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U.S. Government Helps Pro-Ukraine Media Spread Propaganda And Silence American Critics

Media outlets organized with substantial funding and direction from the U.S. government have supported censorship, disseminated disinfo, and sought to silence American critics of the war.

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Ukraine’s American-backed fight against Russia is being waged not only in the blood-soaked trenches of the Donbas region but also on what military planners call the cognitive battlefield — to win hearts and minds.

A sprawling constellation of media outlets organized with substantial funding and direction from the U.S. government has not just worked to counter Russian propaganda but has supported strong censorship laws and shutdowns of dissident outlets, disseminated disinformation of its own, and sought to silence critics of the war, including many American citizens.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs, commentator Tucker Carlson, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer are among the critics on both the left and the right who have been cast as part of a “network of Russian propaganda.”

But the figures targeted by the Ukrainian watchdog groups are hardly Kremlin agents. They simply have forcefully criticized dominant narratives about the war.

Sachs is a highly respected international development expert who has angered Ukrainian officials over his repeated calls for a diplomatic solution to the current military conflict. Last November, he gave a speech at the United Nations calling for a negotiated peace.

Mearsheimer has written extensively on international relations and is a skeptic of NATO expansion. He predicted that Western efforts to militarize Ukraine would lead to a Russian invasion.

Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning independent journalist who has criticized not just war coverage but media dynamics that suppress voices that run counter to U.S. narratives.

“What they mean when they demand censorship of ‘pro-Russia propaganda’ is anything that questions the US/EU role in the Ukraine war or who dissents from their narratives,” Greenwald has observed.

There’s no evidence of Kremlin influence over their viewpoints, but their comments alone are enough for a network of U.S.-backed Ukrainian media groups to tarnish these experts as Russian propagandists.  

As Congress debates major new funding to support the Ukrainian war effort, U.S. taxpayer dollars are already flowing to outlets such as the New Voice of Ukraine, VoxUkraine, Detector Media, the Institute of Mass Information, the Public Broadcasting Company of Ukraine, and many others. Some of this money has come from the $44.1 billion in civilian-needs foreign aid committed to Ukraine. While the funding is officially billed as an ambitious program to develop high-quality independent news programs, counter malign Russian influence, and modernize Ukraine’s archaic media laws, the new sites in many cases have promoted aggressive messages that stray from traditional journalistic practices to promote the Ukrainian government’s official positions and delegitimize its critics.

VoxUkraine has released highly produced videos attacking the credibility of American opposition voices, including Sachs, Mearsheimer, and Greenwald. Detector Media, one of the most influential media watchdog groups, similarly produces a flow of social media and posts branding American critics of the war as part of a Russian disinformation operation. The outlets are also devoted to domestic disputes. Detector Media’s broadcasts have lampooned critics of Ukrainian government moves to shut down opposition media outlets.

It’s not only dissident voices targeted by the media groups, which are funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Detector Media went after The New York Times in February over a news report about hundreds of Ukrainians in the battle for Avdiivka who were captured or missing. The Ukrainian fact-check site offered little in terms of a rebuttal. Detector Media only cited a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Defense Forces disputing the Times’ story, which it labeled as “disinformation.” The New Voice of Ukraine quoted a Ukrainian official describing the Times story as a “Russian Psyop,” a term for psychological warfare.

Unlike similar media development programs that USAID has led throughout the Middle East, Ukrainian outlets tend to produce a great deal of English content that trickles back into the domestic American audience and explicitly targets American foreign policy discourse.

The New Voice of Ukraine syndicates with Yahoo News. VoxUkraine is a fact-checking partner with Meta, which assists in removing content deemed “Russian disinformation” from Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. Detector Media has similarly led a consortium of nonprofit groups pressuring social media to aggressively remove content critical of Ukraine.

“It makes more sense to have it in English because one of the things that happens is that the narrative that one encounters in the mainstream media in the West is referenced as the official Ukrainian voices,” said Nicolai N. Petro, a professor specializing in Russian and Ukrainian affairs at the University of Rhode Island.

“These then become the known Ukrainian voices, although they’re actually only an echo of the voice that we are projecting into Ukraine,” Petro added.

In the new aid earmarked for the war in Ukraine that Congress is now debating, a small portion of the $60 billion emergency spending package is devoted to continued USAID programs in the country. President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview this week with Politico and Bild, argued that legislators skeptical of the aid package were under the influence of Russian propaganda.

