They say that news travels fast. So, unfortunately, do lies. The speed with which the “story” described below reached quite different media outlets has made many people in Ukraine question whether it, so to speak, travelled, or was transported. Be that as it may, other questions also beg our consideration.

We will be asking how a world-renowned information agency came to use the news report of a Russian television company reporting on a story about Ukraine. Used it, we would add, without any reference to its source, and with at least one crucial omission. Of no less interest is how a UK newspaper could have quoted as its source yet seriously distorted a Ukrainian newspaper article. In fact, general bemusement is difficult to avoid over the fact that not one of these media outlets would appear to have checked any of the information they reported on site. One recalls that the original film of “Dr Zhivago” was apparently shot in Canada however there were cogent political reasons for this in Soviet times.  The reason why the BBC and two UK newspapers felt a Russian version of Ukrainian news to be appropriate we will leave to them to explain, if they can.   

Two weeks ago a short article by Andriy Kapustin appeared in the reputable Ukrainian “Weekly Mirror”.  Under the deliberately shocking title: “Undress Hitler or Barbie-Fuhrer as a gift”, the author, Andriy Kapustin, reported his find of a Hitler doll in a shop in Kyiv and his conversation with a rather limited saleswoman.  He was writing for a Ukrainian audience and will have been in no doubt how his readers would interpret the woman’s “No, not expensive, only 1200 UAH.”  Even if these “dolls” were for children and they are clearly not, the exorbitant price if nothing else would place it out of reach of Ukrainian children.

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There are however plenty of other reasons why a rush on such dolls would be most improbable.  The author is himself appalled, by this made-in-Taiwan monstrosity being flogged in a shop in Kyiv, a hero-city from World War II, and a few kilometres only from Babi Yar. He uses his imagination to consider the logical extension of such “toys”.  All of the thoughts about model concentration camps and the like are from his horrified imagination.

It is conceivable that the article available in Ukrainian and Russian overstretched the limited linguistic skills of those who presented the “story” in English, although baffling how they could have felt it appropriate to continue quoting a source they did not understand.  Russia’s close-to-the Kremlin TV Channel ORT and other Russian media outlets had no such difficulties. We would assume it suited their purposes to misrepresent the source as they frequently do. 

The Russian coverage was, in fact, standard fare. The main point would seem to have been to interview a certain journalist, Oles Burzina who “explains” that after the posthumous naming of Roman Shukhevych Hero of Ukraine, you must expect that each child in Ukraine will have a Hitler doll. Now this, regardless of anybody’s view of Shukhevych, is profoundly offensive. It is, however, so exceptionally stupid that it would have been better ignored as are most State-provided “news items” on this largely State-controlled and directed television channel.

Unfortunately, the same story, somewhat trimmed and linguistically mangled was presented on the BBC.  The latter went further than the Russian programme they used without acknowledgment, since they even failed to mention that the dolls were made in Taiwan.  Perhaps they had already thought up the title for their one-minute news item beginning “A toymaker in Ukraine has sparked outrage”, and it was easier to adjust the facts than to think of another name. 

The presenter, however, obligingly repeated the Russian source in speaking of “cases of extreme racism like those seen in Nazi Germany” and immediately giving the interview with Oles Burzina.  Once again, the BBC, who clearly saw no need to investigate any aspect of this story in Ukraine itself, may not have known that the ORT had not chosen their interviewee in order to get a balanced and objective view. There is, of course, no problem with asking for an opinion however we do not need to explain to the BBC that when an interview is shown to apparently corroborate a vague but serious allegation, an alternative opinion must be offered

The news stories which appeared the same day in the UK papers “Daily Telegraph” and “Daily Mail” presented Kapustin’s most hideous fantasies (about toy concentration camps) as future business plans of the spurious Ukrainian toy manufacturers purported to have produced the doll.

The BBC has now removed the news item, which remains however available in Google’s cache and was re-broadcast anyway in Canada.  They have made no apology and have not publicly corrected the errors made.  The newspapers in question ignored my letters and in one case even failed to post my comment among those shocked and disgusted opinions of their readers.

On the subject of shock and outrage, I would mention one extra point. Next time foreign tourists visit Russia, and come back with KGB badges and uniforms, they might like to think about the many people, myself included, who have very good reason for finding this profoundly offensive.

As offensive as are any suggestions that in a country as devastated by the Nazis as Ukraine, toy manufacturers would come up with such a horror, and parents would buy it. In just a few days, Ukraine will be marking the 62nd anniversary of the end of that War.  The figures presented in all English language reports were ludicrously understated, and the facile conclusions repeated deeply hurtful.

The fact that news reports apparently unrelated to each other appeared almost simultaneously does raise certain questions. They are questions we would respectfully suggest the English language outlets might find it wise to scrutinize themselves.

As far as information about Ukraine’s problems are concerned, there will be plenty of reports since the media in Ukraine has largely freed itself of the old yoke, and Ukrainians themselves are aware of problems which need addressing. This, of course, means easy pickings for those who are prepared to distort what they read for their own purposes.

It is sometimes baffling how much scrutiny Ukraine’s problems with xenophobia get, with no reference to Russia. Perhaps people have decided that Russia’s problems are too large, too geopolitically inconvenient to talk about, or simply not “news” anymore.

We reject this attitude - on behalf of our Russian colleagues, on behalf of our young friends in Moscow and other Russian cities who are terrified to be on the street “too late” and don’t come out at all on Hitler’s birthday at all. And for all our sakes since the skinheads and others, spreading violence and hatred throughout Russia, are also actively seeking support in Ukraine.

We do not refer to problems with xenophobia in Russia in order to downplay those in Ukraine, although we do feel that Russian semi-official media outlets might profitably spend less time screaming of an alleged epidemic of fascism in Ukraine and more time trying to address the plague at home.

This, however, in no way minimizes the need to address the issues in Ukraine.  We believe they must be confronted and endeavour to do so on our site in both Ukrainian and English ( ) and know of many media outlets and civic organizations actively fighting hate speech and xenophobia.

We are not closing our eyes to major problems in the country and even the authorities have begun taking measures. Often inept, slow, sometimes ineffectual, but it’s a beginning.  It is very frustrating when a lot of time is spent trying to counter accusations and stereotypes which, like all inaccurate and imbalanced information, mislead the public.

Empowering truth

We understand that everybody makes mistakes, including the media. This does not remove the need to correct misinformation.  After the latest wave of wildly inaccurate information about Hitler dolls, produced in Taiwan, swept through the media, we reminded all English language media outlets of the right to information, and asked for the appropriate measures to be taken. The BBC removed the offending video, however made no apology and clearly does not intend to inform its views that the material presented was inaccurate and in breach of the principles of good journalism. The two UK newspapers involved, the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail simply ignored our letters. The Internet is now teeming with stories and messages of shock and outrage over unverified and false information..

In conditions of freedom of speech, people must be free to express their views openly.

They are entitled to expect the media to represent their views accurately and report on all events objectively, without distortion.

We all have the right to demand that media outlets

check their facts

do not seriously misrepresent their source

at least mention alternative points of view when presenting contentious statements

do not manufacture sensations

do not copy news stories from other media outlets without acknowledging their source

This has happened before and it will certainly happen again.  We do not have the financial resources of the major media outlets.

We can and will “fight” them one way only - with the truth.

We will be monitoring all such cases where misinformation is spread and will be countering it with truthful, accurate and balanced presentations.

By Halya Coynash

Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group