Donbas ‘republic’ journalists trained in propaganda skills in Russia
A journalist who headed a television channel in occupied Horlivka for three years, ‘has defected’ to government-controlled Ukraine and provided important information about the workings of the propaganda media in the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DPR]. While his account cannot be easily verified, it does correspond to the results of monitoring carried out by Ukrainian media watchdogs.
The journalist handed himself over to Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU], probably taking part in the SBU program ‘They’re waiting for you’. This helps Ukrainians who have played a minor role in the so-called ‘people’s republics’, but have committed no serious crimes, to rebuild their lives in government-controlled Ukraine. The man has family in occupied Donbas, and only agreed to give an interview to TV Ukraina under an assumed (first) name (Serhiy) and with both mask and clothing preventing his identification.
He had worked for the Horlivka TV channel for three years, and lost any illusions about DPR. He explains that on the channel, there couldn’t be any criticism of the ‘DPR authorities’, that you can only praise them and give positive news.
An example of the kind of news that was taboo on his channel was the underground miners’ strike in Zorynsk (within the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’, or ‘LPR’). Miners from the Nikanor-Hovaya mine spent six days underground, demanding that they finally received 20 months wage arrears, and that plans to close the mine be shelved. The ‘LPR authorities’ apparently promised to pay the money but ignored the demand to keep the mine open.
The strike received no coverage at all in LPR / DPR, neither on television, nor on Internet websites. It can certainly not be said that the strike was of no interest to people in Horlivka since, according to Serhiy, there was an analogous situation in his city or, at least, an attempt at one. “There was the same situation at the Strirol Factory. People wanted to hold a strike and began gathering signatures of people willing to take part. Then the signatures got into the hands of the ‘DPR ministry of state security’. All of the people on the lists were summoned ‘for a chat’.”
Serhiy explains that such ‘chats’ are held with anybody who they think could spoil the so-called ‘republic’s’ reputation. If the people do not react appropriately after such ‘chats’, other, harsher methods of persuasion are used.
He says that the ‘DPR ministry of state security’ controls what is shown, and what is taboo, on local media. Each channel or media has its own security service individual ‘overseeing’ them, with the person in Horlivka being Oleksiy Alchin, a former SBU officer now working for DPR. This is full control, with Alchin or his people turning up if something goes wrong, somebody dares to say or present something differently from what is demanded.
Serhiy names a Russian, Alexander Kazakov, as in charge of DPR propaganda. Kazakov was officially ‘adviser’ to Alexander Zakarchenko, the militant leader killed in a bomb blast on 31 August 2018. Unofficially, Kazakov is believed to be running things for the Russian FSB. Kazakov, Serhiy says, held meetings with all structures, including all the media. People were supposed to have the illusion that Donbas was moving the direction of Russia. He cites education as an example. People were told that they were moving over to the Russian education system and that textbooks had been brought from Russia.
The general message on all television channels needed to be that everything is worse in [government-controlled] Ukraine. The journalist says that they received instructions on the number of features required pushing this idea.
Russia clearly didn’t trust journalists to get it right, and the Russian overseers, Serhiy says, had them sent for ‘professional training’ to Rostov-on-Don in Russia. He asserts that he did not personally produce propaganda material about a supposed ‘junta in Kyiv’ and ‘punitive’ Ukrainian soldiers.
The interview was clearly taken with the SBU’s knowledge or cooperation. SBU spokesperson, Olena Hitlyanska asserts that hundreds of Ukrainians who were involved in the so-called ‘republics’ have changed sides. She says that the vast majority understand that they should cooperate with the SBU in order ‘to regulate’ their situation, but adds that each person is checked.
Serhiy’s account of work in occupied Horlivka has many features in common with those given by former journalists from the Russian state-controlled media.
One of the first steps that the Russian and Russian-armed militants took on seizing control of Donbas cities in 2014 was to remove all access to Ukrainian television. Over the following months and years, Internet websites have also been blocked, although less systematically. According to monitoring by the Digital Security Lab Ukraine in 2019, it is LPR which appears to more actively follow Russia’s lead in censorship.
This, it should be stressed, in no way reflects any respect for freedom of opinions in DPR. Two journalists – Stanislav Aseyev and Oleh Halaziuk – were tortured and imprisoned for up to two years merely for writing the truth about life in occupied Donbas. There are a number of hostages who are still imprisoned, with the ‘charges’ against them linked to comments made on Twitter or social media.