Text and photos by Agne Dovydaityte
The first stages of the Maidan revolution have passed and Maidan Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) is now empty. But the unrest has shifted on to a much wider, and in some senses even more dangerous, platform – the media. The joy as more of the West have started to understand that the Ukrainian conflict is a global issue, along with the joy that coverage of the upheaval in Ukraine has become more accurate overseas, comes with concern that it is not just Western media that have evolved, but also pro-separatist media which are becoming more complex and intrusive.
Concentrating on the spread of propaganda in the media, CIPR International (Chartered Institute of Public Relations) held an event: ‘Global Messaging and Stakeholder Engagement during a Crisis’ on 21st May, chaired by Eve Maclaine of CIPR International. Even though the content was familiar to those following the events in Ukraine, the discussion was a step forward in a battle for developing an understanding in the West of an Eastern European problem.
Nataliya Popovych, co-founder of the Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre (UCMC) introduced the centre’s approach to spreading information about the conflict and holding Russian media accountable for disinformation and propaganda.
Popovych shared some memories of her journalism and politics degrees, studying unrest in the Balkans and looking at the different media approaches towards it. In researching the past no one could have imagined then that those lessons would have a key role in her future job, and that history would repeat itself in the 21st century.
When the protests began, all previously competing pro-Ukrainian media joined their forces, their contacts, and databases, and established the centre in 24 hours. From just a group of protesters, the centre evolved. They started analysing media, keeping the world up-to-date with the latest news, and, most importantly, challenging Russian media. For example, if pro-separatist media said that Jews were being discriminated against in Ukraine, the centre would invite the leader of the Ukrainian Jewish community to challenge this; if the opposition stated that Russian-speaking people were facing intolerance, UCMC invited native Russians living in Ukraine to speak for themselves.
Popovych added that sometimes Western media also reliy on misinformation, adding to the cause of Russian propaganda. But after a few mistakes Western journalists followed the centre’s example and started to question their sources more thouroughly. One of the recent and noteworthy examples was a BBC investigation about a 10-year-old who was reported dead after the shelling in Ukraine. Journalists Natalia Antelava and Abdujalil Abdurasulov found out that the story was made up, but Russian reporters said theyhad “had to broadcast it”.
Similarly, Stop Fake, a fact-checking organisation, revealed that widespread pictures of burning Russian flag in Belarus was just a scraps of burning traditional doll during the time before Lent celebration – Shrovetide.
UCMC works both internally and externally. Internally they inform people how to react in case of bombings, how to distinguish separatist from volunteers, and explain data by visualizations. Externally the centre helps international communities to understand Ukraine’s vision, discusses the EU benefits and problems about losing vigilance and growing euro-scepticism.
Apart from this, the center also organises various cultural projects. In May 2015, for the first time in Ukraine Victory Day was focused on commemoration rather than celebration, pointing at the country’s orientation towards the West and the EU, and its approach to historical memory. ‘The history books that I grew up on did not mention the Second World War. They were talking about The Great Patriotic War’, says Popovych. One of the most difficult and important tasks is to combine the objectives of unifying the nation and at the same time integrating it into the European context.
Explaining to people that the war was taking place appeared to be hard not just internationally but also locally. While 8 per cent of Ukraine’s territory is highly affected by the conflict, some people in the West Ukraine still find it hard to show solidarity to their Eastern compatriots. Embracing that has become one of the UCMC’s goals.
The talk was informative but overall it left an impression of more of a presentation of UCMC than a thought-provoking and deeper analysis of current situation and problems that Ukraine is facing. Moreover, short films on Russian propaganda that were demonstrated to the audience slightly reminded of action movie trailers, and did not provide the best reflection of the events for the audience who were seemingly expecting a more analytical presentation.
Another panelist, Warwick Partington, managing director of the MTM Centre for Leadership and Management Development, expanded the discussion from Ukraine to Eastern Europe.
“Information battles are going on every day, and they are the art of the overall campaign”, said Mr Warwick Partington.
According to Partington, fighting information war has become a routine for the Baltics. But in Ukraine, the conflict has affected many more platforms. Partington pointed out that one of the reasons behind that is that the control points of the gas pipes located in Eastern Ukraine make it a strategically vital area. This pushes Russia to preserve its influence there in every way – from military intrusion to brainwash through the media.
The panelists stressed that even though it might seem just as two-country conflict, it is of a much bigger importance for the rest of the world. In particular, the MH17 plane crash highlighted the destructive potential of the conflict in the region and its international implications.
“Why does this stuff matter? It matters because people are dying as a result of information war. It will affect generations,” said Warwick Partington.
The idea that the Baltics are now probably the region which understands Ukraine and its problems better than most of the rest countries was prevalent in the discussion. Estonia, for one, has a particular issue – since one-third of its population is Russian-speaking, propaganda radio channel Sputink is about to be launched in the country. Moreover, as Russia keeps pointing at difficulties to recognise the border with Estonia, the Baltic state invests a lot of money in cutting down forests and re-establishing its territory. The country also invests in Russian-speaking minority by launching a pro-western TV channel in Russian, as an alternative news source for the audience otherwise susceptible to Russian state-sponsored media. Lithuania, on the other hand, chose a different way. The country whose president Dalia Grybauskaite has one of the toughest stances towards the Russian policies in Ukraine recently stopped the transmission of RTR Planeta, one of the main Russian language channels in Lithuania.
The discussion demonstrated that countries may choose different approaches to dealing with propaganda and securing clear messages and facts for international audience. Moreover, the speakers stressed that media provide an important platform for protest activism, in addition to, and perhaps as a replacement for street protests which have become less intense in the last months. Media protest has equal importance and must be protected; it should continue exercising its ability to cover acts of violence and injustice. While people are still being silenced, the speakers suggested that the mission of the Western democracy as a possible role is to secure people defending the common values. The first step in doing so is to understand the problem and make sure that the right side is being protected.