‘The locals told us that MH17 had either been shot down by a Ukrainian jet or it was a set-up by Kyiv and all the bodies were already dead and loaded onto the plane before take-off.’ This is how Sabra Ayres, an American reporter covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine, remembers talking to locals in the aftermath of the plane crash last July.
Indeed, Sabra was struck by how quickly the villagers picked up the lead coming from Russian TV broadcasts, which pinned the blame for the disaster squarely on the Ukrainian armed forces. ‘We heard almost every crazy theory being presented by the Russian media immediately after the crash. The weirder the theory, the more it stuck. Ukraine’s voice has not been heard at all, at least not on the ground,’ she tells me.
Sabra’s experience illustrates all too well the information bubble surrounding the inhabitants of the so-called ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk, the separatist states set up on the territory of the Donbas. Many people here buy into the narrative of ‘Kyiv fascists’ and ‘civil war in the east of Ukraine’ spun by the Russian 'propaganda machine.'
A recent survey conducted by Telekritika, a media watchdog based in Kyiv, provides evidence of the uptake of these messages. The report showed that 71% of respondents in the ‘People´s Republics’ largely shared the view that the Kyiv government is fighting against its own people.
71% of people in the ‘People´s Republics’ largely share the view that the Kyiv government is fighting against its own people.
Meanwhile, only 13% of respondents in adjacent regions, only a couple hundred kilometres away, supported that statement.
Similarly, 49% of respondents in Donetsk and Luhansk agreed that the Maidan Revolution of 2014 in Kyiv was ‘a fascist coup’, compared to 19% outside.
The data is hardly a surprise considering that over 30 Russian TV channels broadcast in the Donetsk region, compared to five Ukrainian channels (their reception is patchy).
June 2015: US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt speaks at Hromadske Donbas, a special channel set up to cover the region.The situation in Luhansk is more skewed. ‘On Ukraine-controlled territories, Ukrainian media sources are viewed as mostly trustworthy, while Russian ones are biased. The opposite is true in eastern occupied territories,’ the report says.
This comes as a blow to the government in Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine, which – for the most part – sees the conflict as a lawful campaign to restore control over its legitimate territory by fighting the Russian-backed insurgency. Across the whole of Ukraine, except for separatist-controlled regions and Crimea, the Maidan Revolution of 2014 is regarded as a ‘people’s revolution’, its victims glorified as heroes.
The perception in the east that the Ukrainian government is fighting against its own people is actively encouraged by fake Russian news stories. And these fake stories have a very real effect. For example, many locals admit they joined separatist militias after believinglurid claims on Russian TV about the Ukrainian army’s reprisals against civilians or about NATO troops fighting alongside Ukrainian troops.
The most notorious fake dealt with a story of a boy allegedly crucified by Ukrainian troops on a town square in Slavyansk. The story was later convincingly debunked.
Ukrainian media have been tempted to answer these fakes in kind, but have largely managed to avoid it. One of the reasons is Ukraine’s media landscape, which, with its oligarch-controlled media and grassroots media outlets, is reminiscent of Russia, though far less centralised in recent years. No powerful media vertical, similar to that in Russia, has been built here, and so, it is much harder to set a well-oiled propaganda machine in motion here. Unlike Russian media outlets, Ukrainian state media have little experience in producing sleek propaganda gimmicks.
‘Ukrainian media do not produce lies, but they do cover up certain kinds of “uncomfortable” information,’ Dmytro Tymchuk tells me. Tymchuk is a popular war blogger and leader of the Information Resistance initiative. ‘Uncomfortable information’ typically includes reports about corruption and incompetence of the army brass, the scale of war casualties and who is to blame for the shelling of civilian areas.
Russian media routinely accuses the Ukrainian army of such shelling, and Vladimir Putin reiterated the claim, when speaking to western leaders on 29 August. Ukrainian media, on the other hand, is full of reports on countless ceasefire violations by the separatists. Ukrainian journalists trying to get to the bottom of the issue of civilian shelling are confronted with difficulties of obtaining first-hand accounts or even getting into the area. In addition, they face a dilemma of journalistic integrity: reporting the truth or staying faithful to the cause their country is fighting for.
‘The Ukrainian army has shelled civilian areas and this is understandable because we are at war. The Ukrainian media stayed silent about it, while official sources blamed the separatists. Lots of locals have now lost faith in Ukrainian media because they caught them telling lies so many times,’ says Polish reporter Pawel Pieniazek, who reports from Donbas. But Tymchuk disagrees: the shelling of civilian areas should be discussed, but only once the war is over. This discussion merely demoralises the Ukrainian army, he says.
