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Vesti: Weapon or casualty in the information war?

The search for Russian influence in Ukraine’s media is an important task. But when the mainstream makes little space for inconvenient facts, who ends up losing?

A still from CCTV that allegedly captures strana.ua editor Igor Guzhva blackmailing a Ukrainian politician. Source: Facebook. In Ukraine, the long-running conflict around the Vesti media group and its successor Strana.ua has produced strongly contrasting narratives. For many patriotic minded Ukrainians, these outlets are weapons in Moscow’s information war. They believe these media mixes lies and half-truths to undermine support in the Ukrainian government and the army, still fighting in the east. Yet for those opposed to Ukraine’s post-revolutionary political order, the papers are a victim of repression by a state intolerant of dissent.

In truth, much of the worst of both narratives is true. Vesti is the revanchist project of a Moscow-exiled oligarch from Viktor Yanukovych’s fantastically corrupt administration, while Strana.ua is a partisan organ for the remains of Yanukovych’s party. Both media are in transparent pursuit of the latest zrada (treachery, sellout) of the ruling liberal-nationalist coalition. But they are also the object of selective, heavy-handed investigations and raids by Ukraine’s tax authorities, prosecutor general and security services on questionable charges of money laundering and inciting treason. In parallel to this official pressure, they have faced forceful intimidation from radical activists who have taken on themselves the task of “fighting separatism”.

This conflict tells us much about the challenges of maintaining open discourse in conditions of hybrid warfare — and how the boundaries of civil society are policed in Ukraine.

Speaking for whom?

The tangled narrative begins in 2012, when the Vesti media group burst onto the scene with anonymous funding and a free daily paper, a long read journal, a TV station and a countrywide radio network. Under the management of veteran editor Igor Guzhva, the Vesti group quickly became one of the country’s leading media outlets.

Fast forward two years, and Vesti did not join many other papers in championing the Euromaidan cause. Instead it took a skeptical and sometimes hostile attitude to the revolution. However, in contrast to most Russian media, Vesti did cover the brutalisation of protestors by the Berkut riot police. One of its reporters, Vyacheslav Veremiy, was murdered when he tried to photograph the titushki thugs bussed in to beat up protesters.

It is difficult not to see a concerted campaign against specific media in the efforts of the security services, tax authorities and prosecutor general’s office

Vesti’s opposition to the revolution marked it for opprobrium from both liberal and radical circles. These suspicions darkened in the intense atmosphere of national survival brought on by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and concealed invasion of the Donbas. Many heard echoes of Russian media narratives in Vesti’s relentlessly critical view of Ukraine’s new government and the military operation in the east, which included reports of high civilian casualties. At a demonstration in September 2014 to shut down Vesti in Kyiv, one Maidan activist put it thus: “This mouthpiece of the Kremlin is meant to destroy the consciousness of Ukrainians, deceiving them about the real events going on in the east and inciting civil war in our country. We believe that the articles in this newspaper kill no less than bullets.”

The authorities and activists saw Vesti’s anonymous funding as a possible inlet for Kremlin financing. In May 2014, the tax authorities raided the paper’s offices and opened a criminal case alleging that money was laundered to the paper through Crimea by the fugitive oligarch Sergey Kurchenko. Others linked the paper to Viktor Yanukovych’s son, but most often to Aleksandr Klimenko, a notorious figure accused of epic embezzlement at Ukraine’s Ministry of Revenue and Fees. When Yanukovych fell in February 2014, Klimenko set up shop in Moscow, where he runs a marginal Ukrainian political party that peddles business-friendly politics and plots his return to Ukraine.

June 2016: Alexander Klimenko appears at a Uspishna Kraina ("Successful Country:) forum on tax reform. Source: Uspishna Kraina.The idea of money flowing into a major media outlet from the state waging war on Ukraine raised appropriate alarm. But the case itself is highly questionable. Beneath the trappings of “Kremlin financing”, the case actually boiled down to an administrative dispute over the timing of tax payments. Though several more raids were made as part of the case over the next two years, Guzhva claims it largely fizzled after a court decided there were no damages to the Ukrainian government.

Soon the official accusations took a more ideological hue. In 2015, the Ukrainian Security Services opened a second case against Vesti.Reporter — this time for “compromising Ukraine’s territorial integrity and inviolability”. The accusation pertains to three articles about the unrest in eastern Ukraine which extensively quoted separatist sympathisers. I’ve read the articles in question, and in fact they are nuanced examinations of how Russia mixed mercenaries and arms into large-scale indigenous unrest in the Donbas to launch its separatist project. This allegedly treasonous narrative would soon find outlet in Deutsche Welle, the Guardian, the New York Times and other leading papers covering the Ukraine conflict. This case also went dormant after a forensic linguist testified that the articles contained no incitement to treason.

