The information war between Russia and Ukraine took on an even more high-stakes game of "he said, she said" today, with rumors and unsubstantiated claims circulating about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine.
The media war between the neighboring countries has been going on for months, with Russian media labeling the protesters on Kiev's Maidan Square as fascists. Russia's annexation of Crimea and the Ukrainian government's battle against separatists only exacerbated the cross-border media battle.
US officials are eying Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine as responsible for yesterday's plane crash. However, many media groups in Russia are continuing to toe the Kremlin line.
In Russia, media organizations have followed President Vladimir Putin's lead in blaming Ukraine for the deadly attack on the Boeing 777. A piece from Russian newspaper Kommersant sums up the situation saying, “Donetsk Republic authorities and Ukrainian authorities blame each other for hitting the plane."
There have also been outlandish claims, including that Ukrainian forces shot down the plane because they thought it belonged to Mr. Putin. According to several Russian-language news sources, rebel commander and Russian citizen Igor Girkin (who goes by the nom de guerre Strelkov) alleged that several of the bodies found at the crash site appeared to have been dead for several days, implying that Ukraine was trying to create a set-up and blame Russia.
English-language Kremlin-backed news channel RT repeated claims that the target was Putin’s airplane. Sarah Firth, a correspondent for RT, publicly resigned from the network telling The Guardian, “When this story broke that was the moment I knew I had to go.” She worked for RT for five years.
Not all Russian media were quick to point fingers. In a piece for Russian website Znak, Andrey Kozenko writes about the plane crash and the generally polarized views people have of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Mr. Kozenko implored readers to reflect on the language used by Russian media to describe events like this crash. He writes:
“It is not just a crime, it is a split of different civilizations. And we are not on the side of normal people. Now we’ll be taken differently in the world. Yes, we didn’t shoot the plane and we are not armed. But normal people are on one side and we are on the other, together with our armed clowns…. Now let us live with it.”
And Ukraine says ... the opposite
Ukrainian news media, on the other hand, have placed blame on Russian separatists and the Kremlin. After months of conflict between the two nations, some commentators are now using blatantly exasperated tones in their coverage of the crash.
Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the far-right Ukrainian party Svoboda, penned an opinion piece on website Ukrainian Pravda titled “For the destruction of the passenger plane Putin is personally responsible.”
Mr. Tyahnybok calls for the implementation of martial law, and places blame squarely on Putin's shoulders, writing: “This [downing of the plane] is just one of many crimes committed by Russian terrorists during the military aggression of Russia against Ukraine that has already lasted more than five months.”
Channel 5, a popular Ukrainian TV network owned by current President Petro Poroshenko, published a piece on its website that highlights the blame game approach of both Russian and Ukrainian media:
“The first headlines of leading media came out with direct hints that the cause of the tragedy is found in Moscow. Russian terrorists quickly started erasing proof that they shot the airliner. The entire propaganda machine of the Kremlin has already tried to shift the blame of the tragedy on Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, many Ukrainian commentators are spending time questioning the allegations made in Russian media.
“What is the reason that Ukraine would want to shoot down a plane over its territory? … I don’t understand how we can take seriously Putin’s proclamations and his team and his marionettes" in eastern Ukraine, Ukranian blogger Karlo Volokh said in an interview on Ukrainian network TVi.
Translations from the Russian by Olga Podolskaya. Translations from Ukrainian by Lydia Tomkiw.