Ukraine Looks Starkly Different On Russian TV — How Can This Be?

Amid the Ukrainian crisis, Russia's state-run media has consistently covered the turmoil in terms unlike those used by Western media. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow on the information war.

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Throughout the crisis in Ukraine, Russia's state-run news media have run intense coverage. They consistently portray the new government in Kiev as neo-Nazis who seized power in a violent coup, and the pro-Russian militants occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine are shown as citizens set up and frightened by what they see as an illegitimate junta. NPR's Corey Flintoff is on the line with us now from Moscow. And Corey, first, just give us a picture here what the Russian people are hearing about the crisis in Ukraine.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, Audie, the top of every news broadcast here, of course, is the situation in eastern Ukraine and there are two main themes. The first is that the government in Kiev is dominated by fascists and neo-Nazis, and the second is that the revolution was fomented and financed by the West and especially by the United States. So this evening, for instance, the main state run channels gave a lot of space to this speech by Russia's UN envoy Vitaly Churkin, who described the new government in Kiev as stooges who were making war against their own people.

He was referring there to the Ukrainian government's announcement that it's mounting a major anti-terrorist operation to counter this onslaught of armed men who are taking over key buildings in the eastern cities. Churkin called the Ukrainian side, I'm quoting here, radicalized, chauvinistic, Russophobic, anti-Semitic forces.

So all these stories are accompanied by footage that portrays the gunmen in eastern Ukraine as simple protesters who are basically crying out for Russian protection.

CORNISH: Corey, how tuned in are Russians into international media? The depiction from the West is counter to all of this.

FLINTOFF: Most Russians get their information from state-run media and although a lot of people are online here, there are not many of them who seem to be using their Internet connections to read foreign news. I should say, too, that independent media in Russia are steadily being squeezed out. For instance, a Russian cable TV provider's recently stopped broadcasting the main independent TV channel. It's called TV Rain.

There is some public opposition to what's happening with independent news, and in fact several thousand people turned out yesterday for a rally in Moscow that was called the march of truth. I was there and the speakers at that rally denounced what they say is the replacement of real news in Russia with pro-Kremlin propaganda.

CORNISH: Corey, given the state of independent media that you've described here, does it seem that the news outlets that are reporting on this in Russia are deliberately creating and maintaining a negative image of what's going on in Ukraine?

FLINTOFF: Well, they're very good at finding negative things to focus on. For instance, there was fist fight in the Ukrainian parliament not long ago. A couple of deputies attacked another one who was making disparaging remarks about them and there was a fist fight that was basically carried all over the Russian media. And you know, these are images that support what the Kremlin wants people to believe, namely that there is a sort of brutal and chaotic government in Kiev right now that everyone needs to be afraid of.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, I want to ask one other question about the mood in Russia right now, a recent news story that was saying some Russian lawmakers are demanding an investigation and prosecution of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. What's going on there?

FLINTOFF: That's really part of the information war that's going on here. You know, former President Gorbachev is 83 now. He's said to be in poor health and these lawmakers are calling for him to be investigated. The basic idea here seems to be that the fall of the Soviet Union should be seen as illegitimate and possibly even something that was fomented by traitors. So if that were true, then it would justify moves by Russia to reclaim territory and influence over the former Soviet Republic, such as Ukraine.

That initiative got a lot of play on Russian media and Russian talk shows, so you know, even if it doesn't go anywhere legislatively, it has a definite effect on the public mood.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow. Corey, thank you.

FLINTOFF: You're welcome, Audie.

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