Tuesday

10th Dec 2019

Feature

Activists call for EU and US to blacklist Russian propagandists

  • Fake image purporting to show Ukrainian jet shooting down MH17, aired by major Russian media (Photo: 1tv.ru)

It might sound like a travesty of EU values on free press, but serious people are saying fake Russian journalists should be blacklisted.

One man calling for it is Yevhen Fedchenko.

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  • Fake image in fake report saying Germany sent tanks to east Ukraine (Photo: vesti.ru)

He’s a teacher of journalism at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine and a journalist of 20 years’ experience. He’s also the man behind stopfake.org, a website which debunks Russian media lies on Ukraine.

“We need to act rapidly and firmly”, he told EUobserver.

“I really strongly support such a list [travel ban and asset-freeze], in order to shift responsibility from institutional to personal level. That's why I think it might feature not only top bosses, but also ‘journalists’ who execute propaganda policy”.

He gave EUobserver 18 names of Russians whom, he says, are guilty of “incitement” and “warmongering”.

For Fedchenko, it’s not about listing journalists who do stories with an anti-Western or anti-Ukrainian bias.

There are also biased EU and US media which, for instance, promote Islamophobia or which plug political parties.

For Fedchenko, it’s about people who take direct instructions from the Kremlin and who aren’t journalists in anything but name.

People who use fake images, fake witness statements, and who cite fake experts in order to motivate Russia’s hybrid forces in Ukraine to kill and for the Russian public to approve.

The best-known example is the crucified boy story.

The bogus report - that Ukrainian paramilitaries crucified a Russian-speaking child in east Ukraine - was aired last year by several Russian media, such as ORT, hosted by Irada Zeinalova (on Fedchenko’s list). It was debunked. But there were no retractions or mea culpas.

Two others calling for blacklists are Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Kara-Murza.

Kasyanov is a Russian opposition activist and former prime minister. Kara-Murza is an activist and friend of the late Boris Nemtsov, an activist shot dead in March.

Kara-Murza himself almost died, of suspected poisoning, in June.

Before he fell ill, Kara-Murza and Kasyanov went to the US with a list of eight “[Russian] state propagandists responsible for public incitement” to harm Nemtsov.

It includes people like Andrei Karaulov, a TV presenter on Russia’s Channel 5, who denounced Nemtsov as a “traitor”, and Vladimir Kulistikov, the director of Russia’s NTV channel, who denounced Nemtsov as a US “spy”.

Some analysts of Nemtsov’s murder believe the Kremlin did it.

But others, including Nemtsov’s daughter, believe a criminal or political faction did it to please the Kremlin because of the media climate.

Timely call

Fedchenko's appeal comes at a timely moment.

The EU already has a legal basis for designating war propagandists.

The legal act behind its blacklist of 151 Russians and Russian agents covers “natural persons responsible for, [or] actively supporting … policies which undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine”.

It has listed one Russian TV anchor: Dmitri Kiselyov.

EU leaders in March also tasked EU institutions to come up with new ways to “challenge Russia’s … disinformation campaign”.

Meanwhile, next Friday (17 July) is the anniversary of the shooting down of flight MH17.

It’s not proved that Russian forces did it, not least because Russia, at the UN, is blocking Dutch calls for an international enquiry.

One thing is certain, though: The tragedy, last year, marked a nadir in Russian media.

Major broadcasters and print outlets published wild conspiracy theories, insulting the dignity of victims.

One theory claimed MH17 contained old corpses and that Ukraine shot it down in a false flag operation. Its proponents published a fake image of a Ukrainian jet discharging an air-to-air missile.

Blue-eyed approach

Many EU diplomats and officials are sympathetic to Fedchenko’s proposal.

One contact noted that Moscow itself is banning journalists, such as Simon Ostrovsky, an award-winning reporter with Vice News, from entering Russia.

But EU sources said there’s no prospect of reciprocal action.

“We don’t want to stoop to Russia's level”, the Ostrovsky contact said.

A senior source from one member state added that EU sanctions are reactive, not pro-active.

He indicated there may be more listings if Russia escalates the conflict. But the EU won’t move first.

“We were one of the countries which proposed Kiselyov, and not the only one, for sure”, he said.

