Alarming News: Why a Mysterious Periodical is Provoking Anxiety
As the civilized world notes the slow death of the printed press, Ukraine is experiencing a real boom in print media
Spin doctors in Ukraine admit that the media that best brainwashes the population are tabloids — preferably ones distributed free of charge to target a larger audience and printed in the form of “15-minute newspapers” to be absorbed by commuters on their way to work.
Two leaders in this niche – the newspaper Vzgliad and its counterpart for economic news Kapital – are filled with patently pro-government content and some even say they belong to First Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov's media portfolio. But these two publications are being outstripped by Vesti, a periodical that hit the market six months after they did, in late spring 2013. Vesti's popularity is confirmed by the media citation index and the success it has had with passengers on early commuter minibuses and the metro. The owners seem to be pursuing the objective of putting messages they want in the heads of ordinary Ukrainians without allowing them time for reflection. The periodical does not appear to have any other, including even commercial, goal: it will never generate enough revenue from adverts, because its target audience of less-than-affluent passengers on public transport is of little interest to the majority of advertisers.
Ihor Huzhva, the former editor-in-chief of Segodnia, is now steering Vesti and in reply to all questions about its investors refers about mysterious “creditors” whose names are unknown even to media experts. However, after long deliberation, the media community dismissed the omnipresent Oleksandr Yanukovych and Serhiy Kurchenko and decided that the people behind Vesti are from Russia, namely from Gazprom. One way or another, the “credit” Huzhva received was sufficient to offer high salaries and attract many journalists, photographers and designers and other staff to the project. Vesti's core is made up of the former staff members of Segodnia, a newspaper that is part of Rinat Akhmetov’s media holding and is naturally very pro-government. Evidently, the arrival of Vesti, a direct competitor publishing similar content designed to target simple readership but with the clear advantage of being free-of-charge, badly damaged Segodnia's popularity. The daily had once been the leader among printed dailies, as suggested by the same media citation index.
Vesti's Russian roots can be seen in the way it has borrowed the traditions of Kremlin-style “agitation propaganda” and the pervasive ideological messages it copies from the Russian press, particularly open anti-Americanism.
The opposition is training fighters in the woods to make attacks on the police. The Dnipropetrovsk-based terrorist Lapshin was interested in neo-fascism. In Kyiv, snipers are guarding Patriarch Kirill, while poisonous snakes have spread throughout the capital… An ordinary Kyiv resident can learn these and countless other pieces of alarming news about Ukraine from just one issue of Vesti. One gets the strong impression that the newspaper is deliberately generating anxiety among ordinary citizens, anxiety which can be used, if necessary, to more easily manipulate them for political purposes. This can be illustrated with the example of the 26 July issue of Vesti.
The main political article of this issue, “Training militant youths”, tells how the opposition is preparing for protest rallies in the autumn. According to Vesti, the focus will be on anti-police topics and protesters will be organized via social media and a makeshift office on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv. Remarkably, the main organizers of the protest actions will be, Vesti writes, not the “neo-fascists” from the Svoboda (Freedom) Party or their closest allies from the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) Party, but UDAR. Incidentally, the pro-government mass media have also shifted the focus of their attacks from Fatherland to Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR party. Media strategists must have decided that they have done enough damage to Arseniy Yatseniuk's political image (and that the future conflicts within Fatherland will eventually bury him), so it was time to target UDAR. This party and Freedom are being described as the chief trouble makers undermining stability in the country.
While Klitschko is on vacation with his children in a summer camp in the U.S. (a fact especially emphasized by the newspaper), his party members are teaching young Ukrainians the foundations of guerrilla warfare. “Young men aged under 25 are being trained… The training grounds are located in remote places, most often in the woods… The instructors receive USD 5,000 a month,” an anonymous source from UDAR’s headquarters allegedly told Vesti. The instructors are former military men and they are training the fighters to become real ninjas who can “break through rows of policemen and jump on their backs.” This latter skill is even mentioned in the subheading.
The Vesti newspaper often uses the technique of pseudo-balance, which is well known to all professional journalists and PR specialists. Initially, some “source” – anonymous, of course – gives some negative information about a certain politician, party, NGO, enterprise, etc. Then the journalist, who must present two views, asks the “accused” for comments and typically receives flat denials. But the slanderous information fills many times the space than the denials, which sometimes are just one line long. No wonder that they do not register with an average reader.
This trick is used in the above-mentioned article on fighters. UDAR and Freedom, which, for good measure, is also accused of training militants, have categorically denied this report. However, readers will hardly notice their denials amidst the juicy details about “real thugs” who are allegedly found in large numbers among trainees, according to Vesti. The article ends with an extensive, idiotic and bravura-filled commentary by Mykhailo Chechetov in which he threatens to “put the kibosh on” the opposition members with all their protest rallies after the Vilnius summit. (This is another example that points to the likely Russian roots of Vesti. A statement of that kind is not in the interests of the Viktor Yanukovych regime for which the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU would be a tactical victory.)
In general, there is no rest in Ukrainian lands if you read Vesti: among other, things the headlines on the third page “My country” mention terrorists, captives, poachers, snipers and an armoured train. The rest is typical news for this kind of periodicals: Brazil experienced snow for the first time in many years; Iosif Kobzon had a skirmish with a female assistant to Julio Iglesisas; a new BMW was stolen from a dealership in Petrivka; meat for shashliks should be marinated for 4-6 hours and so on. The newspaper should be given its due: unlike Vzgliad, it tends to publish original news, produce its own information and carry out its own mini-investigations. For example, the issue in question reports on illegal trade in copies of passports obtained from citizens who exchange foreign currency. However, this topic too appears to be an escalation of the situation: experts says the problem has been artificially blown out of proportion.
Sometimes Vesti’s desire to generate “original” content borders on absurdity. For example, in one of its earlier issues the newspaper reported that the attack on the police department in Vradiivka was instigated by … out-of-town journalists. This news caused an avalanche of ironic comments in the social media. For some reason Vesti’s reporters have an especially hard time covering the events in Vradiivka. For example, the heading of a thematic section in one issue, which was also copied in the editorial, read that Captain Dryzhak (one of the two policemen arrested on charges of rape in Vradiivka. – editor.) imitated the behaviour of American sheriffs seen in films. The author of the article must have thought that this was a most important fact. Another twist to the newspaper’s anti-American stance.
However, the top management of Vesti should be given their due: if the newspaper is indeed meant to fulfil some propaganda mission, they are executing it skilfully and are smart enough not to turn it into a battle herald. Nevertheless, it is too early to draw far-reaching conclusions. The 2015 election is still far away, and it is still unknown whom the mysterious “creditors” that smell of gas support for president.
Vesti's Russian roots can be seen in the way it has borrowed the traditions of Kremlin-style “agitation propaganda” and pervasive ideological messages carried by the Russian press, particularly open anti-Americanism
The Ukrainian Week talked with French cybersecurity expert Christine Dugoin-Clément about mechanisms for fighting fake news, the prospects for certifying true information, and the likelihood of separating propaganda from journalism once and for all.