Archive for the 'media' Category

Ukraine jumps the shark

On the two days Arkady Babchenko was killed and then came back to life to announce his death was faked by Ukrainian security services (SBU) and police, there was an international forum on disinformation in Kyiv. Never let it be said the SBU lacks a sense of humour.

I described to some conference participants how it felt in 2014 in Crimea during annexation and in Donetsk when the war started, surrounded by disinformation. Absolutely everybody lied about absolutely everything, from corpses poisoning the water supply to the presence of Russian forces. The lies made no internal sense, let alone tallied with what people were actually seeing and hearing. It was, literally, like drowning in bullshit. There were no facts, no objectivity, no two sides, not when everybody was lying about everything. The final question for me, and one I still haven’t been able to answer, is how much people knew, and on what level they knew (or know) that they were lying to themselves. How much they knew they were being fooled; how much they were fooling themselves.

And here we are, 2018, fools drowning in bullshit.

If we’re being honest (an out-of-date commodity these days) the bewilderment and moralistic outcry over Babchenko’s fake death is not quite so much because it’s another lie, but because we were made to look stupid. No one likes to look stupid, and particularly people like journalists and spokespeople and politicians whose ego and livelihood depend on being taken seriously. I am sure MIA advisor Anton Herashchenko and SBU head Vasyl Hrytsak massively enjoyed making fools of the press in and on Ukraine, which, if we are being honest, can be insufferably self-important and self-righteous. I’m sure the SBU loved making fools of reporters who are always going on about how corrupt and useless the SBU are, to the extent of carrying out their own investigation into the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv two years ago. I’m sure they loved poking with a bullshit stick the CPJ and RSF who’ve come close to suggesting, on no actual hard evidence, that the Ukrainian state may be involved in Sheremet’s killing.

But Sheremet is dead, and no one is going to bring him back to life, and two years on the police and security services have named no suspects and made no arrests. A murder happened and was never solved. And now we have a murder that didn’t happen, so that it could be solved. We have an incompetent – or worse – SBU that lets murder happen and never catches culprits, and a SBU so damn clever that it fakes murder in order to catch culprits. We have accusations of Russian involvement in murder that is never proved, and we have (allegedly) proof of Russian involvement in a murder that didn’t happen.

My head hurts.

Those people justifying the Babchenko fake by citing other incidents of faked deaths of police officers to catch local criminals are being disingenuous. Local police officers or officials and criminals do not provoke a public statement from the prime minister blaming a neighbouring state, and from ambassadors and politicians around the world engaged in a major geopolitical conflict. The SBU didn’t just trick some pesky journalists with the laudable aim of saving lives. The stakes are so high: MH17. The war in east Ukraine. Crimea. Syria gas attacks. The Skripals. Literally, thousands of dead and injured, all drowned in lies.

If we’re being honest, none of us were objective over Babchenko’s killing when we thought he was dead. In retrospect, there were a number of peculiar anomalies. But if we (I) thought about them at all, we put them down to Ukraine’s frequently unprofessional and crass way of doing things (Herashchenko publishing that photo on facebook, anyone?) We believed it, because it was so very, very likely to be true, it confirmed every worst scenario we have already lived through and are going to go on living through.

No one likes admitting they’ve been fooled – or that they’ve fooled themselves. And of course we’re relieved and glad he is alive. My god, of course we are.

A civil activist called Server Mustafaev was arrested by Russian forces in Crimea almost two weeks ago, and charged with Islamic extremism. Server described himself as a citizen journalist, and was untiring in documenting other people’s arrests and detentions and disappearances before his own. The CPJ has said nothing about his case. No open letter like the one they’ve just written to President Poroshenko over Babchenko, no outrage. They wrote no open letter to Putin over the ‘extremism’ conviction of Crimean journalist Mykola Semena either. In Server’s case they’d argue, I’m sure, that he is not a journalist as he was not published in any mainstream media and mainly posted livestream videos and photos online. And if we’re being honest I can see the point; it’s pretty hard to define these days who a ‘journalist’ is. But when no ‘real journalist’ in mainstream media covers such obviously fake cases in Crimea, except Russian media which covers them all the time to show how special forces are winning the war against terrorism – what’s a person to do but pick up a camera, and court persecution with no protection?

Last week a civilian called Mikhail was killed by a bullet in the east Ukraine frontline town of Mariinka. He never really made it into Ukrainian, let alone international news. He was 35, disabled, and until recently lived with his mother (I say ‘until recently’ not because he’s recently no longer alive but because his mother died a week or so before he did. Before that a family grave in the cemetery got hit by a shell and blasted open). Not a very prepossessing subject for media attention, Mikhail. The head of the Mariinka civilian-military administration, as well as several townspeople, told me he was killed by a sniper’s exploding or expanding bullet, banned under International Humanitarian Law. I don’t know whether that’s true. A few days later a beautiful 15 year old girl with an extensive collection of lovely social media portraits was killed by a shell near Zalizne, not far from Mariinka. Unlike Mikhail the fatality appeared a lot in Ukrainian media and god forgive me I wondered initially whether it was true too, because she was so perfect for Ukrainian propaganda purposes. (It is true).

