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Pavel Kanygin is a Russian journalist who has covered the MH17 case for the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta since the tragic event in 2014. As a consequence of his work, Mr Kanygin has himself been targeted by disinformation in the state media.

In this exclusive interview with EUvsDisinfo, Pavel Kanygin shares thoughts and professional tricks from his experience as an investigative journalist who has successfully challenged the state-sponsored disinformation.

Kanygin also reflects on the aims and objectives of the disinformation and what can be done in order to limit the role it plays in modern Russian society.

“Propaganda is institutionalised disinformation”

Q. First a question about terminology. Which term do you prefer: propaganda, fakes, disinformation? Or another term?

A. Propaganda. Because propaganda is essentially institutionalised disinformation. When disinformation is used as an instrument of exercising a constant and one-sided pressure on public opinion, on discourse, on generally accepted norms, when it turns into something that is always present in people’s lives – then it is propaganda.

Q. Is it possible to give a general characteristic of the so-called “pro-Kremlin disinformation”? Do you think that the situation with disinformation is special in Russia, or can it be compared with the situation in other countries? 

A. I think that it can be compared with China – that is probably the closest example. In China, there are closed internet sectors, and Russia is moving in the same direction: with a specially designed kind of knowledge that is imposed on people in the form of propaganda – for example, in relation to history, in relation to current events, in relation to opinion, facts and a how to perceive these facts.

“All this is very, very dangerous”

Q. What purpose or purposes does the disinformation serve, in your opinion? If it is possible to generalise?

A. One can only guess what goals e.g. the Russian leadership sets itself. Perhaps, at the top of the power, it is a tactical approach to propaganda that prevails – that is, the propaganda is used to solve short-term problems. For example, to shape public opinion about an event in a way that is necessary for the authorities, as well as in order to preserve power. For this purpose, the current authorities put pressure on people’s patriotic feelings, emphasising their differences with the rest of the world and that only the Putin regime will protect Russians from modern threats – this is typical populist rhetoric.

Russia’s dominating media outlets are controlled with a centralised system. Chief editors and top managers attend weekly meetings where they receive instructions from the top of the Kremlin.

But there are more fundamental tasks that are set, for example, in China, and I believe that in Russia there are also people in power who want to change public opinion more drastically, for centuries ahead. They want to change the views and attitudes of Russians in regard to most issues of modern politics, modern history or history in general. They want to isolate the Russian citizens as a separate group of East Europeans – that is, not only the Russian nation, but also the Tatars, the Bashkirs, the Mari people, everyone who lives on the territory of Russia – to distinguish them, to draw a border between them and everyone who lives outside of Russia, to dig a cultural ditch between people.

That is the fundamental task. Even if it is not formulated like that, even if the Kremlin simply sets itself the goal of staying in power in the short or medium term and does not think about the next decades – nonetheless, this policy of separating people means that the cultural ditch between Russians and Europeans is growing.

We can already see that: In the five years that there has been propaganda in Russia – and I think we can talk about five years approximately – quite serious differences in opinions and approaches have emerged. And while these differences are still not critical, it is only a matter of time, a matter of one generation. So of course, all this is very, very dangerous. 

The case of MH17

Q. You have been investigating the MH17 case for a long time. Can you give an example of how you have exposed disinformation related to MH17? And what did this exposure lead to? Did your exposure have any concrete consequences?

A. Of course I would like the consequences to be, for example, that a criminal case is opened against those Russians who were behind the transportation of the military equipment from Russia into Ukraine – but there are no such consequences. On the contrary, I see that such publications, including mine, have the opposite effect: The people we have exposed receive respect, and, as in the case of General Dubinsky, enjoy full immunity and security guarantees from the Russian state; they meet with [president Putin’s personal advisor Vladislav] Surkov at the annual meetings of Donbas veterans. They receive recognition of their innocence, although it should be the other way around.

In an investigative article (click to read in English) from 2017, Pavel Kanygin identified Major General Sergey Dubinsky as one of those responsible for the downing of Flight MH17. The general has now been charged with murder in the court case that will begin in the Netherlands in March 2020.

But this is also a kind of reaction to our publications. Unfortunately, for example, when we exposed Dubinsky, conducted a voice examination and identified him, it was confirmed that this person was indeed involved in transporting the Buk [missile launcher]. Or another example: We were able to expose the Ministry of Defence’s disinformation, which claimed that the plane was shot down by a Buk that belonged to Ukraine from the village of Zaroschenskoye. It was easy to expose this fake through pointing out that by that time, Zaroschenskoye was not under the control of the Ukrainian military, but under the control of the DPR [the Russia-backed Donetsk People’s Republic separatist forces]. It was quite simple. As for how the propaganda reacted to this – it simply did not notice and continued to stand its ground.

“Our task is to attract the readers’ interest”

Q. In other words, you are not sure that journalistic investigations and exposure can pose a significant threat to disinformation? Or compete with it?

A. It definitely can, for a certain category of people. For our readers it is important, for the competent audience in Western countries it is important; for the relatives of the victims it is important and for the Dutch it is important. For those who are still not stupefied by propaganda, everything that real professional journalists do is important.

