Growing evidence suggests that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down with the loss of 298 lives by separatists in the Donetsk region using a surface-to-air missile. Yet in Russia this human tragedy has been turned into another opportunity to blame the US for its political interference and Ukraine for waging war against the people of its eastern regions.
The uncontested state dominance of the Russian media, a grip which has become even tighter since the recent attacks on more liberal outlets, provides the government with unlimited resources to create virtually any desired interpretation of events. Television is still the main source of information according to the independent Levada centre, providing 90% of Russians with their news. This is why the reasoning of TV reporters is crucial for how the Russian government frames the tragedy to exercise power through media, domestically and globally.
News of the plane crash appeared on Russia’s main television channels Channel One and Rossiia at about 7pm Moscow time, around three hours after the crash. Almost immediately, reporters of these state-aligned channels began to interpret the catastrophe as the fault of the Ukrainian military. Channel One’s reporter suggested that there was evidence of a military plane attacking the Malaysian airliner. Another suggested that Vladimir Putin’s presidential plane, which was returning from a Latin American visit, was a possible target of the attack.
Rossiia’s reporters raised the case of the S7 airlines flight from Tel-Aviv to Novosibirsk, which crashed into the Black Sea in 2001. The Russian-led Interstate Aviation Committee concluded that the plane had been shot down accidentally by a Ukrainian missile during a military exercise. For the Russian media, this past event was used to infer blame on Ukraine for hitting “yet another plane”, even suggesting that it was an effort to set up the separatists.
Perhaps trying to cover up possible rebel involvement in the loss of flight MH17, Russian television reporters argued that rebels did not have missiles capable of shooting down a high-flying aircraft. Yet this flatly contradicts earlier reports concerning rebels seizure from Ukrainian troops of the Buk missile launchers implicated in the crash.
In all, the state-aligned and state-owned Russian media coverage of the disaster carries a conspiratorial, anti-Western tone, pointing to the Ukrainian government as the party at fault and Washington as a puppet master. Putin’s statement from July 18 as well as deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov’s statement from July 19 blame Ukraine and leave no space for impartial analysis of Russia’s possible contribution to the tragedy. Special editions of talk shows contain no dissenting voices and allow invited experts to elaborate on typically conspiracy theorist themes such as “Cui bono?” (who benefits?). It is certainly too early to make conclusions regarding the effect of these reports in Russia, although data suggests that 79% of Russians trust the television coverage of the Ukrainian conflict and most likely will believe any version proposed by television channels.
Within Russia, television reports from Ukraine are rarely challenged by alternative views. Russia has invested a great deal in the international English-language television channel Russia Today (RT) as a means to counter global news juggernauts such as CNN and the BBC World News. Described by its editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan as a sort of “Ministry of Information Defence” for Russia, RT predictably followed the same line of argument, accusing the Ukrainian government of the tragedy and lending its support to rebels.
However, the Western European reporters who had helped RT break the stereotype of Russia as a backward country by providing Russia-oriented news in a British accent, have become the channel’s Achilles’ heel. London-based correspondent Sara Firth resigned from RT due to disagreements on RT’s coverage of the catastrophe, claiming on Twitter that reporters were required to write “lies” and that they “worked for Putin”.
She joins a growing group of Western reporters who have left the channel because of RT’s coverage of news deemed sensitive for the Kremlin: William Dunbar in 2008 and Liz Wahl in March 2014, and their departures have reinforced RT’s reputation as a Kremlin mouthpiece.
Nevertheless, these scandals have not significantly affected RT’s image in the world. A deliberate lack of clear ideology in its coverage (despite a clear anti-American stance) and its role as a bulwark against the Anglo-Saxon information monopoly has created an audience that is loyal despite the revelations of RT’s ex-reporters. This enables the Kremlin to benefit from disagreements between Western governments and, through RT, foster critical views of US policies in minority communities in the West. American officials’ concern over the growing influence of RT on US domestic matters demonstrates that Russia’s media is capable of strengthening anti-American consensus even among international audiences.
The media in Russia has become a key component in the architecture of Putin’s regime, and it has demonstrated that it can be a significant force in international politics. Wherever the blame lies for the loss of flight MH17, for many millions of Russians, and perhaps millions of others worldwide, the results of any official investigation will not sound as convincing as the “right” answer, brought to them by the Russian media.