Crisis in Ukraine: Propaganda war heats up in Russia
The Russian media has portrayed Ukraine's leadership as part of a fascist conspiracy ultimately driven by Western powers in a return to Cold War-era suspicion.
This is Ukraine today, at least as seen by most Russian news media: the government is run by anti-Semitic fascists, people killed in protests were shot by opposition snipers and the West is behind it all.
And the room to disagree with that portrayal is getting smaller by the week.
With Crimea set to hold a referendum Sunday on whether to merge with Russia, the push to demonize Ukraine's leadership has reached fever pitch. Authorities in Ukraine have responded by blocking Russian TV channels.
Lev Gudkov, head of a respected independent Moscow-based polling agency, says the propagandist tone of Russian state television has reached new levels.
"For intensity, comprehensiveness and aggressiveness, this is like nothing I have ever seen over the whole post-Soviet period," Gudkov said.
News bulletins on top network Channel 1 carry extensive reports detailing purported rampant lawlessness to vague threats of reprisals against ethnic Russians and Jews, as well as showing interviews with talking heads alleging foreign-engineered plots.
NTV, owned by gas giant Gazprom's media arm, on Thursday aired a report about purportedly hacked email correspondence between U.S. and Ukrainian officials on plans for staging an attack on military jets. The piece goes on to claim that the incident was to serve as an excuse for the United States to take military action against Russia.
It is steadily becoming conventional wisdom in the most widely watched news shows that those shot dead during protests in Kiev last month were victims of shadowy figures possibly hired by opposition forces.
Right Sector, a radical ultranationalist group that spearheaded the most violent assaults against riot police, is a subject of scaremongering daily exposes. For all the attention it has received, the group has not been granted any posts in the new government and observers say it has little actual clout.
Late Thursday night, clashes broke out in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk between government supporters and a hostile pro-Russian crowd. At one point a pro-Russian mob encircled and threw objects at a small huddle of people, shouting for them to get on their knees. At least one person died in the turmoil.
Rossiya-1, another state station, on the same evening reported that the incident had been provoked by "special forces" of the Maidan, the informal name of the movement that brought about last month's ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Ukraine's pushback against the Kremlin-led smear campaign has not been much more sophisticated.
Broadcast authorities there on Tuesday ordered the suspension of the signal of Russian state-controlled television stations — a move that drew swift indignation from Moscow and international media advocacy groups alike.
People in Russia's provinces, where Internet penetration is weak, are particularly prone to one-sided information.
"The only sources of information there are the federal television stations, and they have been conducting an exercise in brainwashing," Gudkov said.
In Crimea, one of the two TV stations allowed to broadcast keeps repeating a clip that displays the slogan "March 16: Together with Russia" while blaring the Russian national anthem.
The only other TV station broadcasting there is ATR, run by representatives of the peninsula's Crimean Tatar community which supports the government in Kiev. The channel, which has a "United Country" logo, has shown regular on-the-street interviews with people explaining that they want Crimea to remain part of Ukraine.
Many journalists on the ground covering events in Crimea have faced intimidation and assaults from members of pro-Russian militia forces, further complicating efforts to report a fuller picture.
A recent survey published this week by Gudkov's Levada Center appears to show the propaganda campaign has had the desired effect in Russia. Asked if there were grounds for Russia deploying troops to Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority, 43 percent of respondents said a military response was justified because people there were at risk of attack from "bandits and nationalists." Another 28 percent agreed on the threat, but suggested a political solution would be preferable.
There have been no signs people in Crimea are facing threats.
Dissenting Russians have turned to online sources for alternative viewpoints, including on current developments in Ukraine, but an unfolding crackdown on Internet news outlets looks set to stem that flow.
On Wednesday, the owner of leading independent news website Lenta.ru fired its chief editor, Galina Timchenko, following official complaints over the outlet's coverage of Ukraine.
The communications regulator said Lenta.ru breached a law banning dissemination of extremist material by linking to comments by Dmytro Yarosh, a nationalist Ukrainian leader wanted in Russia on charges of instigating terrorism.
Ominously for online outlets, closure of websites deemed to contain "extremist" material or incitements to join unauthorized rallies can as of this year be closed without a court order.
One day after the Lenta.ru editor was fired, a handful of websites notable for their criticism of the government, and a blog run by prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny, were summarily banned on a request from prosecutors.
"Russian authorities are unabashedly cleansing the media landscape of independent voices that have the power to shape minds," said Committee to Protect Journalists representative Nina Ognianova. "We condemn this ban on alternative sources of news and opinion, and call on Moscow to cease this Soviet-style crackdown."
Less than half of Russia's adult population uses the Internet on a daily basis, but the sight of commuters in Moscow and other major cities glued to their smartphones suggests that is changing.
"The authorities are increasingly interested in the generation that looks much more at the Internet," said Sergei Buntman, deputy editor of liberal-leaning Ekho Moskvy radio station, whose website was also momentarily blocked by major providers overnight Thursday.
"Turning off sources of information to skeptics is probably the main goal of this drumbeat of propaganda that there has been since the events in Ukraine," Buntman said.