For the authorities, it becomes dangerous and painful only when ordinary people become interested, people who have not expressed interest in receiving true information before. When people suddenly become interested in the protests in Buryatia, the details of the war in Ukraine, the details, for example, of some of the illegal actions of the state. We see such sudden surges of interest among the audiences who have just been watching TV, and then suddenly, when these people go online, they see an article in Novaya Gazeta, or from the BBC, they open their eyes, and a thorough discussion begins. When people go on YouTube and listen to the radio, it is no longer possible to ignore it. When it suddenly hits the national agenda – only then the authorities begin to respond.

Video: In 2014, Pavel Kanygin was taken hostage by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and released for a ransom. In 2015, he was again detained and beaten by the separatists’ security service.

Our task as independent journalists is to attract the readers’ interest in these problems. It is only when we attract the masses, the broad layers of society, not only our current readers, but when the multimillion audience of VK [Russia’s largest social media platform VKontakte] and Instagram begins to find itself in the coverage area of the independent media, only then it becomes painful for the authorities, and that is when they are forced to respond. I consider this an important task.

Q. You just talked about your audience – for which audience do you write? As a journalist, you probably keep in mind a specific target audience – what can you say about those whom you see in this role?

A. Our audience is very smart, competent, professional, but still small. But we are talking about tens of thousands of people, maybe two hundred thousand; and that is obviously only a small part of even Moscow and St. Petersburg, and a very tiny part of Russia. Of course, we are proud that these people are with us. We and our regular audience – and I believe that this is our common task – we would like to break through with our information to those people who are not yet reading independent publications, people who do not use reliable news sources, and therefore do not have access to facts and truthful information.

“You need to work with facts”

Q. Can you tell about one of your methods in exposing disinformation? Is there any particularly successful trick you use?

A. It is very simple: When you see that the propaganda spreads false information about a very important topic, then you just need to physically get to the source, to the place of the event, to the topic, to the person, to the place, to the information, the data, the archive – to the place where the lies have come from – not the “he said, she said journalism”. You need to get to the source of the news, the source of the event, and simply qualitatively, professionally investigate this fact. Of course, the simplest answer is just a few words: You need to work with facts, and that’s all. It’s very simple, it’s very easy to fight propaganda: You need to look for facts.

But how to make these facts attractive to people, to a wide audience, that is the second question, which is more difficult, and so far, I have not found a universal answer to it.

Educating the audience

Q. Besides your own investigations, whose work in exposing disinformation would you single out as worthy of recognition?

A. I like what Meduza, for example, does with its [explanatory] “cards” and analysis of topical issues about which the propaganda spreads false information, from an objective point of view, from an objective position. Although what they do looks simple in terms of execution and cost of effort, I believe it is also very valuable. It is valuable to explain things that may seem obvious to a competent audience, things which are not obvious to the general public who are used to consuming news from television or from propaganda information channels. I think it’s simply wonderful how Meduza educates its audience.

A manageable risk

Q. It is a well-known fact, which we have also written about, that you personally have been persecuted because of your work. Do you not fear for your safety? Have you considered stopping your investigations?

A. Well now, in the short term – I’m in America now and I’ll be studying at Harvard for a year, so I stopped working for a while, but I continue to monitor the topic of the MH17 investigation, and, of course, I will not miss any developments in this regard, I be will be following what happens.

The state TV host Vladimir Solovyov was behind a disinformation attack on Pavel Kanygin in June 2019, which was seen as punishment for an investigative article about the MH17 case.

Then I hope that I will return to Russia. The risks there are obviously very high for journalists, there is always a risk and a danger – but that is just something you have accept in your work. Risk is quite a material category that can be managed; the same way you can, for example, manage finances, bookkeeping, public relations.

Yes, an unpleasant or negative consequence of our work is always a possibility: You can try to achieve a certain level of comfort, but you cannot completely rule out a negative scenario. The same way it is impossible to make sure that there will never be an economic crisis in the world. But in fact, it is possible to minimise the risk, and that is what I’m trying to do: I pay attention to my surroundings; I don’t talk on the phone on open lines in Russia; I try to be visible to others; I do not walk or travel along the same routes all the time – these are some of the basic rules.

I’m telling you what immediately comes to mind, but of course, there are many more of these rules, and they simply become a habit. As an accountant is in the habit of making a quarterly report and does not find it difficult to check debit and credit, there are certain algorithms for a journalist who works with dangerous topics, and if they are followed, everything in principle should be fine.

Other articles in our series of interviews with Russian journalists:

Propaganda Must be Opposed by the Language of Values“: Andrei Arkhangelsky is one of Russia’s most active commentators on the topic of disinformation and propaganda.

Distracting the audience from the real problems“: Exclusive interview with Russian journalist Maria Borzunova. Every week she exposes pro-Kremlin disinformation in her programme ‘Fake News’ on the independent TV Rain.

“’Information war’ is a term used by the Kremlin to justify disinformation”: Roman Dobrokhotov won the 2019 European Press Prize Investigative Reporting Award for exposing disinformation in the Skripal case. 

Top image: Wikipedia