Ukrainian media often end up stigmatising ‘the Donbas people’, often portraying them as backward, passive, brainwashed and unsuccessful.
But with Ukraine’s competitive media landscape, Ukrainian TV coverage of the civilian life in the war zone has comes under increasing scrutiny.
For instance, Telekritika recently analysed 700 TV reports and concluded that many of them lacked depth: while reporting about human suffering, housing and food shortages, they overlooked a number of other important issues, such as the ‘black market’ economy flourishing in the war zone, issues of (dis)loyalty to the Ukrainian government among locals, as well as interactions between the army and civilians.
What’s more, Telekritika points out, Ukrainian media often end up stigmatising ‘the Donbas people’, often portraying them as backward, passive, brainwashed and unsuccessful. This stigmatisation only contributes to further social divisions inside the country, deepening the wounds that will take years to heal.
The ‘information war’ often has two consequences in the real world. As the insurgency in the east unfolded, kidnappings of journalists in ‘the People’s Republics’ multiplied. Many endured harsher treatment: beatings, forced injections of unknown substances and threats of execution.
Dmytro Potekhin, a Kyiv journalist and blogger, was detained at Donetsk railway station in August 2014 as he was to take a train back to Kiev. He was to spend the next 49 days in captivity. ‘They did not beat me, but they interrogated me many times, on some occasions with the involvement of what appeared to be a Russian intelligence officer,’ he recalls.
Ukrainian journalists are forced to compete with their Russian counterparts, as Russian media reports are immeasurably more popular with the locals. And they lose out, as Russian journalists are typically better equipped, trained and paid. They also have better access to the self-proclaimed separatist leaders, militia and civilians, who are ready to back their message.
But the kidnapping of journalists is just one element in a broader picture of what appears to be a sweeping cleansing campaign of the information space in the region. Since the Kyiv government lost control over the region, Ukrainian TV channels have been cut off, a 250-metre high regional TV transmission tower brought down, three regional TV companies taken over by separatists and independent papers chased out or closed down.
As one journalist from Donetsk who recently relocated to Kyiv tells me (she declines for her name to be published for the fear of reprisals): ‘All the print publications that Donetsk had before the war are no longer in circulation. These include Donbas, an independent paper, Vechernyi Donetsk, owned by Rinat Akhmetov, and the city paper Zhizn.’
Several programmes have recently been launched to improve Kyiv’s communication with the east, including Hromadske Radio. ‘There are just two types of publications on offer in local kiosks these days: separatists’ official publications and regional off-shoots of Russian papers, such as Komsomolskaya pravda [a prominent Russian tabloid],’ she says.
It is not just the ‘occupied territories’ that the Kyiv government has trouble connecting with. The same could be said of frontline towns and villages nominally under control of the Ukrainian government. Telekritika’s survey data indicates that Russian media is still popular here, and a large share of locals support its propaganda messages.
The Ukrainian state doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort to bring its message to inhabitants of the 'People's Republics.
‘Not only are Russian media in abundance here, but the rebel forces opened their own new outlets too,’ says Tetyana Story, an activist with the Donetsk Press Club, an NGO dedicated to Ukrainian journalists displaced from Donetsk.
‘The Ukrainian state doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort to bring its message across. People know very little about government policies here, they have little understanding where the country is moving these days, and haven’t heard anything about the reforms.’
As part of civil society’s move to fill the gaps left by weak state institutions, Tetyana works in a volunteer group publishing a free weekly newsletter, Govorit Donbas (The Donbas Speaks), which is funded by the Renaissance Foundation. One day, Tetyana hopes it will grow into a ‘proper’ independent regional paper.
Several more programmes have recently been launched to improve Kyiv’s communication with the conflict-affected areas, such as The Donbas Chronicles on Hromadske Radio and a special programme devoted to the east on Hromadske TV, which shot to the fore last year with its innovative, independent coverage of Maidan. Both the radio and television wings of Hromadske are civil-society projects, supported by western grants and crowd-funding, broadcasting online and priding themselves for their independence from the government.
Whether in the long run these initiatives will improve communication between Kyiv and the inhabitants of the People’s Republics remains to be seen.
Photo one: US Embassy, Kyiv, Ukraine.
Photo two: Hromadske Radio/Facebook.