war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

UNESCO and journalist union ‘deplore death’ of a propagandist engaged in Russia’s war against Ukraine

Halya Coynash
Rostislav Zhuravlev was actively involved, from 2014, in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and was killed on occupied Ukrainian territory working for the Russian state-controlled RIA Novosti

Rostislav Zhuravlev in 2014 by a tank in the Russian proxy ’Luhansk people’s republic’ Photo posted by Denis Kazansky

Rostislav Zhuravlev in 2014 by a tank in the Russian proxy ’Luhansk people’s republic’ Photo posted by Denis Kazansky

Both UNESCO and the International / European Federations of Journalists have issued extraordinarily myopic statements regarding the death in Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia oblast of Rostislav Zhuravlev.  Their reaction is baffling given that Zhuravlev had, since 2014, boasted of and posted photos demonstrating his direct involvement in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.  While the UNESCO Director General is certainly correct in stating that “journalists serve a critical role in informing the world about conflict situations”, real journalists in Russia and occupied Crimea find themselves in prison for carrying out such critical work.  Zhuravlev was (illegally) on Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory in an entirely different capacity, as a paid propagandist for the state-controlled RIA Novosti. 

In reporting the news of Zhuravlev’s death, Denis Kazansky, a Ukrainian journalist from Donetsk, posted photos that Zhuravlev had himself shared in 2014.  These essentially corroborate Kazansky’s own account of this individual whom he remembers well as one of the first ‘Russian tourists’ that Moscow sent to Donetsk and Luhansk to stir up violence and disturbances after its first attempts to use home-ground pro-Russian activists to do this flopped.  Zhuravlev, he says, came to Donetsk from Russia at the beginning of March 2014 in order to incite war, and took part in the attempt by Pavel Gubarev to storm the Donetsk Regional State Administration building and proclaim himself ‘people’s mayor’.  Kazansky further asserts that, after the military conflict began (following the seizure of Sloviansk on 12 April 2014), Zhuravlev “killed and robbed residents of Donbas as part of one of the armed bands of ‘LPR’ [the Russian proxy ‘Luhansk people’s republic’].  Zhuravlev can be seen in military gear, holding a rifle, and clearly boasting of precisely such activities.

That was nine years ago, but there is nothing to suggest that Zhuravlev had somehow metamorphosed over recent years into a journalist.  UNESCO and IFJ/EFJ could have ascertained this easily enough merely by perusing his Telegram page. It would also take only a brief glance at the RIA Novosti website to understand that neither that press agency, nor its employees are paid for journalism, if we are to understand this to mean providing truthful information, not manipulative propaganda.

The UNESCO Director—General’s statement “deplores the death of Russian journalist Rostislav Zhuravlev” without making any mention of the fact that Zhuravlev was on Ukrainian territory which Russia invaded and is illegally claiming to now be ‘Russian’.  Both Zhuravlev’s social media posts and the RIA Novosti website present Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine as a ‘special military operation’ and in overtly distorted fashion.  UNESCO really only needed to consider the prominent Russian ‘trials’ of people imprisoned for 7 – 25 years to understand how inconceivable it was that RIA Novosti would report even one of the bombings of civilian targets, atrocities committed by Russian soldiers, etc.  The very call “for an investigation into the circumstances”, reiterated also by IFJ/EFJ, is also nonsensical, since it is clear, a priori, that his death will be attributed to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and used for Russian propaganda purposes. Perhaps cluster munitions were involved, and Zhuravlev genuinely did die of such injuries, however it is equally possible that this is the line that the state media have been told to take and simply no possibility of determining whether it is true.

Such appeals for ‘investigations’ amid total disregard for the nature of Zhuravlev’s activities in occupied Ukraine are particularly frustrating given the widely publicized use that Russia made of at least one of three journalist deaths in 2014.   Both Moscow and state media began using the death, almost certainly in crossfire, of Rossiya-24 correspondent Igor Kornelyuk and sound recorder Anton Voloshin for propaganda immediately after they were killed on 17 June 2014.  Those deaths were later used for Russia’s overt fabrication of charges against Ukrainian pilot and PACE delegate Nadiya Savchenko and 22-year sentence.  There were, in fact, grounds for believing that another Russian journalist Anatoliy Klyan was killed shortly afterwards in a deliberate set-up aimed at bringing civilians under fire.  

It seems likely that the same ‘uses’ are to be made of Zhuravlev’s death with Russian state sources claiming that he was killed by the cluster munitions provided by the USA. 

It is generally disturbing to see such apparent inability to distinguish between propaganda and journalism after the events of the past nine years and more. Statements ‘deploring’ Ukraine’s attempts to combat Russia’s virulent information warfare were common during the first months after Russia’s invasion in 2014.  Even those international bodies, media or human rights NGOs who did actually recognize that Russia was engaged in spreading toxic lies still claimed that ‘freedom of speech’ was paramount and justified the ‘right’ of propagandists to circulation disinformation.  The belief was that people should hear ‘both sides of the story’ and draw their own, purportedly informed and critical, assessment.  Such naïve assertions took no account of certain key facts.  The vast majority of any given audience are unlikely to know enough about a subject to understand who is lying, making them highly susceptible to clever methods of manipulation.  They will, brutally speaking, remember and believe those who lie best, and Russia was spending phenomenal amounts of money on spreading its propaganda throughout the world.  That such propaganda kills can be seen by tracing the uses made by Russia of overt lies claiming disturbances and a tragic fire in Odesa on 2 May 2014 were a ‘massacre’.

It took the EU until March 2015 to even declare plans to monitor and respond to Kremlin disinformation and to eventually create an EU vs. Disinformation taskforce. This has since provided an excellent, but extremely limited service.  Russia Today continued consciously deceiving viewers in other countries until after Russia began its full-scale invasion.  This is despite Russian journalists having, by mid-2015, exposed the extraordinary war propaganda machine unleashed in February 2014 and the fact that state television management essentially took their orders directly from the Kremlin (see: Blood on their Hands: Servicing Russia’s TV Propaganda Machine).

Calls for those most directly implicated in warmongering and toxic propaganda to be held accountable have long been made.  They were reiterated on 24 July by Ukraine’s Media Movement in their call on international organizations, like UNESCO and IFJ/EFJ to stop mistaking propagandists for journalists.  Russian journalists working for state television channels were told back in 2014 that they should get out of journalism if they weren’t prepared to take part in information warfare that made the 1970s and 80s “look like child play”.  Those who remained did what they were told.  Russia is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in its genocidal war against Ukraine and is using disinformation and manipulation of public opinion as a weapon in that war. Those most actively engaged in servicing a killing machine are themselves perpetrators and should be treated as such. It may be a question of debate how culpable Rostislav Zhuravlev was, however deploring the death of ‘a journalist’ is a serious misunderstanding of the role that he and other Russian state media employees play in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

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