Putin’s Peekaboo Moment
Whereto has Madiba’s Mzansi gone?
- The award-winning journalist Nick Davies argues in his book, Flat Earth News, that mere reporting of facts and events does not constitute journalism. The public expects journalists to be more than neutral observers. Journalists should not accept false information from official sources. War is simply war, despite what officialdom (by law or decree) may want it cloaked.
What would Madiba say to the South African government about the decision to abstain from voting at the United Nations General assembly on a draft resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council after the civilian killings in Ukraine's Bucha? Mandela may be turning in his grave at the sight of his people moving from his vision of a human rights-centred foreign policy.
We are in the fifth month of the Russia-Ukraine war. With both sides digging in, the conflict is leaving scores of civilians dead and injured, a refugee crisis, and a 'looming hunger catastrophe' in its wake. We wake up to reports of a school or an apartment block having been bombed overnight. Journalists are barred from reporting on the killings.
Developmental psychologists call object permanence. This concept, discovered by the 20th Century Swiss child psychologist, Prof. Jean William Fritz Piaget, has been hailed among psychologists as an important milestone in a baby’s brain development. The professor is sometimes regarded as the father of ‘life and theory of Cognitive Development.’
To laypeople, the simplest illustration of Prof Piaget’s work is the popular babies’ game of peekaboo. Babies covering their faces hoping to remain hidden. Well, that's the game Russia Federation's President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, is attempting to play with 145 million Russians. If they covered their eyes, then whatever is happening around them must not be happening and whoever tells them otherwise is a lying enemy of Moscow.
For the last five months, the Kremlin's clampdown on independent media blocked off Russians from the truth about Putin's unjustified invasion of Ukraine. Some independent journalists have been murdered, jailed or exiled.
uSpiked spoke with Ms Katerina Abramova, the Head of Communication at independent news outlet, Meduza, a month after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Meduza delivers content to subscribers in Russian and English. Abramova, who is in exile, spoke to us about the state of independent media in Russia.
She condemned the censorship of independent media and the attempt to silence media coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying it has severe implications for outlets like Meduza. Subscribers have not been able to make payments since the two major credit cards companies - Visa and Mastercard - suspended operations in Russia. The sanctions also prevented citizens from downloading and using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). VPNs allow users to avoid geographical censorship.
Russia's initial tactic at the start of the invasion seemed to darken Ukraine by destroying telecommunication networks, including cellphone and television. Soon after the war started, Ukraine received a helping hand from South Africa-born billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk who offered his Starlink system that seems able to resist hacking attempts by operatives linked to Russia's foreign intelligence agency, GRU.
A week into the invasion, The Duma drafted and passed a law criminalising the dissemination of any position not from the Kremlin. Public discourse on and independent news reporting about the war against Ukraine got criminalised. Simply put; the Kremlin wanted to make the Russian Federation a 'single-information nation'. If the Kremlin says the sky is yellow, everybody in the federation must echo that. Under the guise of banning “fake news", whoever publishes or disseminates such articles is committing a crime. The alternative is some 15 years in prison, and the only juror is the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor)
With the tightening of media censorship, Russia's independent media outlets - local and international - became criminal organisations. Some international media outlets shut their bureaus while others relocated correspondents to neighbouring countries.
Like some issues about this invasion, the Kremlin’s miscalculations often leave Moscow badly exposed. In the months before the war, Russia-based hackers repeatedly launched ransomware attacks against global corporations, especially in the USA. The success of those attacks provided some false assurance to Moscow that the operatives at Roskomnadzor would manage to control the flow of information in Russia. The operatives at the Roskomnadzor disregarded one little fact - that the 21st Century Internet communication tools got developed some 9,501 km from Moscow, at Palo Alto, California.
Suppression of the flow of information is not as effective as it was in the 20th Century wars. The miscalculation about the ability to manage the flow of information enabled entities like Meduza to simply move their operations to neighbouring Latvia. With a few tweaks to their systems, the media outlets can still reach their audiences in Russia. Kremlin has moved to correct the miscalculation, by having security police routinely frisk citizens in the streets for smartphones and check browser and social media history. Access to content on the Ukraine war is a crime.
Abramova said despite the loss of subscriptions revenue, journalists at Meduza are determined to continue providing unadulterated information to audiences in Russia.
Russia may have some legitimate concerns from her neighbour. But is brute force the answer?
uSpiked previously alluded to this well-documented fact: 'an authoritarian leader is only deemed evil if he or she remains opposed to our points of view'. When an Israeli sniper killed Al Jazeera's journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, the reaction to the crime from Washington was at the very least muted. Washington's condemnation would have been loud if an enemy of the USA had killed Abu Akleh. When Maltese journalist, Daphne Anne Caruana Galizia was assassinated in a car bomb, an FBI Agent was in Malta within days.
