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Ukrainian journalist loses defamation suit for criticizing Moreira propaganda film on Ukraine

Halya Coynash
A French court has upheld a ruling that found Ukrainian journalist Anna Chesanovska guilty of defaming Paul Moreira in comments about his highly controversial film on Ukraine ‘Masks of the Revolution. As well as a prohibitive fine, the journalist has been ordered, in effect, to retract the truth about a film which is grossly manipulative and misleading

A French court has upheld a ruling that found Ukrainian journalist Anna Chesanovska guilty of defaming Paul Moreira in comments about his highly controversial film on Ukraine ‘Masks of the Revolution’.  The fine was reduced, but, at 7 thousand euros, remains prohibitively high* for the freelance journalist.  The second demand imposed highlights the disturbing nature of this case, since Chesanovska has been ordered to publicly retract a view of Moreira’s film widely shared by French, Ukrainian and other commentators.  She has, in effect, been ordered to retract the truth about a film which is demonstrably manipulative and misleading. 

‘Masks of the Revolution’ was first broadcast on France’s popular Canal Plus cable television channel on 1 February 2017.  It was strongly criticized, including in a public statement endorsed by 18 French journalists either working in Ukraine.  They, like many others (the author of this text included), pointed to the distortion and manipulation of facts and video footage in the film about Euromaidan, the tragic disturbances and fire in Odesa on May 2, 2014, as well as about Crimea.   

Anna Chesanovska had a particular reason for being appalled by the film since her name, as translator of two interviews, had appeared on the credits.  It seems to have been the fact that she was under contract that the two courts found of relevance in their rulings.  The problem here, however, is that Chesanovska had no reason to believe, when she signed the contract, that parts of her translations would be used to create a very misleading impression.  This, she is convinced is what happened, and she believed she had ample grounds for assuming that Moreira had done this deliberately.  She recalled what the two far-right politicians – Ihor Mosiychuk and Andriy Biletsky - who gave the interviews had said, and saw how an entirely different impression had been obtained by taking particular excerpts out of context.

Chesanovska wrote about this for Liberation in the text ‘Ukraine: “the Masks of the Revolution” or Manipulative Montage’  She maintains that Moreira took what he wanted, and omitted what did not fit the impression he was trying to create.  In presenting Mosiychuk, for example, words about how being Ukrainian was “like a bond of blood and spirit between the dead, the living and those who are not yet born” were given, but the fact that Mosiychuk specifically stated that you do not need to have been born in Ukraine or have ‘Ukrainian blood’ to be a true Ukrainian was omitted.

Moreira claimed that sentences such as the following were defamatory: “Thanks to deft sleight of hand, with sentences cut, tragic music and images of violence, the two men whose interviews I had translated in their entirety, looked like savage creatures, obsessed by stupid and malignant nationalist ideas”.

The court appears to have accepted Moreira’s refusal to present the entire translations provided by Chesanovska to enable her to argue her point of view regarding manipulation.

It did, however, allow Moreira to show a photo of Chesanovska together with Vasyl Slipak, the Ukrainian baritone who left France and a successful opera career to defend Ukraine in Donbas, where he was killed by a sniper on 29 June 2016.  The photo, against a background of the Ukrainian flag, as well as the red and black flag associated with Ukrainian nationalists, was somehow supposed to prove Chesanovska’s ‘bias’.

Chesanovska argued in court that she was expressing a value judgement which cannot fall under the law on defamation.  She has already lodged a cassation appeal, and says that, if this is unsuccessful, she will have no choice but to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. 

There are conflicting views as to why Moreira targeted a Ukrainian journalist living and working freelance in France, and why the courts have found in his favour.  Perhaps the contractual nature of the relations between claimant and respondent really was critical in this case. 

This cannot make the ruling, and the fact that a retraction has been demanded, any the less frustrating given the propaganda nature of Moreira’s film and the ample evidence that he deliberately misled his viewers.  It is no accident that one of the people who had “nothing printable” to say in response to Chesanovska’s lost appeal was Tetyana Gerasimova, who had first-hand experience of how Moreira came up with his grossly distorted presentation of the events in Odesa on 2 May 2014.

Odesa 2 May 2014 and Moreira’s film about a non-existent ‘massacre’

During the first court hearing, Moreira stated that he had made his film after learning of what he called ‘the massacre in Odesa on May 2, 2014.  He had, he claimed, been shocked at how this ‘massacre’ had been ‘overlooked’. 

There was no massacre. 

