BBG Watch Commentary
Voice of America (VOA) has posted on its English-language news website a video report from eastern Ukraine, in which pro-Russia activists describe the current government in Kyiv as “fascist” in line with what pro-Kremlin Russian media have been saying for weeks.
While the VOA reporter talks to and quotes these activists and people in dark glasses and new dark jackets whom he describes as “guests,” but is unable to identify, he does not talk to anyone identified as “Ukrainian” or as a supporter of the anti-Yanukovych protests in Kyiv. The reporter makes a brief reference to “paranoia” — in itself a loaded term like “fascists” — but offers no explanation what caused it. Could it be incessant propaganda by the Kremlin-controlled Russian TV and other media? That option is not even mentioned. VOA’s international audiences are left to wonder.
The VOA reporter also does not ask his interview subjects some other obvious questions, at least not in the portion included in the video report.
For example, what makes the protesters in Kyiv and the current Ukrainian government “fascist,” but not President Yanukovich, his supporters accused of corruption, or President Putin who like well-known World War II leaders also annexed another country’s land in the name of protecting his compatriots?
What makes pro-Russia activists and “guests” in eastern Ukraine “peaceful” and those who protested and formed a new government in Kyiv “fascists” is the most obvious question? But VOA reporter should have also asked what pro-Russia activists and “guests” plan to do if and when President Putin orders Russian troops to invade eastern Ukraine? If he did, it did not appear in the video.
VOA reporter did not even ask in this video whether they want to be incorporated into Russia or whether they would join the Russian forces and march on Kyiv if such orders were issued by the Kremlin. Would they attack Ukrainian government soldiers and national guard volunteers from western Ukraine? Answers to these questions, whatever they may have been, would have made this report balanced and far more interesting.
Where did these mysterious “guests” come from is another question not really explored by the VOA correspondent, just as another VOA correspondent in Crimea kept referring to Russian soldiers as “unidentified” and to Crimea as “historically Russian.” (It is but only since it was conquered by Russia in the 18th century.)
Did VOA reporter feel safe as he was filming this video? It did not appear to us that he was. Why didn’t he talk to anybody else, or did he? Where people other than the pro-Russia activists and “guests” afraid to talk to him? Did he try to seek them out and was rebuffed? Was there no one in the area or region that supports the protests in Kyiv and the current Ukrainian government and is opposed to Russia taking control of eastern Ukraine? If that is indeed the case, the reporter should have said it outright. If not, or if he could not ascertain it, he should have admitted it in his report.
This VOA report — unlike some other VOA reports from Ukraine — is marred by inadequate journalism and non-existent editorial standards at the Voice of America in Washington. These problems at the VOA headquarters have persisted for quite some time under the current management, which does not seem to have the ability to organize balanced and comprehensive news coverage during the current crisis.
We are not being critical of this particular report, which also has its merits, because we did not like what we heard and saw. On the contrary, it is a fascinating report as it helps to establish a historical record, but it is nevertheless woefully inadequate. It could had been much better if it followed the standards of such international broadcasters as BBC or Deutsche Welle or Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which also reports from Ukraine and like VOA is overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). We blame the VOA management for introducing such low standards of journalism a few years ago.
VOA’s top executives do not seem to understand what journalistic standards followed by other broadcasters are, and/or are unable to make sure that they are observed by VOA. They even had bragged in a press release about another VOA video report — that one was from North Korea — which included North Korean propaganda without hardly any challenge and showed well-stocked government food stores and well-fed children of the communist elite in a country known to have experienced starvation, again without mentioning that anyone has ever starved in North Korea. If VOA’s top executives loved the video report from North Korea, they may also love this one from eastern Ukraine.
But journalism, especially publicly-funded journalism, is more than reporting only certain facts that are easily noticeable while ignoring others that may be more difficult to ascertain. U.S. taxpayers and international broadcasting audiences deserve more from the Voice of America.
While everything that the VOA reporter says seems factually correct and should have been reported, the report itself lacks balance, more sophisticated explanations, as well as answers to some very basic questions. While other VOA reports filed by other VOA reporters may provide balance, and some of them, including those posted today have been excellent and balanced, a single report — especially on such a sensitive issue of calling someone a “fascist” or “paranoid” — also requires some balance within it.
We doubt that BBC, CBC, or Deutsche Welle editors would have posted such a news report unless some of these obvious questions had been asked and either answered one way or another, or some kind of contextual and historical background provided for the audience by the reporter or his editors.
While it is certainly good to have a news report from an interesting location — whether it is eastern Ukraine or North Korea — there is more to the story than VOA online audiences around the world have received from this hastily produced video that could have been just as well put online by Russia’s RT or Voice of Russia.
We don’t think that such European media outlets as BBC, Deutsche Welle, Finland’s YLE, Radio Sweden, and Vatican Radio or Canada’s CBC and Australia’s ABC editors would have posted a report similar to this one without having a discussion with the correspondent about putting in some additional material. We have not seen a similar report on those or other well-regarded media channels like RFE/RL. They tend to ask hard questions and show more curiosity about various strange and emotionally-charged claims. Explaining them to the audience and talking about possible motives behind them is what good, fact-based and balanced journalism is all about.
March 23, 2014
ARTEMOVSK, UKRAINE — In far eastern Ukraine near the Russian border, pro-Russian activists have set up protest camps and checkpoints to monitor Ukrainian government troop movements and to try to protect weapons stockpiles.
On the outskirts of Artemovsk in the far east of Ukraine, a group of pro-Russian activists has set up a protest camp and checkpoint outside what looks like a salt mine. But all is not as it seems. Local people say it’s common knowledge that 150 meters under this facility is a top secret Soviet-era military base, which still houses to an enormous stockpile of weapons.
The protesters say they are here to stop this arsenal from falling into the hands of what they see as the new fascist government in Kyiv.
“We don’t want those guys from right sector and other extremists to get these weapons; that is why we’re here. This is a peaceful demonstration,” said retired steel worker Alexander Malinovsky.
Irina Popova, a local government deputy, says she’s here because she fears the current crisis could be the start of a civil war between eastern and western Ukraine.
“Kyiv doesn’t listen to us, the West doesn’t listen to us, no one listens to us,” she said. “And what will happen in this situation when people are so opposed to each other? What will happen? Can anyone tell me? I can’t guarantee that everything will be quiet,” said Popova.
The protesters have set up tents, a field kitchen, fires and even a makeshift hospital. But beneath the picnic atmosphere lies paranoia and a great deal of anti-Western sentiment.
There are Ukrainians here, but also several men in dark glasses and newer clothes who shied away from the cameras and described themselves as ‘guests’.
On highways throughout this area, more camps like this one have been set up to monitor Ukrainian military movements.
Passing cars honk their horns in support and there are piles of tires that the activists say they will set fire to and use to block the road if government tanks try to pass through.
“We are here to collect information, if we see something strange we will let people know,” said Malinovsky, the retired coal miner.
The protesters say they are peaceful, but bats and hatchets could always be seen near at hand.
Whether these camps are truly homegrown or are receiving support from Moscow is unclear, but as protests rocked Donetsk again this weekend, they are certainly a symptom of the ongoing clash between opposing historical forces in this region.