Ukraine has been in the international news a great deal over the last two years. Much of that reporting has come from regional correspondents based in Moscow. Has Ukraine been getting fair representation? Those who cover Ukraine from Moscow should be aware that they live inside a tightly controlled media environment, and there is ample evidence they are not immune to its influence.
Ukraine recently kicked off something of an international scandal when almost 400 individuals and entities, some of whom were journalists, were named on a sanctions list. Some of the names came as a surprise. A trio from the BBC raised eyebrows, while the inclusion on the list of two Spanish journalists who are apparently being held captive by ISIS was more than strange. Some of these bans have since been reversed, but not before the list provoked widespread objections from people in high places. This outrage was not surprising; freedom of the press is a necessity for any democratic country, while restricting the press is a hallmark of any authoritarian regime. Ukraine’s journalist blacklist has been widely branded as an own goal which succeeded in damaging the country’s international standing and undermining its democratic credentials.
While this affair caused understandable indignation in the journalist and diplomatic communities, it also served as a reminder of the crucial role played by the media in the Ukraine conflict, and of the difficulties governments face if they attempt to respond to perceived information attacks in a heavy-handed manner. Attention inevitably focused on the international journalists included on Ukraine’s blacklist, but the majority of the targets of the sanctions list were actually Russian journalists directly involved in Moscow’s information war against Ukraine.
No escaping the Kremlin media machine
A professional media attempts to offer balance, to give airtime to both points of view in a dispute, and allows audiences to form their own opinions based on balanced facts. The Russian media does not do this. It offers a very restricted worldview and portrays events according to a centrally-planned narrative. In order for this to be effective, the method of delivery is as important as the message. In today’s Russia, they use an approach similar to wielding a series of sledgehammers. Multiple news channels offer one coordinated message. This is then backed up by armies of trolls, who contribute to distorting reality in online comment sections, blog posts, and social media. The result is a flood of similar information coming from a multitude of sources, creating a new ‘reality’ based on a manufactured sense of consensus.
Belief in this Kremlin-engineered reality is so widespread that more than one person has questioned whether there is something in the water in Moscow. In fact, the success of Russia’s information war is down to a cocktail of disinformation, flawed logic, a selective reinterpretation of history, a chauvinistic view of Ukraine, and a dangerously adversarial worldview. Many people in Moscow are simply unaware of how their thinking is been manipulated, but the results illustrate just how powerful a weapon information can be. Russian journalists distorting the truth about events in Ukraine have literally created an environment of hatred that has motivated large numbers of men from Russia to come to Ukraine to kill people.
Moscow-based correspondents face daily disinformation and distortions
Russia’s media war may also be influencing the perspectives of Western reporters who call Moscow home. A great deal of the global commentary on events in Ukraine comes from Moscow-based correspondents. Are they affected by the unavoidable barrage of information that surrounds them in the Russian capital? The Moscow correspondents will naturally answer that they are not influenced by Russian infowar narratives. They will argue that they are unbiased and ‘dispassionate – unlike some’, and they will claim to stick to the journalistic tenets of balance and airing both positions in a disputed situation. That is perfectly fair, and I think it is important to stress here that I have no doubt that the people I have had exchanges with from time to time genuinely believe that they are reporting in a fair and balanced way. But are they?
By way of example, one Moscow-based Western journalist I know shared a tweet earlier this year from a Russian source that referred to inflation in Ukraine ‘In April being 60%’. In his covering comment, my acquaintance remarked that this qualifies as hyperinflation. In fact, the word order was (deliberately) misleading and the original tweet went on to state ‘as compared to last year’. This is just one minor instance of how, tweet by tweet and comment by misleading comment, attitudes are changed and misplaced opinions are formed.
A very fruitful and respectful dialogue commenced from there. In this exchange, one quite startling thing came out. My journalistic acquaintance wrote, ‘what shocks me is how EU/US back Ukraine to provoke a fight with Russia and then fail to come up with dollars/guns when Ukraine clearly needs help.’ I believe this demonstrates how the Russian anti-Ukrainian narrative is affecting people. The very idea that Ukraine is somehow ‘provoking’ Russia, either on its own or at the behest of another player, is absurd. Ukraine has, of course, done nothing to provoke Russia. To be fair to him, as soon as this was pointed out, he agreed that the word ‘provoking’ was wrong. Nevertheless, how is it possible that this can even come to mind? My acquaintance is a smart guy, and words are the tools of his trade.
We have to ask a serious question: are the opinions of Moscow-based international correspondents being clouded by the pervasive, persistent, and unavoidable information offensive they are exposed to in daily life? It is something all international news organisations should consider when they commission Ukraine coverage via Moscow.
About the author: Paul Niland is a long time Kyiv resident. He has written extensively about Ukraine’s recent history. He is also the founder of Statement Email, a charitable crowd funding platform