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Reflections from Avdiivka: Resisting “Fake News”

Ben Robinson

After months of limited coverage of Ukraine in world news, the renewed fighting around the town of Avdiivka has thrust the story back into the headlines. This is a town I visited in April 2016 as part of a project to document the impact of the war with Russia in Donbas. Within hours of a much-publicised phone call between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump on 29 January 2017, the shelling of Ukrainian army positions and civilian areas dramatically escalated. It would seem that the forces in Ukraine which are supported and directed by Russia are testing the response of the international community – and of the new American President in particular.

The Russian attacks are conducted not only on the battlefield.  Throughout this war we have seen a myriad of disinformation from Russian government sources and state-sponsored media intended to create confusion, weaken democratic states and promote a pro-Russian agenda.  However, these waves of disinformation are not restricted to the obvious Russian sites such as RT and Sputnik.  An article in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper on 4 February 2017 reported remarks by American film director Oliver Stone at an event in Los Angeles:

"Frankly today I’m shocked they published fake news that the Russians are aggravating the situation when all the casualties are in (rebel-held) Donetsk.  It’s a horrible situation.”

While it’s true the situation is “horrible”, this explanation is false.  Since the Russian-backed forces in Donetsk resumed the shelling of Avdiivka on 29 January, over 30 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been killed and 77 injured. 20,000 civilians have been evacuated and another 400,000 remain at serious risk in sub-zero temperatures.  The soldiers fighting against the Ukrainian army are using weaponry (including tanks, heavy artillery and drones) that could only be supplied by Russia.

Stone is due shortly to release a film that puts his version of events in Ukraine from late 2013-14 onwards. The film includes an interview with Putin as well as quotations by the former President of Ukraine – Viktor Yanukovich – who fled the country in February 2014 following the shooting of over 100 unarmed protestors on the streets of Kyiv. This film seems to rest on a view of the world that the West is imperialist and the US is the greatest threat to peace; while it fails to analyse in depth Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Although disturbing, perhaps it is not so surprising that the Daily Mail would print this quotation without any corroborating evidence and against the mainstream consensus in media coverage of the war in Ukraine. Wikipedia has recently taken the unprecedented step of refusing to have articles or quotations by the Daily Mail being used on its site as the site describes the newspaper as "consistently unreliable".  This response by the media to uphold journalistic standards and identify “fake news” is a key way that democracies can and must resist the eroding influence of disinformation.

Although it is a simple exercise to dismantle these claims at the micro-level and share the real story through accurate reporting and photography, it is critical to keep addressing the underlying premises on which the Russian position attempts to stand. Avdiivka is fully within the territory under control of the Ukrainian army as established by the Minsk 2 agreement.  The town is home to the largest coke-ore factory in Europe and is a strategic part of Ukraine’s metal industry.  Avdiivka also lies on a critical highway linking Gorlivka and Donetsk.

In the struggle against systematic disinformation, the key question isn’t “who broke the ceasefire?” first in Avdiivka or even the dispute of the details of the Minsk agreement.  The bigger issue remains that Ukraine is a multi-cutural and a bi-lingual state, and the rights of Russian speakers have never been under threat.  It is striking that all of the towns and cities in eastern Ukraine that were liberated from Russian control in 2014 are now peaceful and people are returning.  We see this in Krematorsk, Slovyansk and many other cities across the east.

This trend too was evident in Avdiivka - despite hardship, people were returning to live in their homes and attend local schools.  Tragically, in recent days many innocent people have been killed and countless lives disrupted.  This is not the normal course of events.  People yearn to live in peace.

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