Seventy years on: no common memories

The commemoration ceremonies have finished by now. Squares in Russia are swept clean and banners and flags folded up. But many in Europe are left with a bitter after taste. The 16.000 servicemen, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, anti-missile systems, brand new Armata T-14 tanks and other weaponry have left the Red Square in Moscow after staging the biggest military parade ever held in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. But what remains is a climate of resentment, fear and divisions.

epa04197717 Russian military servicemen march during a military parade marking the 69th anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany in the WWII in the Red Square in Moscow, Russia 09 May 2014. EPA/YURI KOCHETKOV


Every year since the dramatic events of 1945, during the first ten days of May the defeat of Nazi Germany is celebrated across Europe and the former Soviet Union But seventy years after the end of the war in Europe there is no common narrative among the former allies of the anti-Hitler coalition. In fact, leaders of Russia’s main allies during the war in Europe -the Americans, Brits, French and Canadians- were conspicuously absent at the Victory Day celebration in Moscow.

The Soviet Union lost 27 million people in the Second World War, far more than any other country. Millions of Red Army military sacrificed their lives in defeating fascism. It was interesting to see Dutch public TV’ s balancing act; on the one hand critically covering the Victory Day parade in Moscow, on the other hand sympathetically portraying a 90-year old Soviet veteran. Nobody may doubt Europe’s respect for the dead and its gratefulness for the Soviet soldiers’ sacrifices in liberating Europe.

But at the same time Russian president Putin is reviled in many parts of Europe –especially in former Soviet countries- for twisting history, mixing past and present and for equating the anti-fascist battle against the Nazi’s with the pro-Russian separatist fight against pro-European Ukrainians. “Nazism still lives in various forms” an Italian journalist is approvingly quoted by pro-Kremlin Sputnik International. The fact that many European leaders did not accept the invitation to attend the Victory Parade in Moscow comes as no surprise to the journalist. “It is evident that history goes in circles and Moscow is the unique force in the struggle against Western financial and military hegemony.”

Presenting the Great War against fascism as an anti-Western, anti-liberal endeavour with the glorious and victorious Russian armed forces in the front line, no doubt has to do with a Russian search of identity in the 21st century era. After a period of decline, humiliation and loss, Russia is reaffirming its greatness, rising from its knees, defending its language and uniting the Russian world. It is also true that not only in Russia but also elsewhere, peace and war commemorations are occasions par excellence to emphasize patriotism, the beautiful colours of the flag and the greatness of the nation.

It is scary however that Moscow’s message seems primarily to be one of hate. “Russia Armata T-14 tank sends shivers down Washington’s spine”, exclaims state sponsored Sputnik International. The pompous power display was meant exactly for that: to impress domestic and international audiences with Russia’s newfound military might and ability to produce sophisticated weapons.

Dissident Russian writer Michail Sjiskin, whose father served as a volunteer on a Russian submarine in the Baltic Sea during World War Two, believes that “for the umpteenth time the dictator uses patriotism to retain power”. He thinks Putin shamelessly exploits the Russian victory in the Great Patriotic War. “My people have been deprived of their oil, their elections, their country. Now it is deprived of their victory.” Sjiskin blames Putin for a dirty trick to set Russians and Ukrainians against each other.

What bothers Sjiskin and other Russian intellectuals most is the ahistorical character of the Victory Day celebrations. The Russian people sacrificed everything for the victory but harvested only lack of freedom and poverty. For years after 1945 the Russian people were the victim of Stalin’s repression and terror, a historical fact forgotten for the sake of convenience by today’s Putin propagandists. In fact, paranoid Stalin did not allow Victory Day to be celebrated. People could be “infected” by ideas of freedom and liberation. Commanders who played a heroic role during the war might use the occasion to enhance their popularity and challenge Stalin’s position.

Only in 1965 Leonid Brezhnev organized a big military parade to commemorate the victory in the Great Patriotic War. Not unlike Putin now, Brezhnev wanted to mobilize the public and strengthen his own position. While during Soviet times the black and orange Saint George ribbons were not used, nowadays it is the symbol of Russian nationalism. The colours, on stickers and to be tied to car antennas and clothes, are for most Russians a sign of remembrance and respect. Simultaneously the Saint George ribbons are a hated symbol for Russian nationalism and separatism in Ukraine, the Baltic states and elsewhere in the former Soviet sphere.

The European war of symbols, different narratives and tension 70 years after the end of the second World War and more than 25 years after the end of the Cold War, does not bode well for the future. A lethal mix of rewriting history, propaganda and lack of independent, free media, may result in a far lesser safe Europe. (10-5-2015)


Russia: hate speech, propaganda and lack of media freedom

Where is the line between hate speech and propaganda ? And how do both forms of media discourse relate to freedom of expression, a human right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Those are interesting questions now that the conflict in the Ukraine is accompanied with shameless propaganda campaigns, especially on the Russian side.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe ( OSCE ) noted in a statement this week ( that the crisis in Ukraine shows that propaganda and decline of press freedom often go hand in hand to fuel a conflict, and once it starts they contribute to its escalation.

