reaction to the chemical
attacks in the Syrian city of Douma on 7 April, and the retaliatory military
strikes by the U.S., UK, and France three days later, was mixed. While the mainstream Estonian media were
neutral or supportive of the allied response, Estonia’s Kremlin-financed
channels and right-wing media denied that the Douma chemical attacks ever
occurred, continuing their pattern of dubious sourcing for these claims.
In 234 articles on the subject published between 7-18 April, most Estonian media channels – both Estonian- and Russian-language – either presented both sides of the story, or expressed support for the West’s response. The rule of balanced coverage, however, was not followed by Estonian-language right-wing nationalist website Objektiiv, which mentioned the Douma attacks in 16 articles. The majority of these articles quoted only those who argued that the attacks did not happen, questioned the neutralityWhite Helmets” (a group of Syrian civil-defense volunteers that operates in parts of rebel-controlled Syria and works to assist civilians caught in the civil war), and blamed the U.S. for hypocrisy. Objektiiv also criticized Estonian media for its generally U.S.-friendly coverage and the Estonian government for supporting the strikes.
The Estonian version of Kremlin-financed Sputnik published 37 Syria-related articles during this period. They presented several different narratives: that the initial chemical attack was faked by the White Helmets and/or by foreign special services; that it was intended to provoke Russia and/or to distract public attention from the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK; or that it was intended to defend terrorists operating in Syria. This approach is an example of the Kremlin’s cluster narrative technique, where several different, sometimes controversial narratives are employed jointly to support a single objective. Russian media also used this approach after the Skripal poisoning on 4 March, after Estonia detained a suspected FSB agent in November 2017, and after the downing of the MH17 airline over separatist-held areas of Ukraine in July 2014.
Two aspects of the coverage from Objektiiv and Sputnik coverage are noteworthy. First, just as after the sarin gas attack in Khan Shaykhun in April 2016, the Kremlin blamed the White Helmets for the attacks, using this as a central narrative. This is standard practice: An Atlantic Council report found that “the White Helmets . . . could, when verified against other sources, be relied upon, [but] the organization is consistently portrayed as a group whose evidence should be dismissed unregarded,” and Kremlin officials and pro-Moscow media channels deliberately paint the White Helmets in a negative light. Last year, the story on how the White Helmets allegedly murdered children for the sake of realistic propaganda videos was brought to Estonian readers backed up by a false claim of confirmation by a front group, the Swedish Doctors for Human Rights. This year, Objektiiv purported to rely on four Western sources: retired senior Naval Officer Lord Alan West; One America News reporter Pearson Sharp; former British ambassador to Syria Peter Ford, and former U.S. congressman Ron Paul.
Second, in covering the chemical attacks in Douma and the West’s response, Sputnik showed just how far it would go to provide purported sources for its propaganda. On 11 April, it published a rather humorous essay about how, following orders from Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu to avert any harm to U.S. soldiers, the U.S. marines near Syria – portrayed as a bunch of weak hipsters who cannot cope with real-life difficulties – were fed porridge and Crimean fruits by Russian soldiers, since if the Marines were injured, Russia might be blamed.
Then, in an article on 14 April, Sputnik used the Onion as a source without letting its readers know that the Onion is a satirical news website. In the quoted article, a U.S. general expressed despair over President Trump’s confusing messages and begged him to give direct orders on “whom to kill in Syria.” The fact that the article did not identify the Onion does not necessarily mean that Sputnik did not get the joke. Sputnik has used the site’s articles before, and referred to it correctly as a news satire website. Most likely, this time, the Onion went unidentified because the story fit the Kremlin’s narrative.