Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

When freedom of speech becomes war propaganda

What happens when it is no longer possible to distinguish between news reporting and propaganda? Russian media's spread of hatred in eastern Ukraine has become a significant part of the war machinery. 


Freedom of expression is a fundamental principle of European democracy. It cannot be emphasized enough how important the formation of a public opinion is. The formation of a public opinion is a process which in itself requires almost unlimited access to information, as well as the free dissemination of different opinions, in order to realize the core principle itself: the right to know. But when a democracy and an authoritarian regime collide, the matter suddenly becomes more complicated. According to the principles of freedom of speech, democracy is obliged not only to give microphone stands to parties who clearly risk lying, but also to treat their positions with equal respect as everyone else's. Lies, which multiply even more as they are combined with imperialist goals, result in violations of what is referred to in human rights as a zero tolerance against war propaganda. The lies also trigger discrimination, hostility, hatred and violence. They make us hostages to Voltaire's principle: "I disagree with what you say, but I want to defend with my life your right to say it."

False campaigns. Well, let's take a closer look at what we are willing to risk our lives for today.

Since the start of Euromaidan, campaigns for the Ukrainian regime, then pro-Russian campaigns, have been launched. The aim of the campaigns has been to destroy the reputation of the peaceful protests, in order to justify the illegal use of force against the demonstrators. The authorities once again resorted to technology, already duly tested during the Orange Revolution, to identify the protesters with right-wing extremists. Right Sector was referred to as the "driving force behind the protests", while Russian media presented the group as a neo-Nazi organisation. But the numbers obviously show a completely different picture. Around two million people participated in demonstrations around the country (in addition to the five million people who helped build the infrastructure around the protests). At the beginning of February 2014, Euromaidan's self-defense groups (Ukrainian: samooborona) numbered around 12 people, divided into 000 groups. According to Viacheslav Likachiov, who is an expert in anti-Semitism and xenophobia monitoring, Høyre Sektor consisted of around 39 people, while the nationalist Svoboda party consisted of around 300 people. When the leader of the Right Sector Dmytro Yarosh participated in the election campaign in 150, he received no more than 2014 percent of the vote. But since Russia is almost completely barred from independent media, the idea of ​​the neo-Nazi coup d'état could catch on in the public eye. A notable thing here is that Høyre Sektor was almost on par with Edinaya Rossiya, the ruling party in Russia, in terms of the number of times they were referred to in the media.

The purpose of the misinformation, manipulation and propaganda is to consolidate an idea in the population that "there is no objective truth".

The campaigns followed up with a "protection of the Russian people" rhetoric, which later helped to legitimize the occupation of Crimea. But it was Russians who primarily fell victim to this rhetoric.

"Nazi-Ukraine". This was shown in a comprehensive poll conducted by the Levada Center (which is perhaps the only credible center for social research in Russia) in April 2014. The results of the survey showed that 94 percent of Russians received information about the events in Ukraine and Crimea via television broadcasts. The dominance of television, a persistent fostering of fear of the "Kiev junta" and a nurturing of mythical notions led to 88 percent of Russians sympathizing with the annexation of Crimea, while 74 percent stated that they were ready to stand up to the Russian authorities if there would be an open military conflict with Ukraine.
Russian propaganda has also fueled separatist thinking in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. With good help from the Russian media, parts of the Ukrainian population wrote off the newly elected government as an illegal neo-Nazi government. It was no coincidence that Ukrainian TV channels were blocked in Crimea in March 2014. At the same time, Russia launched an extensive campaign urging people to choose "between Mother Russia and Nazi Ukraine". Fear that the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine will be exterminated by fascists and bandits has given rise to violent reactions to all kinds of expressions of patriotic feelings in Eastern Ukraine.

No objective truth. Russian propaganda uses information as a tool to create a parallel reality. Take the media coverage of the peaceful demonstrations for a united Ukraine in Donetsk on April 28, 2014 as an example. When Russian television broadcasts and print media used film and images from the event and twisted it to be about the opposite by claiming that the images showed Ukrainian right-wing extremists attacking anti-fascist protesters with bats.
The purpose of the misinformation, manipulation and propaganda is to consolidate an idea in the population that "there is no objective truth". In this way, the content of the messages and whether they correspond to reality become immaterial. What is important is the function of the messages and how they influence mentality, awareness and, secondly, public behaviour. Below you can read a couple of examples of this effect, published in the Russian media.

War-mongering mass media. We have seen how Russian media have become part of the core of military operations. It is the Russian propaganda that fuels the violence that is spread over large areas. As psychology professor Jurij Gromyko says, the mass media has taken on the role of an implementation tool for military actions. Themselves the discussion about og the demonstration of the development of the military actions – as well as public opinion about how this is carried out – has now become part of the military actions.

The violence was the result of public incitement through the media, and not just a trend in the population.

All the while the official death toll for the conflict has exceeded 8000 people – of which 7000 civilians – and the number of people who have fled their homes is up to two million, one cannot avoid drawing parallels. There is a study of the role the TV and radio channel One Thousand Hills Free played in the escalating violence in Rwanda. The results show that the number of people convicted of genocide was between 62 and 69 percent higher in the areas where the radio channel had broadcasts than in the areas where it did not have broadcasts. This research clearly shows that the violence was the result of public incitement through the media, and not just a trend in the population.
Lying has nothing to do with free speech. Likewise, Russian propaganda has nothing to do with journalism. All those involved in the Russian mass media's accumulation of military propaganda are as responsible for the spread of hatred in Eastern Ukraine as the Russian authorities are for the hybrid war they are waging through their proxies – i.e. the People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhtansk.

Matvichuk is chairman of the human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties.

You may also like