Wacky theories gain Russians’ attention

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No more convincing argument can be made for a free press than what is happening in Russia today.


Although a few persistent and courageous journalists and bloggers manage to pursue the truth and report news objectively, their voices reach only a tiny percentage of Russia’s 142 million citizens. Virtually all television networks and wire services and most major newspapers are owned either directly by the Russian government or by companies under government control.


The Kremlin orchestrates national and international news coverage. Americans and others in the West might be shocked by what Russians are hearing about the downing of a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine.


Rumors and wacky conspiracy theories are given credence and air time by Russian media, while facts and logic are suppressed.


It has become clear that the Malaysian airliner carrying 298 people was shot down by a surface-to-air missile launched from eastern Ukraine, but if Russians are hearing about this at all from major media, it’s only as a theory proposed by Russia’s enemies. Instead, TV viewers watch interviews with people claiming to have seen Ukrainian government fighter jets in the vicinity just before the debris from the jetliner came crashing down to earth.


Russian media have been reporting, also, that the jet might have been shot down by Ukrainian-government forces bent on assassination who mistook it for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plane, which happened to be airborne at about the same time. This despite the facts that Putin’s Ilyushin jumbo jet and the Malaysian Airlines twin-engine Boeing 777 look nothing alike and that Putin’s plane was never closer than 1,000 miles away.


But the craziest theory being aired by straight-faced Russian announcers goes something like this: The Malaysian jet that went missing months ago over the Indian Ocean was the same one that came down in eastern Ukraine, having been initially hijacked by the United States, which eventually diverted it to the Netherlands, from where it was flown over eastern Ukraine and deliberately shot down.


The “evidence” for this comes from pro-Russian rebel leader Igor Girkin, who told Russkaya Vesna (the website Russian News) last week that he believed many of the victims of the crash had been dead long before the plane crashed. He said his troop reported “a significant number of the bodies weren’t fresh.”


It’s unlikely that many Russians will buy into this story because of one glaring defect: What, then, happened to the plane of mainly Dutch citizens that departed from the Netherlands? Still, these ridiculous theories are enough to cast doubt over more logical explanations of what happened, mainly that the jet was shot down mistakenly by pro-Russian rebels, or even by Russian military personnel assisting them.


The Russian government’s campaign against free speech is evident in laws enacted last year, like the civil code amendment that bars the collection and dissemination of any information about an individual’s private life without his or her consent.


Another law now allows prosecutors to block access to websites that call for participation in public meetings unapproved by the authorities. And, according to the International Research and Exchange Board, Putin passed a decree at the end of last year to transform the Russian information agency Novosti into “Russia Today,” a public relations agency to promote a shiny image of Russia.


As more media outlets are gobbled up by government companies, what Russians hear and read is not news but propaganda.


We are quick to criticize the media in this county for their fascination with celebrity and pack mentality. But at least they are free of government control.


That’s something we too often take for granted.


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