The tragedy of the downed Malaysian Boeing 777 is turning into a global PR nightmare for the Kremlin. As the situation in Ukraine transforms into front-page news around the world, Russia Direct presents a roundup of how journalists in both Russia and the West have covered this event.


TV journalists try to interview a crying woman as she waits more information about the Malaysian Boeing 777 after it was shot down. Photo: Reuters

The July 17 Malaysian plane tragedy has outraged the world. It risks upping the ante in the confrontation between Moscow and Washington and puts the Kremlin in a very vulnerable position as it attempts to explain its role in Ukraine.

The global media reacted to the incident immediately by blaming the Kremlin for the tragedy and suggesting that Russian journalists had totally failed to cover the story in a timely manner and with due responsibility. As if to underscore that point, Russian state-run TV immediately responded to the accusations from the West with numerous conspiracy theories and propaganda-like rhetoric rather than serious reporting.

Russia’s opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta stands out for its coverage of the Boeing crash. Between July 17 and July 20, the newspaper ran almost 30 articles – news stories, commentaries, photo galleries and opinions. At the same time, Kommersant ran about 10-15 articles about the Boeing crash during the same period of time, while Vedomosti published nearly 50 pieces on the tragedy. They included news, commentaries from officials and politicians, and stories presenting different versions of the tragedy.

In comparison, The New York Times published between 10 and 20 regular updates about the crash. The Guardian significantly outpaced its colleagues and ran more than 120 updates between July 17-20, including news, analysis, op-ed columns, blogs, and videos.

Making sense of Russia’s PR nightmare

Kommersant paid attention to the reaction of Western media (including tabloids) to the crash and published their front pages in its Facebook account while running some headlines and quotes from these newspapers: “There’ll Be Hell to Pay: 295 Dead – Up to Ten British – as Airliner is Downed”; “Ukraine’s rebels blamed – U.S. says that Putin’s involved” (Daily Mail), “Putin’s Missile: Flight MH17 Shot Out of Sky” (The Sun), “The Murder in the Sky: Missile Destroys Jet and Kills 295” (The Guardian) and others. In fact, Kommersant presented different versions of the tragedy proposed by its foreign counterparts with all their diversity and pluralism.

However, as the Guardian article suggests in its headline, the Malaysian Boeing incident “dominates pages from newspapers around the world, but not in Russia.” The British newspaper also points to the increasing number of conspiracy theories overwhelming Russia's social media and TV.

The screenshot of the Guardian newspaper showing the number of updates on "the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17" between July 17 and July 20. Source: The Guardian

Even the highly respected Vedomosti is criticized for running a story on U.S. sanctions against Russia instead of focusing on the MH17 incident – what The Guardian regards as “a strange editorial decision or a conscious plan to play down an attack that much of the world was already linking to Russia.”

Likewise, Radio Free Europe / Liberty directs its criticism at Russia’s state-controlled TV, arguing that, “Russian state television scrambled to get out versions of the story that pointed in every possible direction – except toward Russia and the pro-Moscow militants fighting in eastern Ukraine.”

The Daily Telegraph presents the incident from a new angle by saying that "Moscow-backed rebels were accused of removing some of the corpses, taking their possessions and destroying evidence." The headline is indicative: “Malaysia Airlines crash victims robbed of their dignity by rebels.”     

The Guardian invited Pussy Riot’s Maria Alekhina on its op-ed page to lambast Russian media in “covering up Putin’s complicity in the MH17 tragedy” and The Sunday Times offered space in its opinion section to UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who sees the MH17 incident as “an outrage made in Moscow” that shocked him and “will never leave” him. Meanwhile, The New York Times gives voice to Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European studies at Oxford University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author. Foreign Policy magazine turned to Mark Galeotti, the professor of global affairs at New York University. 

Ash describes the Boeing tragedy as being the result of “Putin’s deadly doctrine” to protect Russians in Eastern Ukraine and “hypocrisy on an Orwellian scale.” He sees Russian TV coverage of the event as “a massively mendacious narrative.” Galeotti argues the MH17 disaster “poses the greatest challenge yet for the Kremlin in its months-long covert war in Ukraine, one likely to bring the war to a close soon – if not without more bloodshed.”

Framing MH17 from a different angle

Meanwhile, some Russian newspapers attempted to offer another interpretation of the MH17 downing. Maksim Kononenko, a columnist for the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia, sees the incident as a “provocation” against Russia, as indicated from the headline of his column, “The chronicle of a widely publicized provocation.

In a detailed narrative of the event, Kononenko looks back at previous aircraft incidents involving the Soviet Union as well as the U.S. and Ukraine to imply that the West [Ukraine and the U.S.] might be interested in covering the story from a certain angle. He also ridicules some conspiracy theories (such as the theory that the crash resulted from an attempt to shoot down Putin’s airplane), and describes CNN’s and Ukrainian media‘s coverage as “false” and bordering on propaganda.

Shortly after the tragedy, Kommersant FM radio gave voice to the Head of Russia’s Civil Aviation Commission, Oleg Smirnov, who shifted responsibility for the MH17 crash to Kiev: He pointed out that Kiev pledged to guarantee security at the height of no lower than 7,000 meters in response to EU requests. “Ukraine in this case has been reckless,” Smirnov said, strongly criticizing Kiev for allowing flights over its dangerous airspace.

The next day Kommersant invited Ukraine’s side for an interview, in the form of Sergei Sobolev, the leader of Ukraine’s Batkivshchyna Party. He shifted responsibility away from the Ukrainian army, which, according to him, doesn’t have the weapons that could reach the Boeing, and, instead, blamed Russia and Putin for supporting “terrorists,” who “obviously” shot down the jet, as he believes.

Novaya Gazeta’s Yulia Latynina “has no doubts” that separatists downed the jet. Based on Twitter posts by Igor Strelkov, one of the military leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, who “proudly” claimed that “self-defense forces shot down the plane,” Latynina comes to the conclusion that pro-Russian rebels are directly involved in the tragedy. She sees it as “the result of total impunity, felt during the information war” and predicts the “gulf between Russia and the civilized world will become deeper” after the MH17 tragedy.

The verdict from experts

Evgeny Minchenko of the International Institute of Political Expertise argues the U.S. and the West have a big advantage in conducting “media campaigns” in comparison with Russia: They defend their positions consistently, create detailed argumentation and promote it extensively in the international arena.

The Western mainstream media’s comments overshadow the Russian ones, make them less persuasive, create the first impression that sticks to people’s minds and is highly difficult to correct no matter whether is it true or not, Minchenko wrote in his Facebook account.     

“When (and if) we know the truth (because now, I firmly believe, we don’t really know it – there are only the versions, based on faith, not facts), few will be interested in it,” he clarified, pointing out that, for Russia, it is impossible to win in such conditions.

Meanwhile, Gregory Feifer, the Europe editor at Global Post and the former Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio and Radio Free Europe, argues that the difference between coverage of the MH17 downing by the Western and Russian media “illustrates as well as anything else the different, almost opposite nature of the two.” According to him, foreign journalists have done “an amazing job,” especially when presenting “the scenes of horror” and describing “how pro-Moscow gunmen are disturbing the evidence.”

“Although some free Russian media remain, and some are very good, the main state-controlled outlets are disseminating their usual lies, blaming the Ukrainian government for the murder of almost 300 people, for which there's been no evidence,” he told Russia Direct, warning against the “bad” implications from the MH17 incident for both Russia and Ukraine. “The disinformation appears to reflect the Kremlin's hardening attitude, which probably means the standoff with the West will grow inexorably worse and that Moscow's campaign to destabilize Kiev won't let up,” he concludes.