“Mr. Putin, nobody believes you … People in the world understand everything, your anti-human propaganda, your disinformation, your lies.”
* * *
Ruslana, a Ukrainian pop star-turned-activist, sat facing Wolf Blitzer in CNN’s Situation Room. She had spent three months in Kiev’s Independence Square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, singing and making speeches in support of Ukraine’s right to democracy and free speech. In the middle of the night on Dec. 10, when riot police attacked the unarmed protesters, her voice could be heard from the stage and live streaming on television, calling out:
“Wake up, anyone who can hear me, come out and help.”
On March 7, the glamorous-but-tired-looking petite woman was in Washington, D.C. She looked straight into the camera and said, “Mr. Putin, look at me. I am strong enough. There are a lot of people, Ukrainians and Russians, united against you. You’ll never win in Ukraine. Don’t touch Ukraine.”
Information can be a powerful weapon in any conflict. This is very clearly seen in the situation that unfolded in Ukraine starting November 2013 and continues to change rapidly, even at the time of this writing, early this month.
Ukraine hit international headlines when people began taking to the streets to protest against corrupt then-President Victor Yanukovych’s unpopular turn away from the European Union. This increased when he used force against them – and, all the more, when Russian troops invaded through the Crimean peninsula on March 1, causing what could become a major international crisis.
“What’s really happening in Ukraine?” is a question I was asked countless times during those weeks and months.
Ukraine’s corporate and state-owned media largely acquiesced to increasing censorship by Yanukovych, president of Ukraine from 2010-14. News was whitewashed. Political opponents of the Yanukovych regime were regularly portrayed as fascists and extremists, as unreliable, and working against Ukraine’s interests.
In response, a number of independent Internet-based media outlets appeared, such as Public Television (Hromadske TV) and Public Radio (Hromadske Radio). Social media also became an important vehicle for uncensored communication.
Censorship by Yanukovych, and his regime, did not prevent his popularity from declining country-wide. As corruption intensified and living standards dropped, so did his ratings. Political persecution, corruption, and violence by state authorities all contributed to the mass popular uprising in November 2013 that called itself the ‘EuroMaidan.’ It was triggered by a Facebook post by journalist-activist Mustafa Nayyem, who was shocked by the sudden U-turn away from an EU Association Agreement after Yanukovych made an unannounced trip to Moscow.
The size, determination, and creativeness of the protests, even in face of violence, revealed deep-rooted dissatisfaction and resolve to do whatever it took to have a better future.
Ukrainians could see the protests live-streamed on Internet television, or just go to the squares where they were happening, but not all supported them. Some chose to watch Russian TV, which framed the events as those of a small group of radical, unemployed, rabble-rousing nationalists, fascists, anti-semites.
Yet, when violence was first used against peaceful protesters, on the night of Nov. 30, even the top lapdog channel in Ukraine, INTER TV, broadcast a very objective, clear picture of what had happened. Public opinion polls conducted shortly afterwards showed the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians condemned the violence.
Media in Russia, under Putin, has been under even tighter state control than in Ukraine under Yanukovych. It has been harnessed into a concerted campaign to curb internal dissent and promote Putin’s vision of the Russian World, ‘Ruskii Mir,’ which sees Ukraine as part of Russia and not as an independent political entity.
When the EuroMaidan protests began, Russian media largely portrayed the protesters as a small group of unemployed fascist radicals who were disturbing the peace – the same framing as Yanukovych’s spin doctors were using. It seemed Putin was terrified of similar protests erupting in Russia and was doing everything possible to discredit Ukrainian protesters.
An interesting dimension is how international media has been reporting the Ukraine story as it unfolded.
Initially, most reports framed the story as an East-West conflict – that Ukraine was a country divided between Ukrainian and Russian speakers. Protesters voices were rarely given air time. Rather than allowing Ukrainians to explain they were opposed to the corrupt system and wanted to live in a country governed by European values of rule of law and democratic transparency, mainly Western commentators were invited to express their views. When violence erupted it was not uncommon to see reports that radical elements – nationalists, fascists, anti-semites – were taking over the protests.
The day Russian troops invaded Crimea, I was asked to give a live interview by a Canadian TV station. The journalist said she was receiving reports the Russian Naval Base in Ukraine had been attacked, so Russia sent troops to protect it. I had to explain no Russians had been attacked, and it was Russia that had perpetrated an act of war against Ukraine by invading its sovereign territory.
BBC-trained Ukrainian journalist Andriy Kulykov started producing reports for Public Radio in English and Russian-language programs, in addition to his Ukrainian ones, in an effort to disseminate information more widely.
When the situation intensified after Yanukovych fled the country, Kulykov switched to using Russian in his live weekly national TV political talk show. Looking straight into the camera he said, “I will speak Russian so that people in all parts of the country can understand me and hear different perspectives on the political situation.”
He also appealed to people in Russia and his journalist colleague to listen, think, and engage in dialogue. It was from one of his reports that I learned Ukrainians are calling the heavily armed men whose uniforms bear no insignia, yet are clearly from Russia, ‘little green men.’ On March 9, I asked Kulykov whether he had any response from Russian colleagues. He replied:
“Any calls I had from there stopped after the aggression began. But tomorrow I’ll try again.”
Marta Dyczok, a Western professor joint appointed in History and Political Science, specializes in international politics and history, with a focus on east central Europe and Eurasia, and specifically Ukraine. A longer version of this piece will appear in an upcoming edition of the Russian Journal of Communications.