Tombs of the Unknown Soldiers

The biggest story in the Russian media this week? Surely this: Russian soldiers who may or may not have been sent by the government to fight Ukranian troops near Donetsk and Lugansk, who may or may not have been killed there and who may or may not have been secretly buried by their families in their hometowns.

Well, er, two small corrections. First: unfortunately, at the moment it seems fair to state that these soldier are in fact dead. There has been enough evidence to support this claim in the past two day. Second — and more important in the context of this blog: this story is actually NOT appearing in the Russian media.

(Disclaimer: I absolutely don’t intend to engage myself in the discussion about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This issue is too complicated, completely irrelevant to the topic of this blog and, admittedly, very painful. My interest here is in how the media works — and what might be the consequences when journalists fail to do their job.)

Here’s the story — I’ll try to tell it as briefly as possible, so certain shortcuts are unavoidable. Earlier this week strange and concerning posts started popping up in the accounts of three airborne soldiers from the division quartered in Pskov, a city in the North part of Russia. These posts basically said that these soldiers are dead — presumably, killed in battle while fighting against Ukranian troops in South-Eastern Ukraine. The latter could be easily deducted from context and from their previous posts, but surely needed to be confirmed — if not by the government (as you may have heard, the Russian government isn’t very eager to confirm anything related to Ukraine), then by journalists, for whom it was an obvious opportunity to investigate the story of national — or even international — importance.

How many Russian media outlets jumped on this story? Well, a handful. And I mean — literally, you could easily count them on your fingers. Several independent newspapers and websites generally considered to be opposition. TV Rain, an independent news channel. Echo of Moscow, a controversial, but still relevant radio station. And, basically, that’s it. National TV channels? Lifenews and lenta.ru, probably the most popular news websites? Kommersant, the most influential  Russian daily newspaper (well, at least it was the most influential Russian daily newspaper for many years)? None of them didn’t say a word about it. They didn’t try to prove it (which, by the way, was really hard to do, considering that there were tough guys guarding the graves of the soldiers and even impersonators answering their cell phones — no kidding!). They didn’t try to disprove it. They just ignored it and pretended there was no news at all. In fact, this picture made by Kashin.guru, an internet publication run by Oleg Kashin, a former Kommersant reporter who was nearly beaten to death by some strangers 4 years ago in Moscow (case still unsolved) and who is now living in Switzerland, sums it up perfectly.

(On the side note: as long as mr. Kashin obsessively follows any mention of his name anywhere — hi, Oleg, greetings to Geneva from Missouri, you’ve done a really great job this week.)

The translation: 66 percent of the most cited Russian media (according to the survey done by might that have been? A possible hint: almost all of these media outlets are owned by government — or by business corporations closely affiliated with the state. And those who are technically independent — like Lifenews, the biggest Russian tabloid publication both online and offline, — repeatedly swore allegiance to the government and personally to Vladimir Putin. The founder of Lifenews once said that there were two people completely untouchable for him — the President and the Patriarch of Russian Orthodox Church — and that by any means he would avoid criticizing any of their actions. Well, that’s principle.

And now, as you may have seen on the New York Times front page, we have more than enough evidence that Russian soldiers in fact were killed — or, in some cases, captured by their enemies — while fighting in Ukraine.

Again: I don’t want to take any sides here, I don’t want to argue for or against anyone’s cause. My point is simple: it is unacceptable for the media to behave this way. Under any circumstances. When you ignore a story — and especially when you ignore a story like this one, — you lie. And you have to face the consequences. And I don’t mean any future retaliation. You can see those consequences right now. There are people who died, probably believing that they were fighting for their country. And the people of this country just don’t care about them. Because they simply don’t know. And this burden lies on the shoulders of journalists who remained silent.

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