Saturday, March 05, 2022

On Censorship and the Zaporizhzhia Fire


This article exists for several reasons. First, to stop the spread of fear over a potential nuclear disaster in Ukraine. We are all overburdened with worry at the Russian invasion of that country. The last thing we need is further hype and extremist announcements. Unfortunately, these are accepted at face value by too many people.

Second, I wish to assert that the censorship of Russian state broadcaster RT is a demonstration of Western propaganda. Since there is almost no free press in Russia, RT exerts unparalleled influence. But this is not to say that Russians naively accept all that it publishes. Outside Russia, RT is a useful way to gauge what the Russian government thinks. How can we fight disinformation if we don’t know what that consists of?

I will perform a media analysis of the coverage of the attack and seizure of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (NPP). To do this, I made a snapshot of several websites on 5 March 2022 between 1300 and 1400 GMT. These articles are from the online versions of RT (Russia), Kyiv Independent (Ukraine), and Al Jazeera (Qatar). All are government-funded agencies.


It is evident that Russia has invaded Ukraine in order to control it completely. To do so, the Russian military will need to destroy Ukraine’s military capability while controlling communications, power, transport, and manufacturing. Controlling power-generation naturally means seizing the nuclear power stations. There is nothing unusual about that goal, within the context of this aggression.

As you can see from this map, Zaporizhzhia NPP lies in the south of the country, in a corridor Russia wishes to control in order to join two pockets of its armed forces, from the south and east. (Image from Google Maps.)

As a personal statement, I must declare that I am fervently anti-nuclear. Nuclear fission is a technology that simply should not be used. In Canada I studied theoretical physics as an undergraduate, obtaining an honours degree. This should have led to further study,  followed by a career in the industry. I soon became aware that such a career would likely involve nuclear power, since Canada (along with the Soviet Union) was one of the innovators in that field. My growing understanding of the terrible cost of this technology, combined with my political beliefs (in decentralised structures and planet-safe tech) led me to abandon my career and put those four years of study in the trash can.

My decision has since proven to be correct. Forty years on, there’s still no answer to the problem of nuclear waste. We continue to use a technology that is the very definition of unsustainable, producing radioactive materials that will contaminate the planet for tens of thousands of years. This career decision came at some personal cost. Who pays for four years of university and then quits? All this is to say that I am the last person to downplay the dangers of nuclear power.

The Zaporizhzhia fire

On the early morning of 4 March, Russia moved on the Zaporizhzhia NPP, shelling an office area occupied by Ukrainian defenders. This caused a fire in the offices, which was extinguished by 6:20am. From the video of the attack published on the BBC website, it’s clear that the attackers are local. Casual talks of “shelling” and “missiles” could imply that the explosives were sent from afar, but this was evidently not the case.

Here's a site view, also from Google Maps, on which I have marked some of the areas of the NPP. Key: 1 = offices that were attacked, 2 = spent fuel storage, 3 = reactors. 

As an example of the exaggerated coverage I will use, not some rank UK tabloid or right-wing US paper, but Al Jazeera. That news outlet has varied coverage of world events that have a greater emphasis on African, Middle-Eastern, and Muslim issues. Nonetheless, they largely follow the West’s line on other issues. 

The article “Attack on Ukrainian nuclear plant triggers worldwide alarm” is one such. It continues the tone set by the headline with the subhead “Russian strike sparks global alarm it could dwarf the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Ukraine’s Chernobyl in 1986.” The hype builds from there. The first sentence falsely claims that the attack set “the biggest atomic power plant in Europe […] on fire.”

But the actual facts are revealed as soon as the second paragraph. This quotes the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as saying the projectile “hit a training centre, not any of the six reactors.”

This is how propaganda works in the West. Put a big scare headline across the top of the article. Follow up with the subhead and the opening paragraph. Then, further down the page, contradict this propaganda with the actual facts, knowing that a) few people read this far, and b) you’ve already set the emotional tone of panic and fear. Because those emotions matter more than the facts.

Reading further, you will discover that the Russians had actually notified the IAEA that they were going to move on the plant. So, far from being rash, they had acted in accordance with established protocols. Furthermore, if there had been any accident, the prevailing winds would have mostly contaminated… Russia. So it was hardly in their best interests to fire indiscriminately. Indeed, they set off a flare to get visual coverage of the target, as is clearly seen (and annotated) in the video above.

A quote from Ukraine President Zelenskyy is provided more fully in a second article, “Russia-Ukraine war: Fire at Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant put out.”

No country other than Russia has ever fired on nuclear power units. This is the first time in our history. In the history of mankind. The terrorist state now resorted to nuclear terror. If there is an explosion, it is the end of everything. The end of Europe. This is the evacuation of Europe.

While no-one wants to see a nuclear accident, it's clear that this is hysterical fear-mongering. The facts are quite different. The IAEA reported “no change […] ]in radiation levels.” A Ukrainian military official reported that the “director of the plant said that the nuclear safety is now guaranteed.”