Disturbances initiated by an attack on a peaceful pro-Ukrainian procession by the Odesa Druzhyna, an anti-Maidan, pro-Russian movement whose members appear to have been paid from Moscow, got out of hand.  In the street riots that followed, both sides used weapons, including the firearms that killed six people. Those pushing the largely Russian-sponsored version of a ‘massacre’ show footage of pro-Ukrainian unity activists then setting off for Kulikovo Pole to burn the anti-Maidan tents set up there.  In their coverage, they show anti-Maidan activists barricading themselves in the Trade Union building.  They invariably omit footage that shows Molotov cocktails being hurled from the roof and from inside the building.  Some of those anti-Maidan activists were still shooting real bullets at pro-Ukrainian activists even after the building caught fire and pro-Ukrainian activists joined in desperate efforts to save people stuck inside.  All of this has been carefully documented by Tetyana Gerasimova’s non-partisan 2 May Group, whose excellent film is available in RussianEnglish and in German.  The Group’s findings were later backed by international experts from the Council of Europe’s International Advisory Panel.

Since the French court must have decided that there was no evidence that Moreira had intentionally manipulated the facts, it is worth noting that both he and the Russian propaganda channels ,whose narrative he parrots, are clearly aware that the experts have debunked their massacre narrative.

Moreira even met with Gerasimova who recalls that she was taken aback by Moreira’s clearly limited agenda.  He only wanted to know about scenes involving members of the right-wing Ukrainian nationalist Right Sector or about police inaction, and showed no interest in learning of the unprovoked attack on a peaceful procession on which many people had come with their children.

There are reasons for claiming a massacre when there was none.  They are similar to the reasons for the lies once used to stir up pogroms against Jews, and, more recently for the genocide in Rwanda.  Russia’s use of this narrative and other claims of ‘Ukrainian atrocities’ for its warmongering in 2014 are known to have led many young men to fight and often die in Donbas. 

Why Moreira saw fit to repeat this narrative is much less easy to understand.  It certainly appears that he had zero interest in speaking with those experts who refuted his narrative.  This is a damning indictment for a filmmaker who claims to have produced a documentary.  Such material is especially dangerous with respect to events like those in Odesa as his audience are unlikely to have realized that they were being deceived.

Missing details about Maidan, Donbas and Russia’s invasion of Crimea that Moreira prefers not to notice 

In principle, there is more information available about Moreira’s other two subjects – Euromaidan and Crimea, however this too should be qualified.

With respect to Crimea, for example, a viewer could be forgiven for forgetting all about Russia’s invasion of Crimea and occupation, since that is simply not mentioned.  The viewer is told that most of Crimea’s population is Russian and that after the Ukrainian revolution “the inhabitants voted massively in a referendum to join Russia”. 

That assessment was in fact debunked by Russia’s own Human Rights Council, and Russia invited only far-right or neo-Stalinist politicians to ‘observe’ the so-called referendum which did not give the option of retaining the status quo. 

Moreira’s exaggeration of the role of far-right groups to explain Euromaidan was particularly attacked by French journalists, many of whom were in Ukraine during those events.  

As with Odesa and Crimea, the omissions are also profoundly misleading.  These range from the lack of any explanation as to the reasons for Euromaidan or mention of the very wide range of people who took part in the protests to the total failure to mention the Russian-backed military conflict in Ukraine.  The trailer for the film shows young protesters running, then clearly ready for battle, with the viewers told that “after their victory, they never went home.  Heavily armed and powerful, they became a threat to the government.  Their parallel armies took the streets and imposed their own new order”. At this point, the viewers are shown men in camouflage gear with the Azov Battalion emblem.  They are not told that the reason that many Maidan activists “never went home” is because they volunteered to defend their country in Donbas.  Very many, including from the Azov Battalion, were killed.

Moreira’s title – “Masks of the Revolution’ – was originally used by a Kremlin-funded Russian propaganda channel.  This is unfortunately not the only similarity since all three subjects of Moreira’s film echo Russian-sponsored propaganda narratives and demonstrate the same resistance to inconvenient facts.


*   Ukrainian colleagues have begun collecting money to help Anna Chesanovska pay the fine.  For those in Ukraine, contributions can be sent to Anna’s mother:  Natalia Anatolivna Chesanovska [Чесановська,  Наталія Анатолівна : 5167 9856 6008 1803 (Приват Банк). 

Alla Lazareva, who is based in France, writes that money can be sent in Euros to the Union of Ukrainians of France

Centre Financier
75900 PARIS CEDEX 15
CCP : 1895344M020
IBAN : FR 702004 1000 0118 9534 4M02 039




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