Briefs

Poland - 4-10 April 2016

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On 5 April, the Polish website strajk.eu published an article, “Ukraine is threatened by hunger, UN warns.” It was based on a story by Sputnik—the Russian news agency—that appeared online the same day, headlined “UN warns 1.5 million Ukrainians about the threat of famine.”

The false fact or narrative:  “As many as 300,000 people in Ukraine suffer from lack of food and are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance,” wrote strajk.eu. “So far, 1.5 million people have experienced hunger there. These are the shocking conclusions of a report by the United Nations  World Food Programme, the biggest humanitarian organization.” 
 
The fragment quoted above is true. The manipulation is that strajk.eu failed to mention where those facing hunger actually live, and what brought them to that desperate situation. Sputnik presented the WFP’s findings in a similar manner.

The truth: Famine threatens Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions—both of which are under the control of pro-Russian separatists. The source of that news item is a report issued by the UN itself. But that report explicitly stressed that before the conflict, Ukraine didn’t need any food aid. Interestingly, in the Russian version of that report, published on the UN website the last paragraph was omitted. 

Technique: The strajk.eu website has expanded famine—or the threat of famine—in war-torn eastern Ukraine to cover the entire country. It presents hostilities by Russian-backed separatists and the actual occupation of eastern Ukraine as equivalent to actions by Ukrainian authorities.

The major cause of that dramatic situation is the war on the territory of Ukraine,” the website says. “However, an equally important cause is the fact that, although more than half of Ukrainian territory consists of arable land, after Ukraine regained independence in 1991, the agricultural sector clearly fell into decline ... The crisis in 2008 again affected agriculture very much. It practically lost its capacity to feed society.”

Audience: Readers of strajk.eu, which defines itself as “the homepage of the Polish left-wing movement.” The site is edited by 2xMW Sp. z o.o. and is run by a group of journalists who have previously worked for left-wing outlets—some of whom present themselves as anti-capitalists.

Analysis: The purpose of this manipulated piece of information is to blame the famine in eastern Ukraine on the Kyiv government—and not on Russia and the pro-Russian separatists who are the real cause of tragedy affecting people in Donetsk and Luhansk.

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Separately, on 7 April, the Polish Radio Information Agency (IAR) published an article titled “Ukraine: Carpathian Ruthenia wants autonomy.” The link was reprinted by the website bankier.pl. It was based on an online report in the Russian newspaper Vzglyad (Outlook) under the title “Carpathian Ruthenia demands autonomy from Kyiv.”

The false fact or narrative: “The authorities of the Ukrainian Oblast of Carpathian Ruthenia—also bordering on Poland—want greater autonomy from the government in Kyiv,” IAR reported. “They want Carpathian Ruthenia to become a special self-governing administrative territory. They also demand immediate modifications of the Ukrainian constitution, in connection with the proposed changes to the status of their region ... In their opinion, the only chance of rescue is more power for the regions, at the expense of the government in Kyiv.”

The truth: The Council of the Carpathian Ruthenia Oblast indeed asked Ukrainian authorities to speed up reforms on self-government, a goal to which the government in Kyiv had already been committed. However, the deputies firmly deny any links with separatism; they point out that the alleged draft resolution, as reported by the media, was not a document they had adopted. A few hours after IAR had aired the first news item, it reported that the council’s chairman, Mykhaylo Rivis, described the spread of such information as “a lie, a manipulation and a provocation.”

Technique: The course of the actual event was distorted. The demand that the Ukrainian government execute its obligations regarding decentralization and self-government reform was presented as a demand for autonomy. The IAR broadcast was based on a report by the Russian online newspaper Vzglyad. Hours after erroneously airing that disinformation, IAR’s Ukraine correspondent attempted to confirm those reports; only then did IAR describe the actual situation.

Audience: Listeners of Polish Radio and journalists representing other media who use IAR’s reports. Founded in 1925, IAR is one of Poland’s biggest information agencies and exists on the basis of Polskie Radio SA. Other media, including several local radio stations, use its reports.

Analysis: Russian media has been spreading disinformation about alleged separatism in western Ukraine for a long time, in order to reinforce separatist sentiments in eastern Ukraine and expose the weakness of the government in Kyiv. Yet by reprinting the Vzglyad story, IAR let itself be led up a blind alley and expand the scope of Russian disinformation. That event demonstrates how important it is to verify information coming from Russian media—a job that in fact was done by IAR’s Kyiv correspondent, which limited the damage done by this disinformation.