A Twist in the Tale. Russian Media and Ukraine

February 25, 2014 • Media and Politics • by

Ukraine’s violent turmoil is the most important international news story at this moment, and has sparked international debate on democracy, popular protests, the role of the European Union and Russia’s influence in Europe. For Moscow, revolution in Ukraine could mean losing control over its western neighbour.

Russia’s official media have portrayed the Euromaidan protests very differently to West European media. One of the most popular online news platforms in Russia, Lenta.ru, has investigated how Kremlin-controlled media have been covering the crisis in the Ukrainian capital and the regions.

Lenta.ru is an internet newspaper, known to Russian-speaking audience for its relatively liberal position and greater neutrality when it comes to the coverage of political subjects. Its journalists Elizaveta Surganova and Konstantin Benumov investigate the reporting of civil unrest by pro-Kremlin mass media, in particular federal TV stations Channel One, Russia-24 and NTV and newspapers Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Komsomolskaya Pravda.

The authors notice that the government-controlled outlets clearly support the official position held by Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in their coverage of the protests. The message they try to convey is that the chaos in Kiev has been caused by the protesters, systematically referred to as ‘radicals’, ‘fighters’, and ‘extremists’. The Berkut special task force meanwhile is depicted as arms-free and the ‘the only thing that does not let it escalate into civil war’.

Channel Russia-24 has accused Western media of bias and of pressurising the Ukrainian government. It criticises them for ‘only speaking about the deaths among the protesters‘ and ‘making Ukrainian leadership responsible for the deaths’. It has not allowed dissenting voices. On February 20 it broadcast a live telephone interview with a Crimea MP Leonid Pilunskiy. Unexpectedly, the politician stated that the corrupted government ‘escalated the situation in Crimea‘ while ‘the Maidan structures did not pose any threat in the region’. The conversation was abruptly interrupted and the channel apologised for ‘communication malfunction’.

Channel One, which reaches 98.8 % of country’s population, has been especially vocal in its denunciation of protesters. One news reporter said it was difficult to broadcast from Kiev because ‘the crowds of the so-called peaceful demonstrators have clubs, sticks, and bats, and you can’t argue with them.’ When covering the most violent moments of Euromaidan, the channel concentrated on the casualties among police officers. Their attackers  – meaning the protesters – were described as a ‘brutal mob‘ of ‘drunkards‘ and ‘drug addicts‘ who used live ammunition.

Another government-controlled channel NTV used video materials to persuade their viewers the protestors were in the wrong. It reported that protesters were shooting to kill, while Berkut soldiers merely defended themselves with rubber bullets and stun grenades. The channel showed the scenes of people dressed in police uniform shooting firearms. The voice off screen definitively commented: ‘If one looks closely, it becomes clear: rebels are simply using the uniform of Berkut officers whom they took hostage.’

The printed press has also been promoting the official narrative of the Russian government about the ‘radical extremists who try hard to destroy Ukraine’. Rossiyskaya Gazeta published photographs of the protesters under the title ‘European Union, they come to you. Supported by the representatives of Western countries, opposition turns into thugs.’

Komsomolaskaya Pravda, which is among the best-selling newspapers in the country, uses the rhetoric of intimidation in its coverage. It claimed that events of Euromaidan posed direct threat to Russia with the front page title ‘After occupying Ukraine, Bandera progenies will aim at Russia.’ ‘Bandera progenies’ refers to the polarising figure of Stepan Bandera (1909 – 1959) who was the leader of the Ukrainian national movement and whose name in the Soviet ideology was closely associated with fascism.

The newspaper quoted conservative Russian politicians and commentators all of whom agreed that the USA was behind the protests, plotting to secure ‘an unlimited right to reign the world.’ They appealed to President Yanukovich to ‘use all his power and strength’ in order ‘to stop bloodshed and civil war.’ Online, the paper organized an opinion poll to ask the readers ‘Is slaughter in Kiev related to the success of Sochi Olympics?’

The authors of Lenta.ru also provided an overview of the coverage in the Western media. They found much more cautious assessments of the events offered by the New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, CNN, and BBC. For example, streaming the same video content as NTV, CNN and BBC maintained it was difficult to establish who the snipers were. They were described as ‘people in the uniform, presumably the uniform of state forces.’

Print media in the West similarly abstained from lop-sided evaluations, according to Lenta.ru. They didn’t openly blame one party or another. The New York Times, for instance, published a commentary by Romano Prodi, former Italian Prime Minister. He wrote following: ‘Many or even most of the protesters are sincere and want a peaceful Ukraine that is stable and democratic. But there is also a violent faction, which is occupying government buildings and attacking police officers with guns and explosives.’

Somewhat harsher judgments came from a few outlets. The French procommunist L’Humanité explicitly referred to Maidan radicals as fascists who are ‘very far from peaceful demonstrators described in the media.’ German Die Welt, on the contrary, wrote that President Yanukovich must face tribunal for the murder of people who died ‘for European values.‘ Finally, The Economist put the whole blame on Vladimir Putin with a cover page story headlined: ‘Putin’s inferno’, while Bild wrote about the ‘solidarity of tyrants.’

Elizaveta Surganova & Konstantin Benumov (2014) “The so-called demonstrators”: what Russian and Western media say about the events in Ukraine. Lenta.ru

Photo credit: Alexandra Gnatoush / Flickr Cc

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