In parallel to this official attention, Vesti was targeted from the street. Radical activists led by parliamentarian Ihor Lutsenko (who had been kidnapped and tortured by titushki during the revolution) ransacked a Vesti event on 28 June (Constitution Day), warning that “This is our last peaceful demonstration about Vesti. We won’t have any more patience if they don’t change their editorial policy.”

June 2014: roughly 40 people in masks turn up to disrupt a Vesti public event in Kyiv. Image: Vesti. A week later, at the start of July 2015, several dozen masked youths beat up a security guard at the paper’s offices, smashed some windows and hurled flares inside. Liberal parliamentarian Serhiy Leshchenko speculated that Vesti organised the attack itself in order to attain martyr status, and the leader of a radical nationalist organisation soon took public responsibility. He was never arrested, and later showed Vesti reporters a certificate of appreciation from the SBU and told them he actively cooperates with the Service “against separatism and the opposition, the actions of which are aimed at the undermining of national security and discrediting of the government.”

Meanwhile, the nation’s leaders began weighing in on the situation. After chief editor Igor Guzhva complained of repression on Facebook, the chair of the Verkhovna Rada Freedom Speech Committee Viktoria Siumar fired back: “Are you sure you don’t work for the government that is waging war on my country? I’ve got a question for the security service: why after a year and a half of war does the public still not know about the sources of financing of this expensive ‘free’ paper?” (Vesti was distributed for free in large cities). On Journalist Day (5 June), President Petro Poroshenko stated that “transparency of media ownership in wartime is an extraordinarily pertinent national security question… If the tax authorities provide evidence of opaque financing of Vesti, the country has the ability to defend itself.”

"I consider pressure on the press unacceptable, even in wartime. But to treat these media like regular publications that supposedly have their own viewpoint would be suicide"

The claims that Vesti had funding from a fugitive oligarch received ironic confirmation in June 2015, when Guzhva suddenly announced he was resigning as editor in chief and selling his share of the media group. Media observers alleged that he had been forced out by owner Aleksandr Klimenko as a sop to the Ukrainian government, possibly to facilitate the latter’s return to Ukraine or at least reduce pressure on his remaining business interests. Journalists and radio newscasters from within the media group confirmed Klimenko’s ownership and the handoff of management to his common law wife. Complaints of editorial manipulation quickly emerged and many leading journalists and radio personalities jumped ship.

Journalists practicing politics?

After Guzhva’s jarring departure, Vesti has continued reflecting and stoking the discontent of some Ukrainian citizens over the government’s management of the economic crisis, the conflict in the Donbas, linguistic and national memory policies. But it has become less hard-hitting and more transparently an organ of Klimenko’s political project, publishing constant fluff pieces about the oligarch. In this cruder form it is distinctly less influential in the Ukrainian information sphere. This, perhaps, was the goal of the intense political pressure: to defang the troublesome paper without shutting it down, which would lead to international outcry.

As for Guzhva, he quickly opened a new internet outlet, Strana.ua. Strana has continued to bait Ukraine’s post-revolutionary ruling elite. Guzhva claims that after Strana published recordings by fugitive parliamentarian Aleksandr Onischenko in late 2016 that alleged vote buying by President Poroshenko, the order came “right from Bankova Street” (that is, the presidential administration) to shut him down. Citing political repression from the top makes good copy, but Guzhva’s claims received some confirmation when two more criminal cases were opened against him. These were loudly publicised by Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Yury Lutsenko, who even had his press secretary publish video evidence of Guzhva’s alleged wrongdoing on Facebook.

Vesti has become less hard-hitting and more transparently an organ of Klimenko’s political project, publishing constant fluff pieces about the oligarch

The first case alleges that Guzhva coerced $10,000 from a Radical Party parliamentarian to pull an unflattering story about him. According to Lesya Ganzha, chief editor at the public watchdog Access to Truth, there are frequent rumours in the Ukrainian media sphere of monetary payments for withholding negative press and removing already published stories. Prosecutor General Lutsenko released multiple videos of Guzhva in alleged negotiations with an intermediary, but they are barely decipherable and the story has its share of unanswered questions. The parliamentarian’s own testimony about the proposed transaction contradicts that of the intermediary. The second case involves Guzhva’s alleged possession of a flash drive full of military secrets (confiscated during a search of the site’s offices as part of the first case). Strana.ua published a rebuttal claiming that the flash drive is missing from the official protocol of items confiscated during the search. The first case is now due to go to court.