“They have their lobbies everywhere: in the United States, in the EU countries, in Britain, in Latin America, in Africa,” Zelensky said of Russian influence, without naming names. The pro-Russian pressure groups, the Ukrainian president added, relied on “certain media groups, citizens of the United States.”

Information control is a central dynamic playing out in the Ukraine-Russia war. U.S. media have provided wide coverage of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to clamp down on critical news outlets, enacting new criminal penalties for those publishing “false information” about the conflict. Many independent outlets in Russia have been forced to close, including the left-leaning radio station Ekho Moskvy. The Russian government has also blocked Russian-language news sites based in the West and arrested at least 22 journalists, including The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich.

But far less attention has been paid to the Ukraine government’s crackdown on independent and opposition media, a push aided by the U.S.-backed network of anti-disinformation groups. Even as Washington’s efforts to censor information at home are drawing greater scrutiny, its support of Ukraine’s efforts reflects the increasingly global reach of the American government’s propaganda arms.

“There’s an information war going on between Russia and Ukraine, and the United States is not a disinterested party — we’re an active participant,” said George Beebe, a director with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “The U.S. government has been trying to shape perceptions, and it’s very difficult to separate what’s intended for foreign audiences from what seeps into the Anglosphere media, if you want to call it that, including here in the United States.”

American influence in Ukraine’s media environment stretches back to the end of the Cold War, though it has intensified in recent years. Since the outbreak of the war, USAID support has extended to 175 national Ukrainian media entities.

Over the last decade, efforts to crack down on speech have been increasingly justified as an effort to protect social media from disinformation. The U.S. helped set up new think tanks and media watchdogs and brought over communications specialists to guide Ukraine’s approach. Nina Jankowicz, the polarizing official whom President Biden appointed to lead the Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board to police social media content, previously advised the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry on its anti-disinformation work.

In response to questions about the U.S.-backed anti-disinformation groups in Ukraine targeting Americans, the U.S. State Department provided a statement saying it defines disinformation “as false or misleading information that is deliberately created or spread with the intent to deceive or mislead.” It added, “We accept there may be other interpretations or definitions and do not censor or coerce independent organizations into adopting our definition.” 

While noting that the U.S. “provides funding to credible independent media organizations to strengthen democracies in the countries we work in around the world,” the statement declared, “We do not control the editorial content of these organizations.”

However, disclosures indicate that the U.S. government and its contractors tasked with reforming Ukraine’s institutions have directly set the agenda for Ukrainian outlets. Immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, the USAID dispensed emergency grants to its media partners, partly through the Zinc Network, a contractor based in London that has been accused of setting up covert public relations campaigns on behalf of the British government.

The grant description notes that the money went to the Zinc Network and Detector Media to assist the Ukrainian government with strategic communications and to “undermine Kremlin information operations.” Far from independent reporting, the grant instructions asked the recipients to provide “quick, effective PR and media engagement.” In addition to countering Russian disinformation, the money was intended to “maintain public morale” and “bolster international support for solidarity with Ukraine.”

Last September, journalist Jack Poulson reported on a leaked report from the Zinc Network’s Open Information Partnership, which helps coordinate the activities of several anti-Russian disinformation nonprofits around Europe backed by NATO members, including Detector Media.

The lengthy report defines disinformation as not only false or misleading content but also “verifiable information which is unbalanced or skewed, amplifies, or exaggerates certain elements for effect, or uses emotive or inflammatory language to achieve effects which fit within existing Kremlin narratives, aims, or activities.”

In other words, factual information with emotional language that simply overlaps with anything remotely connected to Russian viewpoints is considered disinformation, according to this U.S.-backed consulting firm helping to guide the efforts of Ukrainian think tanks and media.

Many of the broad narratives the report identified as Russian disinformation follow this vague rubric. These included allegations that NATO is using Ukraine as a pawn in a proxy war against Russia and concerns that Ukrainian politicians are corrupt.

The report goes on to blame many British and American experts who “portray the West as being divided, corrupt, or nefarious” as part of the Russian disinformation system. The document names liberal journalists Max Blumenthal and Newsweek’s Ellie Cook, as well as Republican figures such as former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and Arizona Congressman Andy Biggs, as voices that end up featured in Russian propaganda and disinformation.

The Open Information Partnership report suggests new legislation to counter “malign foreign actors” and for European intelligence agencies to “do more” and provide a “unified approach” against the dangers of disinformation. Zinc Network did not respond to a request for comment.