“But as for adding others to the list, I’m afraid there’s little mood to extend the list to anyone, let alone to target media people, given the EU’s blue-eyed approach to media pluralism”.

US constitution

The Kasyanov/Kara-Marza appeal also failed in Washington.

The US constitution says: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”.

A US source said this “affords a level of protection [for hate speech] which few Americans understand, or even want”.

The protection has limits. The US can sanction media if there’s “incitement” to criminal activity and “capability” to do the crime.

Rwandan media, which broadcast orders for Hutu militias to kill Tutsis, met the criteria.

But the US charter is one reason why it didn’t join the EU in listing Kiselyov.

Like the EU source, who spoke of “blue-eyed” pluralism, the US source said Washington rejected Kasyanov/Kara-Marza for “the sheer political optics of it”.

“Even though we understand that many so-called journalists are in fact Russian intelligence plants or other provocateurs, and that so-called media, like RT, are in fact arms of the state under its direct control, we need to keep our side of the street clean, to give space even to the most obnoxious points of view”.

Blacklist-lite

Kasyanov and Kara-Marza did give Washington pause for thought, however.

Some Congressmen have drafted legislation instructing US services to audit US-based Russian media’s relations with the Russian state.

The US source said it could see some of them designated as lobbyists instead of journalists.

It means their staff would lose press accreditation.

It also means that, under the US’ Foreign Agents Registration Act, they’d be obliged to declare details of funding, operations, and their client’s [the Kremlin’s] instructions.

“The bill was never introduced. But it may yet see the light of day”, the US source said.

Editorial independence

The European Commission in Brussels has given press badges to 1,215 people from 61 countries.

Each one is screened by officials from the commission, the EU Council, the European Parliament, and by the International Press Association (API).

They’re also screened by Belgian intelligence for security risks.

Antje Collowald, an EU official, said: “Editorial independence is one of the criteria to be checked”.

She added: “Decisions of refusal of accreditations have been, rarely, taken … and were mainly linked to the rejection of non-journalists or lobbyists”.

Nato gives press badges to people cleared by the Belgian foreign ministry.

Michael Mareel, a Belgian spokesman, told EUobserver: “We evaluate the request, in close consultation with our embassies abroad, based, among others, on the question whether the journalist or media infringes laws, e.g. on incitement to hatred”.

But he noted: “So far … we did not have to refuse a press accreditation for these reasons”.

He added: “It’s not up to us to judge whether media is editorially independent”.

Drawing lines

The fact the rulebook is rarely applied doesn’t mean alarm bells aren’t ringing, however.

Tom Weingaertner, the API president, told EUobserver that Fedchenko’s blacklist is problematic.

“It’s not easy to draw the line between free press and propaganda”, he said. “You wouldn’t agree to put journalists from the Daily Mail [a xenophobic British tabloid] on a blacklist, would you?”.

Weingaertner grew up in the former East Germany.

He noted that after 1989 some former officials went to prison. But former propagandists were left alone.

He added, however: “In my personal opinion, if I knew that this or that guy makes propaganda for the Russian state, maybe I wouldn’t be inclined to give him [EU press] accreditation”.

“If someone isn’t editorially independent, they shouldn’t get accreditation”.

EUobserver propaganda

EUobserver asked two Russian state media, Sputnik and Rossiya Segodnya, for comment. They didn’t reply.

But one Russian in the EU capital, who works for a firm on Fedchenko’s list, and who asked not to be named, rejected the accusation that he’s not a real journalist.

“I’m free to write what I want. I report what’s going on: If there’s a decision or a quote, I report it and I don’t see how the Kremlin could influence that”, he said.

“I don’t feel like a piece of state machinery. I feel like a professional trying to do his work”.

He accused EUobserver of “pure propaganda”, referring to an article, on 4 June, which said “Russian forces” attacked Marinka, a town in east Ukraine.

“You’ve never seen them [the Russian forces]”, he noted.

“I haven’t been to Ukraine, so I can’t judge what’s true or false because I’m not an eyewitness … There are statements from the Russian side and from the EU side and both have a right to be expressed”.

“If there’s a move to put me on a sanctions list, I’ll ask a lawyer to deal with it”, he said.

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