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Ukraine's citizen army at forefront of media war

© 2014 AFP

Sim Sim WISSGOTT

19 March 2014

As the conflict between Ukraine and Russia escalates to a "military stage" after Moscow's move to claim the Black Sea region of Crimea, hundreds of Ukrainians have mobilised to fight the battle on another front -- the media.

Journalists, advertising executives and students have signed up as volunteers to join a propaganda war against Russia, which they accuse of deliberately misleading the public using wide-reaching state-controlled news agencies, television channels and newspapers.

"Ukraine has been losing the war that's being waged in the media. Russians have been very consciously, deliberately pursuing the strategy of misinforming the worldwide community," Yaryna Klyuchkovska, one of the coordinators of the recently established Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, told AFP.

"Our weapon is information... We need to mobilise to provide a counterweight," added her colleague Oxana Melnychuk.

The centre set up by PR and advertising executives holds daily news conferences with ministers and activists, and publishes analyses that counter the Russian point of view.

Another group of mostly journalists and students have meanwhile created a fact-checking website called StopFake.org that examines official statements and news reports, and if necessary, sets the record straight.

Both information resources quickly gained a wide following in the social media sphere, acquiring a reputation like that of EuromaidanPR -- the official voice of the protests that broke out in Kiev in November and led to the ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.

Russian troops subseqently took control of Crimea, and on Tuesday Putin signed a treaty absorbing the flashpoint peninsula, while Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned that "the conflict is shifting from a political to a military stage".

Yevhen Fedchenko, who is director of Kiev's Mohyla School of Journalism and one of the coordinators of StopFake.org, said the aim of the website is to fill the "total vacuum of information" from the new Ukrainian authorities.

Hundreds of volunteers now monitor, verify and translate official statements and media reports, filling in for a government still finding its way after just four weeks on the job.

Among Moscow's "propaganda" claims the Ukrainian volunteers are attempting to clarify are charges that extremists and "Nazis" are running amok in Ukraine. Russian media also regularly misuse pictures and video footage to depict tensions where none exist, they said.

"It's just a drop in the ocean... (but) it's important that people in Ukraine and Russia and in the West get these messages straight," Fedchenko said.

- 'We're all patriots' -

Though there is no official funding, companies and individuals are keeping the effort alive by contributing computers, televisions or simply coffee to keep volunteers going.

"We're not paid a single penny, but we're all patriots, we do understand the responsibility of the moment," said Sergiy Malyarchuk, who coordinates the Crisis Media Centre's interpreters.

"War is war. You don't ask questions, you just see a need and you step in," said freelance PR consultant Klyuchkovska.

Some have taken time off from work to volunteer, while others were idling anyway because of the unrest in Ukraine, like Malyarchuk, whose plastic recycling business "stopped for a while".

"There's no sense going to work and doing nothing. I can contribute much more down here," he said.

Support comes from around the world. StopFake.org receives 100 alerts a day from Internet users flagging up reports that need to be corrected, while some of EuromaidanPR's 200 contributors are based abroad.

Rather curiously, they have found a following among Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine -- most influenced by Kremlin-loyal media.

StopFake.org has received one million clicks in just a few weeks and has nearly 7,800 followers on Russia's biggest social network website VKontakte -- 10 times as many as on Facebook.

"The bulk of our audience is now coming from Russia," said Fedchenko, convinced that the initiatives were making people more aware of media manipulation.

The "volunteer army" has also pledged to remain in the trenches for a while.

"It did not start with Crimea and it will not stop with Crimea," said Fedchenko. "The necessity of doing this ... will be around for many years."