Ukraine’s government has also worked with U.S. government officials and others to censor its American critics. One prominent example is Aaron Maté, a RealClearInvestigations contributor who has criticized U.S. policy regarding Ukraine in other outlets. Following the Russian invasion, Twitter, under its old ownership, flagged Maté to be censored after the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the Ukrainian intelligence agency, included him on a list of accounts sent to the FBI that were “suspected by the SBU in spreading fear and disinformation.”

Just months after the social media request, Ross Burley, a former Zinc Network and Open Information Partnership official now with the Centre for Information Resilience, spoke openly about his desire to censor critics of the war, including Maté. Burley, who “designed, implemented, and led several of the UK Government’s counter disinformation programmes,” according to a now-deleted profile, discussed the rise of independent media critical of the Ukrainian government and Western support for a war that has devastated that country. He discussed the conflict at the Opinion Festival in Tallinn, Estonia, in August 2022.

Burley argued that social media needed more “responsibility” regarding what types of content to allow. “Even I saw Russell Brand, who has a huge following on YouTube, was interviewing a journalist called Aaron Maté on his channel,” said Burley, who added that it is “incredibly irresponsible for YouTube and other social media companies to continue to host these people.”

Silencing Zelensky’s Enemies Within

The organizations supported by the U.S. government have also sought to silence critics inside Ukraine. Before the war, in one of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s first controversial acts to stifle political opposition, he moved in February 2021 to close television channels 112, NewsOne, and ZIK — stations owned by Viktor Medvedchuk and his associate Taras Kozak, former lawmakers with the Opposition Party of Life, a bloc opposed to Zelensky — over allegations of Kremlin ties.

“The sanctions against TV channels of Mr. Medvedchuk are not about media and freedom of speech at all,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky’s chief of staff. “This is only about effective countermeasures against fakes and foreign propaganda.”

Later that year, in December 2021, the United Nations deputy high commissioner for human rights released a statement that criticized the Ukrainian crackdown on journalists and peaceful expression. The report cited the closure of opposition television channels and other media.

The USAID-funded Ukrainian media network, however, was quick to defend the Zelensky government. The decision to close the outlets, wrote Detector Media, was “not an attack on freedom of speech” because the channels, the group argued, provided “informational support of Russian aggression against Ukraine.”

In May 2022, the Zelensky government widely expanded its efforts to outlaw the political opposition. Zelensky moved to ban 11 political parties over alleged ties to Russia, the largest of which was Medvedchuk’s Opposition Party of Life, which previously held 44 seats in the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament.

Later that summer, other bills to crack down on media rights that had failed to pass in the past over civil liberty concerns were brought back into consideration. Mykyta Poturayev, a Ukrainian legislator and close ally of Zelensky, reintroduced the On Media Law.

The legislation features provisions to penalize hate speech and disinformation, as well as broad powers to limit certain forms of foreign influence. Among its most contentious provisions is the power granting a council controlled by Zelensky and his allies to ban media outlets without a court order. 

Before Zelensky signed the bill in December 2022, many journalists spoke out against the legislation. The European Federation of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists denounced it as an extreme violation of journalistic freedom. Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists described the bill as the “biggest threat to free speech in independent [Ukraine’s] history.”

Again, the USAID-funded media groups provided pivotal support amid a tightening on journalistic freedom. The push to support the bill was largely led by U.S. government-backed think tanks and media outlets. As the Ukrainian legislature moved forward, Detector Media reported a new statement from select journalists and nonprofits who supported the controversial legislation. The statement argued that the Zelensky-appointed council overseeing media was an “independent regulator” and urged the adoption of the law as a tool to counteract foreign aggression.

The statement was organized by Ukraine’s Center for Democracy and Rule of Law. In 2022, the group received 76.67 percent of its budget from USAID, USAID’s contractors, and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S. government-funded nonprofit that was spun out of the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s.

The other signatories of the statement included the Laboratory of Digital Security and Human Rights Platform — both funded by USAID and Internews, a California-based USAID contractor that manages much of the agency’s Ukraine media work. Internews Ukraine, the company’s in-house Ukraine media outlet, also signed the statement supporting the On Media Law.

Internews is a significant pillar of USAID’s $35 million Ukraine media program. Other European governments and private sector donors, led by billionaires Pierre Omidyar via the Omidyar Network and George Soros via the International Renaissance Foundation, have financed the network of media and activists working with the USAID groups.