The OSCE called to stop manipulating media and psychological and information warfare . At the same time the OSCE was reluctant to condemn propaganda as a violation of international law. The term “propaganda ” is indeed broad and vague. Propaganda is often linked to a particular political discourse, and “its blank prohibition would violate international standards for the protection of free expression and free media”.

A picture taken on October 10, 2011, shows Russian television journalist Dmitry Kiselyov posing for a photo after receiving a medal of Friendship during an awarding ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed today a decree dissolving Russia's biggest news agency, RIA Novosti , ordering the creation in its place of a new media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today). Putin named today Dmitry Kiselyov as the head of Russia Today. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL/ MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)

A picture taken on October 10, 2011, shows Russian television journalist Dmitry Kiselyov posing for a photo after receiving a medal of Friendship during an awarding ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed today a decree dissolving Russia’s biggest news agency, RIA Novosti , ordering the creation in its place of a new media conglomerate Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today). Putin named today Dmitry Kiselyov as the head of Russia Today. AFP PHOTO/ RIA-NOVOSTI/ POOL/ MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV (Photo credit should read MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Dmitry Kiselyov agrees. The Russian TV presenter, known for his statements about gay people whose “hearts are to be incinerated” and playing up how Russia can turn the US into “radioactive ash”, wonders what is wrong with propaganda. Kiselyov, considered Putins’ chief propagandist, was blacklisted by the European Union. “It is telling that Europe has initiated such sanctions, which reflect a blatant disregard for the freedom of speech said to be so dear to EU officials, and which create a dangerous and disturbing precedent. In fact, this is a betrayal of European values”, he was quoted a reacting.( ).

Some Russian journalists and the OSCE representative for media freedom Dunja Mijatovic may partly agree with this: strictly speaking propaganda is permitted because it falls under freedom of speech. Which is not to say that propaganda is not extremely dangerous, especially in a context where less and less alternative versions of the story are heard besides the “official” one. Independent media are increasingly having a hard time in Russia.

Propaganda is inherently one-sided, it is based on generalizations and half-truths and rewrites history while (or before even) it occurs. According to the Russian propaganda the Ukrainian revolution is led by fascists, obviously an extremely negative term meaning terrorists, insurgents, anarchists, thugs etcetera.

Whenever propaganda becomes incitement to hatred and violence, the OSCE statement said, “proper and proportionate measures may be applied using existing international and national human rights instruments”. Although not mentioned, one of those tools may be the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR ), also signed by Russia. The ICCPR requires participating states to prohibit hate speech by law.

A specific form of hate speech that is considered a crime under international law is incitement to genocide. Julius Streicher, editor of the anti-Semitic German newspaper Der Stuermer, was convicted by the Nuremberg Tribunal of crimes against humanity in connection with his incitement to the mass murder of European Jewsh. Streicher was executed. By holding one of Nazi Germany’s chief propagandists responsible as an accomplice for the destruction of the Jews, Streicher’s conviction established a precedent-setting link between inflammatory speech and criminal action in international law.

Rwandan journalists of the magazine Kangura ( Wake up! ) and Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines, which directly and indirectly had called for mass murder, were convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. It is exactly twenty years since the genocide took place in Rwanda. Between 7 April and mid- July 1994, hundreds of thousands of people were massacred and some of the media played a sad key role.

This week in Kigali the campaign “Turning the Page of Hate” kicked off by a number of African and international journalistic organizations Not only in Rwanda did hate speech leave a devastating trail, but also in Kenya, Nigeria, DR Congo, Sudan, Egypt and elsewhere in Africa . What is the answer to hate speech? Turning the Page of Hate proposes to promote in Africa a professional journalistic culture. Journalism conceived as a profession with an eminently ethical dimension: to report truthfully , accurately and balanced; being impartial; demonstrate independence, responsibility and humanity, no stereotyping. By acting professionally journalists will no longer be the footmen of corrupt or fanatical political, tribal or religious leaders .

Perhaps Europe needs its own campaign against propaganda , discrimination and stereotyping. In addition, governments must take their own responsibility to facilitate a free and plural media. The OSCE called this week on its member states to ensure media freedom. “Rather than engaging in censorship, states should protect and promote free and equal access to the marketplace of ideas.” The best and most effective mechanism to neutralize the impact of propaganda is the existence of an open, diverse and dynamic media environment, according to the OSCE.

In Moscow there seems nowadays little enthusiasm to follow up on these recommendations. The Russian media paint a reality in the Ukraine which almost imperceptibly becomes a guideline for a narrowly nationalistic thinking and acting.


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