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21.07.2017 | Halya Coynash

Two Donbas men get 5-year prison sentences for ‘Russian world’ anti-Ukraine social media groups

Sloviansk, April 2014
   

The Donetsk Regional Court of Appeal has upheld five-year sentences passed on two young men for creating several social network groups with a pronounced anti-Ukrainian, pro-militant position.  The charges were of encroaching upon Ukraine’s territorial integrity and inviolability (Article 110 § 2 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code).

There is virtually no information about the case and what exactly the two unnamed men, now 23 and 24, posted on VKontakte.  The men denied the charges, however two courts have now agreed with the prosecution that their actions were aimed at changing Ukraine’s territorial borders and providing information support for the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ [DPR, LPR, respectively]. 

They are reported to have created such sites from the end of February 2014, and carried on their social network activities until April 2015.  They appear to have been in custody since then.  The first-court ruling was passed on February 6, 2017, with both men lodging appeals.

There have been similar sentences before, however most have been suspended, and this is certainly a severe punishment. For that reason, it is unfortunate that effectively nothing is known, meaning that there is no way of either repudiating  or confirming the inevitable assertions that this is a violation of the men’s right to freedom of expression. 

Demonstrations and attempts to seize power in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Odesa and Kharkiv oblasts began shortly after Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia and the latter’s  invasion of Crimea.  After attempts by Russian-backed local pro-Russian activists to seize control failed, heavily armed fighters, led by former Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin, seized control of both Sloviansk and neighbouring Kramatorsk in April 2014. 

One of the first things that the militants did in any place they invaded was to cut off Ukrainian media sources, replacing them with Russian or, sometimes, their own.  Many journalists were among those taken hostage, and often tortured. 

In August 2015 Colta.ru spoke with three former employees of mainstream Russian channels on condition of anonymity.  One of them recounted how, in February 2014, the Chief Editor had called the entire staff of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) to a meeting.  He told them that the 1970s-80s had been child’s play in comparison with the cold war now beginning, and said that if anybody didn’t want to take part, they should find another job away from information .  Most stayed.

The top management, this source said, would go to meetings at the Kremlin after which they would turn up at the channel and hold their own sessions with a select few.  After that instructions would be filtered down, with presenters told which terms to use, like ‘junta’ and ‘fascists’ to describe the Ukrainian government, etc.  Such terms would get removed for a day or two around Minsk negotiations, then return (more detail here).

This war propaganda machine, writing about alleged atrocities committed by Ukrainians proved a winner as far as the number of viewers were concerned, with this even though there had been a message from President Vladimir Putin’s Administration  that channels should not be competing with each other.  They didn’t compete, but they did sometimes inadvertently expose the lies through unfortunate bleeps, such as when one state-controlled channel presented a man in hospital as the victim of the ‘junta’ and another – as one of the perpetrators.

Worth noting, that the source said that the situation was very different from that seen during the Russian-Georgian War, with the system having been fine-tuned and well-prepared over weeks, months and years.  While the main focus was on television channels, the social media were also full of such material, and groups actively pushing out the same messages.

The lies worked.  The effect of anti-Ukrainian propaganda was also observed by a human rights mission which visited several liberated cities in late 2014.  “The residents of Krasny Lyman, the city liberated first on June 4 recounted how they had awaited with terror ‘purges’; arrests; repression from the Ukrainian armed forces. There was no ‘purge’, with flats simply being views, without even checking documents.  The first day of Sloviansk’s liberation in July 2014 began with free sausages being handed out. 

That is categorically not what Russians saw on their television, nor Ukrainians in Crimea and the parts of Donbas under occupation. On July 12, 2014, Russia’s First Channel broadcast an interview with a woman who had allegedly fled Ukraine.  She claimed that Ukrainian soldiers had crucified a three-year-old boy and tied his mother to a tank and dragged her, with blood pouring from her wounds, around the city.  It was clear that the woman did not even know the main square in Sloviansk, and the story was a total fabrication.  There was outcry over this gross example of propaganda, and the channel tried to come up with some excuse.  It did not, however, remove the interview  and the story is still being presented as fact to children living in the areas under militant control.

The above is not intended as comment on the specific conviction of two men whose material has not been made public.  The recent banning in Ukraine of the Russian-based VKontakte and Odnoklassniki has both supporters and opponents, as do other methods which Ukraine is taking to combat the information war which Russia unleashed together with its undeclared military aggression.   

That information war is very well-funded, and was backed by Russian or pro-Russian fighters with Kalashnikovs who invariably removed any channels of alternative information.  When the only ‘news’ that people are allowed to receive is of alleged atrocities and, as Russia claimed, ‘genocide of the Russian-speaking population’, the propaganda surely is a danger to national security. 

 

 

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