September 16, 2016

Pro-Kremlin Media Agents: Ukraine Between Security and Freedom of Speech

Sergei Reznik/TASS
KIEV, UKRAINE. MAY 9, 2016. People hold photographs of their family members who fought Nazi Germany in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War during an Immortal Regiment demonstration in Kiev as Ukraine is celebrating the 71 anniversary of victory over Nazism in Europe.
KIEV, UKRAINE. MAY 9, 2016. People hold photographs of their family members who fought Nazi Germany in the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War during an Immortal Regiment demonstration in Kiev as Ukraine is celebrating the 71 anniversary of victory over Nazism in Europe.

When talking about the anti-democratic and anti-European propaganda spread by the Kremlin, we often think of Russian state-controlled media like Sputnik, Zvezda or RT [Russia Today] trying to penetrate the media landscape of the EU and neighbouring countries and manipulate their citizens’ thinking. But some recent events in Ukraine prove that this is only the tip of the iceberg. The danger may exist for local media as well, and we seem to be far from working out how to deal with this.

Yahotyn and Other Scandals

On 27 February 2016, the Ukrainian media space was shaken by false news about a refugee centre in the town of Yahotyn. Allegedly, the EU had forced Ukraine to accept 250 Syrian refugees and place them in a newly built establishment in the small town near Kyiv. Local people talked on camera about their opposition and fears that “bandits” and “nomads” from Syria would bring crime and disease, and emphasised that Europe must deal with its problems on its own, while Ukrainian IDPs [internally displaced persons] also needed a place to live.1
It soon became clear that the hysteria was artificial. The establishment would accept all the refugees irrespective of their nationality, and the EU had funded the project long before the Syrian crisis … Afterwards, the Independent Media Council, a Ukrainian self-regulating media body, concluded that the reports were largely manipulative and full of xenophobia and, from a formal point of view, lacked journalistic professionalism.2
But the false key messages—Europe manipulates Ukraine; Europe is in crisis and integration would bring no benefits for Ukraine; the Ukrainian authorities don’t care about IDPs—were firmly in line with the discourse of Russian propaganda. Moreover, it was suspicious that the Yahotyn campaign was initiated by two very influential TV channels owned by pro-Kremlin business groups: 112 Ukraina and Inter. This gave grounds for some experts to suppose that the Kremlin tried to use the refugee card to destabilise the situation inside Ukraine and to use its puppet media as a tool.
Soon after, another scandal broke. This was connected to Ukraina, the top TV channel owned by another pro-Russian oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov. The channel produced and broadcast a series with an episode related to events in the Donbass.3 This featured people from the occupied territories and combatants of the “LNR” [Luhansk People’s Republic], who expressed typical aggressive anti-Ukrainian slogans (about Ukrainian Nazis, “the war initiated by Kyiv oligarchs”, etc.). One of the film’s protagonists was presented in a very positive way, while the main pro-Ukrainian person was rather negative. The film aroused a strong wave of criticism, but an investigation by the Independent Media Council confirmed that it did not violate national legislation.4
Consequently, there was no surprise that some media chose a somewhat suspicious discourse in early May when Ukraine celebrated the anniversary of the victory over fascism. This date is traditionally used by all agents of the Kremlin to remind everyone about “fascism” in Ukraine and, together with Russian mainstream media, to sanctify the Great Victory. This year, in many cities around the world, and certainly in Russia itself, the Kremlin initiated an action called Immortal Division5—a traditional march of veterans, but under another banner. These marches were also held in Ukraine, and the public reaction was somewhat controversial because of the Russian-style marching steps, which looked like a provocation. Nevertheless, some media outlets made these marches a central topic of the day and provided step-by-step reporting from different towns, pushing the Kremlin project up the public agenda.6

Sleeping Danger?

