Written by Martin Russell and Naja Bentzen
Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.
— George Orwell, 1984
‘This is war. You’re part of it’. The appeal on the euromaidanSOS website – originally a Facebook group devoted to helping ‘people who suffered during the revolution in Ukraine’ – warns international journalists against using official Russian media outlets as factual sources. The warning highlights that communication and media have become key tools in Russia’s ‘hybrid warfare’ against Ukraine. It also shows the reach of Russia’s communication efforts.
The race for control of the media message is a battle over the definition of ‘truth’ and ‘lies’ in a crisis where Russia’s and Ukraine’s competing versions of events are mutually exclusive. According to Russia’s World War II-inspired narrative on Ukraine, the Maidan revolution in February 2015 was a ‘Nazi’ putsch, and the democratically elected government in Kyiv an ultra-nationalist ‘junta’. Putin’s narrative is actively promoted in Russia and abroad by a well-funded information network of journalists, internet trolls and multilingual channels such as news channel RT.
Kyiv has significantly fewer resources to spend on pushing its side of the story, but is responding with a top-down approach. In February 2015, Ukraine’s controversial new Ministry of Information reacted to the continued attacks from Russia’s ‘army of trolls’ by establishing its own army of ‘information warriors’.
At the same time, existing wide-reaching multilingual European media outlets are under pressure, partly due to financial difficulties. For example, the BBC’s World Service stopped broadcasting in Russian in 2011, and its former Director, Peter Horrocks, warns of it being ‘financially outgunned’ in the struggle to counter disinformation. Concerns are also growing about the independence of EU-subsidised Euronews, following the announcement that an alleged pro-Russian oligarch had taken over its Ukrainian service.
The situation has sparked various western initiatives to counter Russian disinformation, for example, a proposed jointly operated Russian-language TV channel offering not only news but also entertainment, to compete with Russian pro-Kremlin TV channels, highly popular in neighbouring countries such as the Baltic States. For its part, the EU is scheduled to adopt an action plan on challenging ‘Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns’ in June 2015.
However, the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), which is drawing up a study on the subject, warns that ‘short term counter-propaganda policies and measures will not bring plurality and high quality journalism to Russian language media’. Furthermore, the ongoing battle over truth and lies risks undermining public trust in the media, including beyond Russia and Ukraine’s borders. According to Peter Pomerantsev, expert on the Russian media, ‘people often don’t trust any media – be they Russian, Western or their own. We need to rebuild trust in high quality journalism’.