Igor Guzhva, former chief editor of Vesti and now Strana.ua. Source: Facebook. This tangled narrative does not lead to easy conclusions. It is difficult not to see a concerted campaign against specific media and journalists in the efforts of the security services, tax authorities and prosecutor general’s office. Yet the role of both Vesti and strana.ua as organs of revanchist political forces is also clear, the former for Klimenko personally and the latter for Opposition Bloc, the political party which emerged from the ruins of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Guzhva himself ran on the Opposition Bloc ticket for Kyiv city council in 2016, and the editorial section of strana.ua is chock full of MPs and political consultants in the party’s orbit.

Because of their association with discredited pre-revolutionary politics, Vesti and strana.ua have received little in the way of journalistic solidarity from their liberal peers. Denis Kazansky, a journalist who fled Donetsk for Kyiv after the outbreak of conflict, acknowledges the political motivation of the investigations against Guzhva, but claims that’s just the point. “Guzhva is not a journalist,” Kazansky tells me, “he’s a politician practicing journalism. He and his party have a political conflict with the government. This isn’t between politicians and journalists, it’s between politicians and politicians.” In Kazansky’s assessment, Vesti and strana.ua cannot help but filter the news through their political sponsors’ “Moscow interests”.

Inciting separatism or laundering stolen funds are prosecutable crimes, but serving an unpopular reading public is not

Yury Lukanov, a veteran Ukrainian journalist and active participant in Ukraine’s independence movement and EuroMaidan, believes the publications’ links to exiled oligarchs in Moscow puts them outside the journalistic fold. “I consider pressure on the press unacceptable, even in wartime. But to treat these media like regular publications that supposedly have their own viewpoint would be suicide.”

Information security

Journalists who do express solidarity (even mild) with the publications can find themselves similarly ostracised. Serhiy Tomilenko, the head of Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists, criticised the Ukrainian government’s “selective approach” towards investigating Vesti and strana.ua on Facebook. This immediately brought the ire of National Front parliamentarian Dmytro Tymchuk, who runs Inforesist, a patriotic website that publishes war dispatches from the east. Tymchuk wrote that Tomilenko “is playing against the information security of Ukraine… acting as advocate for anti-Ukrainian publications… seriously strengthening the position of the aggressor in the media sphere.” Tymchuk inspired an intense online campaign against Tomilenko and the Union, and the latter claims he even received violent threats.

3 March, 2017: a largely older crowd protest the closure of Radio Vesti outside Ukraine's presidential administration, Kyiv. Source: Vesti.For his own part, Guzhva claims no owner has ever influenced his editorial policy and asserts his commitment to a unified Ukraine (he is a native of Donetsk).

In 2015 he described how Ukrainian journalists had divided into three camps — those who were ready to serve the Euromaidan revolution, those who wished to see it crushed with tanks (who today reside in Donetsk or Moscow) and those who tried to objectively record events.

“The first group hates the second, and the second the first, and they both hate the third. Vesti belongs to the third group, so we have problems with both sides of the front… That’s the fate of objective media in a breakthrough period of history. It’s a very difficult position to hold, because you’re constantly in the crossfire.”

Given the partisan bent of his publications, Guzhva’s claim of strict objectivity raises eyebrows. In truth, Vesti and strana.ua are representative of one of Ukraine’s dominant ideological camps, which opposes the post-revolutionary order, pines for “eight hryvnia to the dollar” under ex-president Viktor Yanukovych and criticises the military operation in the east. Many liberals distrust this camp and suspect it of blending easily into separatism. But the fact is that many Ukrainian citizens subscribe to it. Inciting separatism or laundering stolen funds are prosecutable crimes, but serving an unpopular reading public is not.

The only struggle?

Watchfulness over the role of oligarchic money in Ukraine’s press and vigilance against Russian media warfare are necessary tasks. But in monitoring publications like Vesti with suspect finances and loyalties, we should avoid ascribing Kremlin origin to any narrative that is challenging or uncomfortable.

For instance, in July 2014 Vesti’s front page showed two residents of the warzone community Stanitsya Luhanska fleeing their flaming home after bombing, most likely by the Ukrainian air force, that tragically killed up to twelve civilians. The headline read “Mass civilian death in the east.” One critic indignantly offered this as proof that “the publication has more than once used openly anti-government rhetoric and distorted facts.”

But a Ukrainian battalion commander acknowledged the airstrikes could have been caused by pilot error, and the rising civilian death toll in the Donbas was confirmed by the UN, OSCE, Amnesty International and other international organisations. I have spent much time in Stanytsya Luhanska, a rural suburb of Luhansk severely shelled by both sides of the conflict, and can attest to the critical importance of understanding the violence its inhabitants experienced. More and more Ukrainian media are grappling with such painful topics, including major outlets such as Hromadske Radio and Ukrainska Pravda.

This deserves at least as much effort as the search for Kremlin mouthpieces.

 


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