As US security agencies decry the threats posed by American white supremacists at home, it is incomprehensible why Washington would align itself to Andriy Biletsky’s Azov Battalion, an entity known to propagate white supremacy in Ukraine. Putin's failure to clearly articulate that connection makes the Kremlin appear like a den of information fools whenever the issue of denazification of Ukraine arises. He discounted Ukranians' love for freedom and nationalism, expecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians to welcome Russian forces with plates of steaming Borscht. Like some entities in the West, Putin also expected President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to flee into exile. We do recall his response: "…I don’t need a ride, I need more ammunition...” that went viral.
The presence of neo-Nazis in Ukraine is not, however, lost to most African nations. It could explain why many governments have opted to be 'fence-sitters' as war crimes persist in Ukraine. Africans know the burden of colonialism, which was perpetuated mainly by governments in western Europe. Millions of Africans served in World War II for the colonial powers. Yet on their return from the war, the men found the same subjugation as they had faced before the war.
Across the Atlantic, American descendants of slavery still encounter racism. This is yet another issue that the UN Security Council has studiously avoided. More recently, NATO forces intervened in Lybia to aid in the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi. Never mind that Libyans decided to remove Gaddafi from power. When NATO fighter jets flew into the North African skies to aid the protesters, many Africans saw it as the West trying to dictate how we should ‘replace our dictators'.
At the height of the Cold War, in January 1961, Patrice Émery Lumumba, the Prime Minister of the then Republic of the Congo, was assassinated. Lumumba's assassination had American and Belgian fingerprints all over it. And his crime? He had turned to the Soviet Union for help to quell the 1960 mutiny after the UN, under pressure from the US and Belgium, rebuffed his pleas for assistance.
The assassinations of Lumumba and Gaddafi, and the deposition of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana might now be considered ancient history. But African leaderships have long memories. There might be some lingering sour taste in their mouths, hence the reluctance to embrace every idea or directive from the West.
The historical references above make it difficult for most African countries to openly denounce either side of the Russia-Ukraine war. But NATO has openly made the Ukraine war appear as a proxy war between the West and Russia. African leaders appear, like Pontius Pilate, to have washed their hands off the issue.
Putin would like us to accept his historical revisionism. Most African nations accept Moscow's narrative crafted to garner influence and support on the continent: "...the West is conspiring against us..." while reminding Africans how "...We stood in solidarity with you against colonialism in Africa... But should we forget that Russia then was part of the Soviet Union, which included Ukraine? One could be excused for thinking Russia might be taking liberties about its Soviet-era ties.
Some top officials who led the armed struggle against the apartheid confirmed to uSpiked that the ANC's liberation fighters got some training in the Ukraine part of the Soviet Union. South Africa's former minister for intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, told uSpiked:
"The understanding of Russia and the Soviet Union received by my generation goes far deeper than sentimental attachment somehow implying that's why our government today does not toe the Natoland line and has chosen non-aligned position with many states in Africa and internationally whose leaders received no training in the USSR.
"As for the MK military training more than three decades ago, the majority of the courses were in the Moscow region. But this is not to ignore the invaluable training in the Soviet Republic of Ukraine where communists were in power. A similar communist party that has remained banned by the anti-communist Kyiv regime since 2014 along with other socialist formations since Zelensky's election. In the Soviet era whether in Odesa (where I trained in 1964) or the Crimea, our instructors were from all over the Soviet Union.
"The Ukrainian officers were communist and had a particular loathing for the fascist Bandera Azov SS Ukrainian traitors who they fought during World War II and who have been legitimised by Nato and their puppet Zelensky."
Africa has a combined GDP of $2.6 trillion (nearly double that of Russia), some fast-growing economies, abundant natural resources, and is a hot export and direct foreign investment market for Russia. In reality, Russia needs Africa more than the continent needs it. Africa should not have qualms about having a united and firm stance on the Ukraine invasion. Looking at the African countries that voted against the expulsion of Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, their dismal trade with Russia should prompt us to examine those countries' respective human rights status.
China did the maths when pondering Moscow's alleged request for military aid in early March. China is an economic powerhouse. It can withstand sanctions from the West. The country had faced similar nuke threats during the Sino-Soviet border conflict, but the then US president Richard Nixon intervened with a threat to wipe Moscow from the maps. President Xi Jinping understands what from Moscow is bankable.
Whether our continent's leaderships get red-carpet reception at the Kremlin, we should be bold enough to learn from the 20th century Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller. If, assuming that the war in Eastern Europe is too far from us hence we shouldn't care, and fail to fight for Russian independent journalists to freely disseminate information without censorship, there will be nobody to fight for us when such suppressions arrive in our continent.
Let’s join our Russian professional colleagues, without delay, to call for the free flow of information.