months and who have little access to alternative sources of news, do not. Such stories stoke a deep-seated fear among Russians that they are, as one woman told The New York Times, “the world’s scapegoat.”

Maria Danilova is a Knight Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University’s Journalism School. She has covered Ukraine for The Associated Press since 2007.