To be honest, I wrote that paragraph above about Server Mustafaev as a kind of trick, because I know you might read a piece about Babchenko. To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m telling you about Mikhail and Darya. No outrageous life-is-stranger-than-fiction story here. No affronted dignity. No one paid 40,000 dollars to get rid of them. No one rushed to put up memorial plaques and then, feeling weirdly ashamed, had to take them down. They are actually nobodies in the information war and the actual war. The OSCE and UN will record their deaths, and probably they’ll get added to the case Ukraine is putting together to bring to the Hague against Russia. The other side will have added its own deaths to its own case. And there will be relatives even after four years of war who are unable to believe it, who with some deep and vital part of themselves are waiting and hoping to hear the news that it’s not true, that Darya is alive, Mikhail is alive, all the missing and the killed are alive. It was a trick, these last four years of war and horror and loss are all a fake. It was lies and we were fools right from the beginning.

And it’s true, it was, and we were.



Last week it was #freeKurbedinov. This week it’s #saveAvdiyivka or #saveAvdiivka or even #saveAvdeevka.

Emil Kurbedinov is a Crimean Tatar lawyer representing the majority of other Crimean Tatars and Muslims in Crimea who, since Russian annexation in 2014, face politicised charges of ‘terrorism’, ‘extremism’ or ‘sabotage’. Last week he was arrested himself. Phone calls, emails, tweets and facebook posts flew. Activists informed international human rights bodies and UN and EU agencies. Officials in Brussels or Geneva sent messages back to delegates in Ukraine.

#freeKurbedinov was born, struggled, failed to trend.

Avdiivka or Avidiyivka or Avdeevka is a town in East Ukraine, on the frontline of the war between Ukrainian government forces and – by proxy – Russia, that’s dragged though innumerable battles and ceasefires since 2014. Fighting has increased again, leaving around 17,000 people without water or heating in -18 temperatures. Journalists are digging out their flak jackets. The International Red Cross posts a statement; the OSCE gives a press conference. Analysts make links with Trump’s weekend phone call with Putin, in an attempt to make this world news.

#saveAvdiyivka or #saveAvdiivka or #saveAvdeevka limps into being, handicapped from birth by an orthographic identity crisis.

Meanwhile there’s the ‘Muslim ban’, there’s the French primaries, there’s Brexit, Syria, and beautiful photos of shiny ice in Japan. There’s someone’s cousin diagnosed with cancer, a sibling trying to escape an abusive relationship, that fabric you’re going to make into a dress, oh and today’s the last day of January so you can start drinking again tomorrow.

How can I make you care about Emil Kurbedinov and the Crimean Tatars, who lost their home and against all the odds got it back, only to lose it again? Over the last couple of years as a journalist I’ve been perfecting the single sentence which explains who the Crimean Tatars are, what religion they practice, why they’re being repressed by Russian authorities in Crimea, where Crimea is and who de jure and de facto controls it. That lets you place these people and their home in a context of sorts. It probably won’t make you see why I think they matter.

As for Avdiivka or Avdiyivka or Avdeevka – To be honest, without checking my notebooks I’m not sure if I’ve been there or not. I visited so many shitty shelled post-Soviet frontline towns in 2014 and 15, places where there’ve been no decent jobs or road repairs or hot water for decades, where people are apathetic and stuffed with rage and lies, and capable of such heroics, such tragedies, such devastating humanity. How can I make you care about a town I can’t remember myself whether I’ve been to, with a name no one can agree on how to spell?

#freeKurbedinov, #saveAvdiivka. Why isn’t the world doing anything to help annexed Crimea, war-torn east Ukraine? Don’t you feel guilty, world, that you don’t care and you’re not doing anything?

Today I read the following quote from 1938, from a German woman (wife of a communist MP) beaten and interned in the Nazis’ female concentration camp, Ravensbruck. ‘If the world was not protesting even against the brutal annexation of foreign territories, was it likely to protest against the whipping of some poor women who had protested against it?’ she said.


Long before hashtags, a big part of the world did protest and intervene, eventually. It led to the UN and the International criminal court, the OSCE, the EU. But the world has changed so much since then. Libya, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Georgia, Syria, Ukraine. Fox News, RT, social media. Hashtags.

Somehow we’ve reached this moment: meeting an Iranian immigrant to Russia in a Nazi prison-camp memorial in Crimea, which has recently been annexed from Ukraine by Russia and is consequently under EU and US sanctions, I tell him that Second World War memory in my native England is less visceral  because the battles and camps were not located in England. And he says, with a knowing smirk: ‘Yes well, isn’t that typical of England and America, always fighting your wars on other peoples’ territory.’

The world got so big and so fractured. And so much of social and public life (or do I just mean social media life?) is consumed by guilt over not doing enough about it, or over doing too much. People and countries are crying out to the West, the EU, the UN, guilt-tripping them to #save and #free with photos of corpses and tweets from six-year-olds. And people and countries are accusing the West, the EU, the UN of cynical intervention intended only to line pockets, achieve influence, assuage guilty consciences, enslave the masses.

Then there’s that mass which has decided to not feel guilty, to tear down the ICC and the UN and the EU so as not to care. America/England/France/wherever I live first. The rest of the world is too big, and I can’t cope with it.

#freeKurbedinov. #saveAvdiivka. #keepsanctions.

Oh that pathetic little hashtag, Catholic confessional, saviour of the world.

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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