Be skeptical about media coverage of Ukraine

If you have been monitoring the coverage of the conflict in Ukraine, it is amply clear that a narrative is being pushed.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is being compared to Winston Churchill during World War II; he is leading his people during perilous times to become an inspiring figure. He refused a safe passage offer from the U.S. with the quip: “I need ammunition, not a ride”. He streams videos from the deserted streets of Ukraine and posts photos with his cabinet. Photos of Zelenskyy surface in military gear on the battlefront. To sum it up, Zelensky is being portrayed as Churchill, Rambo and social media influencers all rolled into one. 

Not to be left behind, a former Miss Ukraine, and the First Lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelensky, reportedly joined the army. There are teary moments of Ukrainian soldiers bidding farewell to their families and children in the streets waving at them as they depart for war. There were photos of Russian soldiers holding Ukrainian girls as hostages. We see harrowing footage of injured Ukrainian children, slain Ukrainian soldiers, and explosions. We see courage as a brave Ukrainian child stands up to a Russian soldier, almost ordering him to leave her country.

It is all so poignant and inspiring until you fact-check the images.

The photos of Zelensky in military gear were from February 11, 2021, and April 9, 2021.  The photo of the Russian soldier holding Ukrainian girls at gunpoint was a 2005 photo from the West Bank. Neither the first lady of Ukraine nor the former Miss Ukraine is joining the armed forces. The teary farewell of Ukrainian soldiers amidst the invasion was actually a photo of the happy homecoming moment of U.S. Marines. Ukrainian children sending off to the army for war with Russia was an old image from 2016. Then there is a video that shows a young Ukrainian girl standing up to a Russian soldier who was shot in 2012 in the West Bank. A video from Syria was falsely shared as a Russian attack on Ukraine. A heartbreaking photo of an injured child from the Syrian war was shared as the victim of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. A poignant moment from the movie was shared as scenes from battle-torn Ukraine.

Such instances are numerous and all show the Ukrainian side in good light which makes it clear who the creators are.

They prove the adage that truth is the first casualty of war. 

It is also interesting to note that Zelenskyy has been seen on deserted dark streets of Ukraine or in indoor locations but never in public places in Ukraine where the date can be verified. Now there is a possibility that he remains behind closed doors for security reasons. 

An amazing 91 percent of Ukrainians approve of Zelenskyy’s performance. This is good news for Zelenskyy who was struggling with just 28 percent of public approval after the pandemic. 

The videos keep flooding the zone and the media dutifully reports them. Yesterday, a moving video appears to show a captured Russian soldier breaking down in tears as he sips tea and Ukrainians call his mother to tell her he’s O.K.

Even news organizations such as BBC use mobile phone footage whose authenticity they cannot verify. They introduce it with a disclaimer but the question remains why to show it if it cannot be verified.

Let’s have a look at Zelenskyy and his tenure in office so far, before the war broke.

Zelenskyy won the presidential election in 2019 after much of his campaign was allegedly bankrolled by one of Ukraine’s richest — and most corrupt — oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky.

Corruption remains rampant and deep-rooted in Ukraine. There are allegations that new anti-oligarch laws were used to restrict the activities of oligarchs who do not support Zelenskyy. Corruption charges aimed at Zelenskyy’s main rival, Petro Poroshenko, his predecessor as president, are regarded as politically motivated by observers. There has been an allegation of considerable corruption and cronyism.

During recent months there has been a surge in attempts by Zelenskyy to control the media. This included pressure on publication owners, demands for political talk shows, attempts to cancel the screening of a documentary film, and threats of criminal prosecution against media outlets and journalists. 

Over the years, neo-Nazism has earned the Ukrainian government’s implicit endorsement. The Ukrainian National Guard is already home to the Azov Battalion that has neo-Nazi leanings. The logo of the Azov Battalion comprising of two neo-Nazi emblems — the Wolfsangel and the Sonnenrad. The National Guard of Ukraine has shared a video on its Twitter account that shows Azov fighters greasing bullets with pig fat, ostensibly to be used against Muslim Chechens deployed to their country as Russia steps up its military assault on Ukraine.

Following Russia’s invasion, there have been reports of the Ukrainian government using citizens as human shields

Indian students described the increasingly violent, antagonistic, and racist behavior meted out to them by Ukrainian authorities at the borders. There have also been charges of racism.  African, Asian and Caribbean people, many of whom are students, have shared reports and footage of themselves being prevented from leaving the country owing to their race.

We must remember that those cheering the Ukrainian regime are still claiming that President Trump colluded with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to rig the 206 elections and that the protests on Jan. 6, 2020 that went overboard were an insurrection. They now baselessly blame Trump for this conflict because he is ‘weakening NATO’. The long-term goal is, was, and will always remain to prevent Trump from winning the White House in 2024.

Beyond the petty Democrat politics, we must obviously sympathize with regular Ukrainians. Their suffering is unfathomable. They have lost their loved ones, their homes, their places of work, source of income, and hope. They are living in fear. Families have been torn apart. Some will have to live as refugees in neighboring nations. They may suffer from considerable PTSD apart from physical impairments.

So what do we make of the Ukrainian regime and President Zelenskyy? Could the conflict have transformed him into a different man or is this all a charade?

Let the conflict end or recede, let those affected by the conflict be interviewed. Let historians and documentarians gather information from all sides. Let everything be judged dispassionately and objectively. Only then can we pass a verdict. The media and the public must restrain the urge to confer members of the Ukrainian regime with superlative epithets merely based on social media posts or poignant utterances from a former actor.

Global powers must be cautious while arming the Ukrainian without supervision. These arms could be misused or sold after the conflict is over and the millions may end up in personal accounts. Aid has to be sent and aid workers must make sure that the aid reaches the people directly and is not siphoned off by middlemen.

For every bit of information we receive from any of the media, including social media, we have to have a healthy amount of skepticism but an open mind while we hope for peace.

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