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Once Upon a Time in Kyiv

Ukraine struggles in a web of fairy tales spun by its eastern neighbour.

by Peter Gross 22 May 2019

Last month's presidential election in Ukraine provided yet another chance for Russia to spin more grotesque tales of an “alternate reality,” from the “routine to the absurd” – aiming to destabilize, delegitimize, dumbfound, and create discord, according to the EU’s East StratCom Task Force’s Disinformation Review.


Coverage of Volodymyr Zelinskiy’s landslide victory over incumbent Petro Poroshenko exemplifies the fantastical nature of Russian “journalism,” with both Zelinskiy and Poroshenko portrayed as versions of comic book mutant supervillains “controlled” by the United States, which ordered them to be anti-Russian. If that weren't enough, in the not-so-kosher conspiratorial minds of Putin’s scribes, Israel is pulling the strings behind Zelinskiy.


The controlled media of authoritarian Russia, which rigs its own elections and does not tolerate press freedom, can spew its sinisterly imagined “news” faster and more copiously than the old Ideological Department of the Soviet Communist Party produced its agitprop.


The world is told that Ukraine is not a democracy – even if 39 candidates, representing 20 political parties, freely vied for the presidency, and nearly 64 percent of its 34.6 million citizens voted. When the Russian TASS news agency wrote that Ukraine had “denied” the vote to more than 6 million of its citizens, it conveniently failed to mention that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 – along with the occupation of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by Kremlin-supported separatists in April 2014 – meant that roughly 12 percent of voters simply could not participate in the Ukrainian election.


In any case, Ukraine cannot possibly be a democracy because it is naught but a vassal of Germany, which in turn is a vassal of the United States. That is according to Kremlin-controlled RT, in the words of Dmitry Kulikov, a Russian political analyst and TV moderator. He is also a long-time member of the Zinoviev Club, an intellectual association named for Alexander Zinoviev, who lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union and championed its system until his death in 2006.


The Kremlin's “journalistic” logic was further strained by the epic charge of claiming that Ukraine was full of neo-Nazis, particularly in government and parliament, all preparing to celebrate Hitler’s 20 April birthday. That clashed with the reality, just one day later, that this supposedly thoroughly anti-Semitic country handed the presidency to (Jewish) Zelinskiy. Meanwhile, the prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, is also a Jew. (Of course, there is no denying the existence of anti-Semitic groups in Ukraine).


Returning to the very sensitive issue of annexation – that annexation not mentioned by TASS –  Russian outlets insisted that the Kremlin did not start the war in 2014. Rather, it was the United States that was to blame for the conflict, as indeed it was for the Balkan wars in the 1990s, said a Sputnik story quoting and paraphrasing a frequent contributor, Ullrich Mies. An extreme left-wing “critic” of both the United States and NATO, Mies’s Soviet-mentality book, Der Tiefe Staat schlaegt zu: Wie die westliche Welt Krisen erzeugt und Kriege vorbereitet (The Deep State Strikes: How the Western world creates crises and orchestrates wars), was published in 2019.


To counter its eastern neighbour’s mediated shenanigans, Ukraine has, over the years, banned the Russian search engine Yandex, the social-media networks VKontakte and Odnoklassniki, and 192 other purportedly pro-Russian websites, thereby successfully diminishing the “overt” disinformation campaign, according to The Atlantic.


The fact that the Kremlin media’s argumentation is poor in facts but rich in invention, and that it is slightly less than impeccable, is of little consequence. After all, the purveyors of “Once upon a time” news and other phony content aren't interested in achieving the accuracy of a sniper, when a scattergun attack would suffice to hit someone or something – somewhere, sometime.


Not so ironically for an autocracy, this cornucopia of deliberate falsehoods and mangling of facts is against Russian law. Vladimir Putin signed legislation in March 2019 giving Russian authorities the right to block websites and mete out punishment to media outlets for disseminating “fake news” and “material deemed insulting to the state or the public.” Perhaps there is a codicil in extremely fine print that says, “Russian media are exempt”?


If we demand that our bards have hearts of gold, to match their tongues of silver, we should not be heeding Putin’s media, which lack any moral qualms and scorn the very notion of guilt, all the better to serve the thuggish ends of the former KGB officer who revels in his own thuggishness.

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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‚ÄčThe 2019 edition of Prague Media Point will highlight these types of inspiring examples and more. We will offer a mix of scholarly presentations, including keynote addresses; sessions with innovators explaining their solutions; and networking opportunities to promote the exchange of know-how. As in years past, the conference will have a special regional focus on Central and Eastern Europe, though we look forward to covering cases and trends from other parts of the world. – WHAT’S WORKING





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