In fact, it is no surprise in Ukraine that Russia uses the Ukrainian media as a propaganda tool. Ukrainians remember national TV channels showing videos in 2004 about separation in Ukraine, produced by Yanukovych’s people, as the start of the Kremlin’s long-term strategy for the partition of the country. They remember that during the “Revolution of Dignity” it was the national TV channels and press that distorted reality and misinformed millions of people about events in the Maidan.
In the spring and summer of 2014, some TV and print media were blamed for disseminating a pro-Russian perception of events. The newspaper Комсомольская правда в Украине (“Komsomolskaya Pravda in Ukraine”) published interviews with Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, a Russian officer who commanded the pro-Russian troops in the Donbass.7 Until June 2014, Channel 112 Ukraina described troops as “militants” (opolchenie), as they are called in the Russian media.8 The most egregious example was connected with Vesti, a daily free newspaper distributed in the largest cities, which has unclear funding and ownership and pushes anti-Ukrainian and anti-European messages.9 These and some other media outlets were Ukrainian branches of the Russian media (such as Komsomolskaya Pravda) connected to pro-Russian business (e.g. 112 Ukraina) or actually financed by Russia (evidently, in the case of Vesti). Their discourse was not as aggressive as that in the Russian media, but their messages were similar (i.e. Kyiv is to be accused of warmongering, aggressive nationalists rule in Ukraine, the civil war in the Donbass, silence over the involvement of the Russian military, etc.).
All these media outlets still exist and play a significant role in the Ukrainian information space. Among them are top-five TV-channels such as Inter and Ukraina, and the most popular print publications. These media are Ukrainian from a legal point of view, and work within national legislation; they even use the patriotic rhetoric accepted by the wider audience in Ukraine. However, they occasionally display a strong susceptibility to Russian influence and seem to be a delayed-action mine under Ukraine’s fragile stability. There is a good chance that they will be used by the Kremlin in its psychological operations in Ukraine, and there is no way to tell when this will be launched.

Seeking Democratic Solutions

In such a situation, Ukraine has a complicated choice between society’s demand for real democracy and freedom of speech on the one hand and security issues on the other. As over 6,000 people died due to the Russian-inspired brainwashing, the Ukrainian government applied strict tools to protect citizens from murderous disinformation. Ukraine becamehe first country to ban the relay of Russian TV channels within its territory. Showing modern Russian films in cinemas and on TV is also forbidden. This was done in line with the national and international legislative framework and with the tacit supportof Ukrainian citizens, the understanding of European partners and aggressive criticism from Russia. These measures limited the access of the Kremlin’s key propaganda channels to Ukrainian citizens, and had some effect: by June 2015, the share of the population watching Russian TV news had decreased from 22.7% to 12%.10
But the government has no idea what to do with the domestic media promoting the pro-Russian discourse (directly or surreptitiously). Limiting their activity means creating a dangerous precedent that could be used against the freedom of speech in the country. In 2015, the expert community in Ukraine protested against the draft Information Security Strategy, which the OSCE11 and Detector Media12 considered dangerous for democratic freedoms. Civil society and the media community are therefore determined not to allow anti-democratic measures to be applied—even for reasons of security.
Ukraine is still trying to counteract Russian propaganda (and to deal with its possible agents) using democratic tools. Time will tell if this is possible.
1 Более 200 мигрантов из Сирии планируют поселить в Яготине в Киевской области – 112 Україна, 27 February 2016 [last visited 22 June 2016].
2 Висновок Незалежної медійної ради щодо порушень при висвітленні інформації про пункт для біженців у Яготині – Detector Media, 5 April 5 2016 [last visited 22 June 2016].
3 Т/с «Не зарікайся» (66 серія) – Україна, 13 April 2016 [last visited 22 June 2016].
4 Висновок Незалежної медійної ради щодо серіалу «Не зарікайся» – Detector Media, 27 April 2016 [last visited 22 June 2016].
5 Бессмертный полк [last visited 22 June 2016].
6 See, for example: Хроника празднования Дня Победы в Украине. 9 мая 2016 (обновляется) – Страна.ua, 9 May 2016 [last visited 22 June 2016].
7 Командир самообороны Славянска Игорь Стрелков: «Большая часть моего отряда воевала в Чечне и Средней Азии» – Комсомольская правда в Украине, 28 April 2014, p. 3. See: 8 Р.Шутов. «112 Україна» і російська пропаганда: кінець дружби? – MediaSapiens, 25 June 2014 [last visited 22 June 2016].
9 Р.Шутов. Метаморфози російської пропаганди. Газета «Вести» – MediaSapiens, 14 June 2014 [last visited 22 June 2016].
10 Р.Шутов. Оцінка ефективності дій органів влади у сфері інформаційної безпеки в 2014-15 рр. – MediaSapiens, 9 December 2015 [last visited 22 June 2016].
11 Legal Analysis of the Draft Information Security Concept of Ukraine – OSCE, July 2015 [last visited 22 June 2016].
12 R. Shutov. Clay Basis of Information Security – MediaSapiens, 7 September 2015 [last visited 22 June 2016].


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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