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Sun 26 May 2019
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How the Narnia-like countries created by Russia manipulated western coverage of the occupied Donbas

Russia has been attempting to manipulate journalists to control the coverage of its invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas, according to a cache of hacked emails published by the Distributed Denial of Secrets Initiative.

The messages show how a small team in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a front for Russian intelligence, graded journalists. Reporters were colour coded according to whether their coverage was desirable or undesirable. The team assessing the journalists for the fake republic’s “Press Centre” included Janus Putkonen, a Finnish national, who also supports the Syrian dictatorship. 

The public across much of the western world has been treated to articles which distort reality and create the impression that the make-believe country of the DNR really exists

Accreditation was provided or withdrawn according to both the content of a journalist’s work and its usefulness in supporting the fake narrative created by Russia to mask its invasion.

The French journalist Sebastien Gobert was refused accreditation because, while he was deemed “objective”, he used the terms “Russian Aggression” and “Russian soldiers” to refer to, well, Russian soldiers and Russian aggression.

Accurate reporting of facts which would discredit the occupation was also discouraged.

Jack Losh, a freelance journalist, had his accreditation withdrawn after a July 2015 Vice News piece on how checkpoints hampered civilians from crossing between the Russian occupied and the unoccupied area of Ukraine.

The piece also referred to the local collaborators paid and controlled by Russia as “separatists” and this too would have incurred the displeasure of the press team. In one of the emails they stress that the preferred term is “militant” or “rebel”: from this perspective they promoted Russians and Ukrainians as one people, much as Hitler viewed the Austrians and Germans as a single German Volk.

The team allowed accreditation for the BBC because it was “influential” but also stated that it used “propaganda” in its reports. Stephane Siobhan, a French journalist who has worked for major outlets such as Le Figaro, was accredited but a strategy was put in place to try and manage him, according to a 2016 email. He would be placed with French journalists who were sympathetic to the occupation and worked for DONI, the DNR’s news service.

Gulliver Cragg who also works for the French media was graded “yellow”, which meant that he was regarded as apparently “ambivalent”. A 2016 email states that he was to be given “accreditation” but with “certain conditions” which the team would discuss.

The whole project was inspired by the supposed ethnic unity of Russia and Ukraine. putin’s aim was to unite the countries in a Hitler style Anschluss. 

Journalists were compelled to argue their case with the team, citing examples of their coverage which might be viewed favourably by the DNR. 

Oliver Carroll, a very highly regarded writer, argued that his “objective” coverage had attracted the attention of “pro-Ukrainian trolls” and that he was “objective”.  

A team from ZDF, the German TV channel who were denied accreditation, argued that their coverage of Ukraine’s Azov battalion had evoked a negative reaction in Germany. 

I am not suggesting any improper or unprofessional conduct on the part of the journalists referred to in this article and they often have performed a useful, indeed vital service in writing from the front line. However, the objective facts about the situation in Donbas have, as a result of Russia’s influence operation and its control over access to the area it occupies, largely escaped the attention of the western media.

While some journalists who gained access to the DNR, such as Simon Ostrovsky, were able to present evidence of Russia’s military presence, others may have played a more ambivalent role and unwittingly imported the DNR’s narratives and biases into the West. (Indeed it could be argued that interacting with a front for Russian intelligence as if it were a genuine entity helped validate the bogus narrative that an insurrection against Ukraine rather than an invasion of Donbas had occurred). 

Accurate reporting of facts which would discredit the occupation was also discouraged.

In March 2014, after Yanukovych had fled, Russian special forces, masquerading as “Russian speakers”, seized public buildings in the Donbas. Rent-a-mobs were organised and fascists and Nazi paramilitaries from Russia flooded the area along with a vast number of Russian troops.

The whole project was inspired by the supposed ethnic unity of Russia and Ukraine. Putin’s aim was to unite the countries in a Hitler style Anschluss. Yet the public across much of the western world has been treated to articles which distort reality and create the impression that the make-believe country of the DNR really exists. This email cache helps us to understand how a land as unreal as Narnia materialised on the pages of the western press.

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