Turning to the Kyiv Independent we can see if the coverage within Ukraine is any different. The article “Russia attacks, captures Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Ukraine” confirms that the fire was “at a non-critical building.” Though the Russians now control the facility, “the station’s employees remain at their posts and the plant continues to operate.” (In fact, only one of the six reactors is even operational. The plant is largely off-line.)

At the United Nations website, the article “Security Council debates Russian strike on Ukraine nuclear power plant” confirms the data presented so far: that the Russians had given prior notice to the UN, that no vital areas were hit, etc. At the same time, the dire risk of combat around a nuclear power plant is highlighted, as it should be. In this context, the hyperbolic language of the US is noteworthy. “By the grace of God, the world narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe last night,” said US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

From these four reports it’s clear that only the USA and Ukraine are hyping the incident as some sort of a prelude to Armageddon. All other sources are more circumspect, because this sort of fear-mongering does absolutely no good at all. Don't we have enough existential threats to worry about, without adding more?

It’s now clear where most Western media takes its lead, preferring to run with dramatic political declarations from the USA and NATO allies, rather than the calm and rational statements from the UN, IAEA, or other organisations. I don't think this conclusion should be a surprise to perceptive readers.

Reading Russian propaganda

Now we can turn to RT, formerly Russia Today, the state media outlet that’s been lambasted as a pure propaganda outlet, devoid of truth value. On the face of it, RT is much like the BBC or RTÉ here in Ireland, being run by a wing of the state (in this case a not-for-profit), paid for by general taxation. There is no doubt that it’s used to disseminate the state’s view on contemporary issues. But does this mean everything it publishes is a lie?

Apparently Western corporations and governments think so. RT has been banned by the EU; removed from Microsoft and Apple app stores; had its US, UK, and Germany branches closed; been demonetized by Google; been banned on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok; link-blocked on Reddit. If you currently try to visit in a web browser, you will be blocked. This demonstrates the ongoing corporate and state control of the internet in the so-called “free world.” Censorship of this type is hardly taking the high moral ground. In fact, it is to capitulate to the philosophy of the very enemy it purports to combat.

But all it takes is a proxy, through a state like Bulgaria, to access the news site. Let’s see what we find.

The recent article on Zaporizhzhia NPP is entitled “‘No elevated’ radiation levels following Ukraine’s nuclear power station shelling – US”. This report mentions the Russian attack on the plant, the subsequent fire, and its extinguishing. It repeats the UN report about the lack of radiation, confirms that the plant is under Russian control, and mentions that the plant operators continue their work. It contains one statement that might be considered propaganda, but does so in quotes, with attribution.

The Russian Defense Ministry also accused Ukrainian forces of attacking the troops patrolling the territory in an attempt to provoke a retaliatory strike and “carry out a horrible provocation.”

It might surprise you to learn that the article then gives the final word to Ukrainian president Zelensky, reporting that he “denied the provocation claims.”

There you go: a balanced article with facts and no attempt at a whitewash. Indeed, US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm is quoted, with a direct link to her tweet: “We call on Putin to cease these reckless actions immediately, including conflict around nuclear power plants.”

In Conclusion

So, where it the propaganda? In the Russian article every point of view lies enclosed in quotation marks. There are no obvious untruths, unlike in the Al Jazeera article… and much of the Western press. There’s a lot less hype on RT than in the statements of Ukrainian or Russian officials.

This is not to say that other articles on RT don’t propagate views we’d all find quite distasteful, including conspiracy theories. But how is this different than the BBC or even The Guardian? I disagree with a great many of the views expressed in those publications. I would consider some of them to be counter-factual, many of them to be Western propaganda.

Shouldn’t we be able to read a wide variety of sources, in order to make up our own minds? In whose interest is it to block information from Russia? The answer is obvious.

Finally, I will forestall one criticism by declaring that, no, this argument does not amount to “whataboutism.” That word is thrown about a lot lately, in order to prevent anyone from uttering countervailing viewpoints. Analysing coverage from multiple media outlets is required to get a perspective. Integrating facts from multiple sources is important for empirical analysis. The goal is definitively not to excuse propaganda.

Quite the opposite. I hope to have demonstrated, using one simple example, how naive it is to think that Western governments, and the media outlets who parrot them, serve truth. Their desire to control the narrative by censoring opposing views deserves our opposition. Otherwise, what grounds do we have to criticise the lack of media freedom within Russia?

Please help Ukrainians

I support Médecins Sans Frontières, who are conducting emergency operations inside Ukraine. MSF are currently shipping surgical kits, trauma kits, chronic disease medication, and mass casualty supplies into the country. They are establishing emergency response teams in Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia.

The UN Refugee Agency is another worthy charity. 


1 comment:

robin said...

Sorry, I accidentally published this twice. So I deleted one copy. In case you were wondering.

Post a Comment