24.11.2008 | Halya Coynash

How to lose the information war


No one would deny the considerable attention paid to Ukraine by both Russian and the world media since the beginning of the military conflict over South Ossetia.  What is in dispute is the reason for so much attention.  Implications arising from Russia’s assertion of its right to “protect its nationals” anywhere in the world, its lavishness in issuing passports to South Ossetians, and apparent parallels with the situation in the Crimea do not need to be spelled out.  Ukraine has, however, also been repeatedly accused by the Kremlin and in the Russian media of providing weapons to Georgia and there have been allegations that members of a Ukrainian nationalist organization took part in the conflict.

  We doubtless need more information, however would repeat the statement made by John Dalhuisen, author of Amnesty International’s report “Civilians in the line of fire: The Georgia-Russia conflict”, in an interview to Radio Svoboda.  Asked about the allegations of Ukrainian involvement, he said that neither he, nor AI, had any evidence which could confirm or refute such claims.  

Russia’s allegations against Ukraine have been reiterated by a National Deputy from the Party of the Regions Valery Konovalyuk who rather curiously is heading the supposedly independent parliamentary committee formed to investigate the claims.  He has on many occasions made public statements reported in both Ukrainian and Russian media.  One of these reports has led, as we will explain, to a worrying reaction from Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU].

The first reaction, however, was to a film. Now if there are any rules in the information war, they are not surprisingly hidden from the uninitiated. There remain rules of diplomacy and the film in question and intended showing were at very least entirely devoid of diplomatic finesse.  Not a crime, of course, but difficult not to note.

The film lasting around 50 minutes is entitled “The War 08.08.08: Art of Betrayal” and claims that Georgia treacherously began the war with the support of the USA and that the war was advantageous to the Republican presidential candidate Senator McCain. It also alleges that Ukraine was involved in the war not only by providing weapons, but through the supposed participation in the conflict of supporters of the radical rightwing organization UNA-UNS0.  No proof is provided, unless one counts the statement made by a UNA-UNSO activist before the war began that the organization’s members would be prepared to go the Caucuses to support Georgia.

Given later events it is difficult to say what is most staggering: the total lack of what makes the news worthy of its name, that is, new information, or a detail which due to the row unleashed we can easily forget. Such supplies are not necessarily unlawful and the participation of some Ukrainian nationals in the conflict, even should this be confirmed, proves – forgive the banality – no more and no less than the participation of some Ukrainian nationals in the conflict,  Not exactly breaking news.

The film can be downloaded from the site (together with information about special projects “For Putin”, individuals “For Putin” and other stirring material)  What aroused the fury of Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was the planned premiere viewing of the film in the Hyatt Hotel in Kyiv on 12 November with the support of the Russian Embassy and the presence of Valery Konovalyuk.  Unfortunately, as well as official protest from Ukraine’s Ministry to the Russian MFA regarding what it called anti-Ukrainian provocation, the SBU also approached the hotel in question.  There was nothing as vulgar as a ban, of course, just a letter warning of possible provocation over the showing of the film.  No ban, and yet the hotel cancelled the event.

Before any action, it is always wise to weigh the likely damage of the action against the harm from doing nothing. The film makes serious allegations without providing proof, which is much the same as what most Russian television and other media outlets have been doing since the conflict began.  Whatever we call the letter from the SBU, it led to the cancellation of the viewing which, given the lack of any hard evidence, ran every chance of being, albeit galling, a crashing non-event.  Instead it became an example of SBU interference.  Too late now, of course, but surely a public request to the Russian Embassy to allow an alternative point of view to be expressed would have been a more constructive exercise in damage limitation?

  If that was merely inept, the events of the last two days are positively disturbing.  On 18 November SBU officers removed servers from the office of the provider firm for the website Daily-UA as part of their criminal investigation launched over alleged disclosure of a State secret.  This was what the newspaper Komersant-Ukraine reports the SBU Press Service as having stated as grounds for the action. The criminal investigation was initiated on 22 October in response to the publication in the Internet of a letter from the company “Ukrspetsexport” classified as secret, together with commentary from the Head of the Investigative Committee into allegations that Ukraine provided military technology to Georgia, Valery Konovalyuk.  Experts have concluded that the material contained secret information.  Mr Konovalyuk was summoned for questioning over the case last week after which he showed journalists a photocopy of a letter from the Director of the state company “Ukrspetsexport” Serhiy Bondarchuk to President Yushchenko from 4 October 2005.  From the letter it follows that “Ukrspetsexport”, on the instruction of the President, “investigated the possibility of supplying one zenit rocket complex “Buk-M1” to Georgia” through removing it from military service.  The letter asks that “in the event of a positive decision” the relevant instructions be passed to Military Headquarters and the Cabinet of Ministers to make the necessary amendments for “Buk-M1” to be placed on the list of surplus Ministry of Defence property. 

  This is not the first time the authorities have focused on the media of late when investigating charges which cannot possibly be laid against journalists who simply reported information given them.  Quite recently the Prosecutor General interrogated a journalist for hours over an interview he had taken of David Zhvania with regard to the poison attempt against Viktor Yushchenko.  If these are heavy-handed attempts to intimidate journalists, then they are entirely reprehensible, but one can just about see some twisted logic. 

In fact though, it is difficult to associate the behaviour of those in authority with mental activity at all.  The press is now full of information about what it was that Konovalyuk made public and about the totally excessive and repressive response of the SBU.  This has all highlighted the shameful fact that very many documents of public importance continue to be classified as secret.  And of course, despite well-deserved scepticism given the relentless barrage of Russian allegations on all subjects, and the statement from Amnesty International, a considerable number of people are now repeating the old cliché that there’s no smoke without fire.

If the suggestion that an information war is raging is correct then we are talking of a formidable opponent and some weapons are absolutely vital.  I would name but the two which seem lacking of late: total commitment to the principles of a law-based society and some good old-fashioned use of ones mental faculties.

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