Disclosures suggest other supplemental funding has been rushed to local Ukrainian media. In 2021, before Russia’s invasion, Detector Media received 35.1 percent of its nearly $1 million budget from Internews. New data released by the federal government shows that USAID provided a $2.5 million direct grant to Detector Media last year.

In a report titled “Long-Term Investments Pay Dividends in Ukraine,” NED noted that U.S.-backed groups have been pivotal in reshaping the country’s law. It pointed to a coalition of nonprofits led by the Coalition Reanimation Package of Reforms, a USAID-backed group that mobilized civil society to lobby for legal and legislative changes. The group was pivotal in the push for the On Media Law. The group hailed the law’s passage, calling it one of the major achievements of reforms passed during the war.

After the legislation was passed, Detector Media attacked “Pro-Russian Telegram channels” for spreading “fakes and manipulations” about the law. One fact-check published by the group claimed that the law “had to be adopted in the context of Ukraine’s European integration.” The post countered claims that the law introduces authoritarian forms of censorship by pointing to the fact that “media professionals and members of the public were involved in its development.”

NED, the former CIA arm, has publicly touted the effort to pass the On Media Law for its work in reshaping Ukraine’s media landscape. In a report written in collaboration with Detector Media, the group discusses the law with respect to bolstering efforts to “rid the Ukrainian information space of harmful Russian propaganda.” The report noted some journalistic criticism of the proposal, concluded that it was “supported by the majority of media related civil society organizations and international donors for its expansion of democratic accountability in the information space.”

Unmentioned in NED and Detector Media’s claims of widespread media support for the law is its own central role and that of other USAID-backed groups.

New Difficulties Reporting

In the midst of the first months of the Russian invasion, many in Ukraine readily accepted the need for emergency government influence. The Ukrainian government condensed the major television channels into a single “United News” national broadcast that continues today. Many journalists voluntarily paused critical reporting of the Ukrainian government to focus on coverage of the Russian invasion.

Now, over two years into the conflict, reporters are facing new difficulties in reporting on routine issues. Journalists taking a critical look at the government are facing intimidation and threats.

The Columbia Journalism Review has chronicled the precarious situation independent journalists face in today’s Ukraine. In January, a pair of thugs went to the home of Yuriy Nikolov, a prominent investigative journalist who has uncovered scandals involving military catering contracts. The men tried to break down Nikolov’s door, and according to his mother, who was home, called him a “provocateur” and a “traitor.”

That same month, an anonymous video was released from hidden cameras showing journalists with Bihus.Info — a local media outlet that has extensively reported on Ukrainian government corruption — using illegal drugs in private. Denys Bihus, the head of the site, has reported on Ukraine’s intelligence service’s involvement in the surveillance and intimidation of his media outlet.

Anatoly Shariy, a controversial Ukrainian blogger living in exile over repeated death threats, has clashed repeatedly with USAID’s network of media outlets. Shariy is known for his blistering criticism of the 2014 Maidan Revolution that toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and set Ukraine on a path to alignment with NATO. The SBU, the Ukrainian intelligence agency, has accused him of “high treason” over alleged ethnic slurs targeted toward the people of the western region of Ukraine.

In July 2023, the agency added new charges, claiming Shariy distributed staged videos of Ukrainian prisoners under detention by Russian forces. The SBU has attempted to extradite Shariy, who has moved from the Netherlands to Spain and reportedly to Italy for asylum.

Online reporting in English, though, is dominated by USAID media outlets. A search for Shariy’s name returns half a dozen articles by VoxUkraine, Detector Media, the Institute of Mass Information, and the New Voice of Ukraine. The articles trash Shariy as a pro-Russian propagandist and criminal, guilty of a variety of speech-related crimes.

“In his Telegram posts, Shariy tries to emphasize that Russia is more united and stronger than Ukraine,” Detector Media claimed. “He rejects the severing of any ties between Ukraine and Russia. Even in the face of proven Russian lies and evidence of their crimes, Shariy continues to promote narratives favorable to Russia and disseminate disinformation.”

The Detector Media article provides little substance in terms of any illegal actions beyond Shariy’s viewpoints. But expressing viewpoints that run counter to Ukraine and NATO policies with respect to the war is enough to make an individual an enemy of the state.

This article was originally published by RealClearInvestigations.


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