British newspaper succumbs to pressure from pro-Russian trolls

A screenshot of the publication that was deleted by The Guardian / The Observer

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

Many long years ago, when I was still a boy, I was an avid stamp collector. And, growing up within a community of Ukrainian political refugees, I was most interested in Ukrainian stamps. Not that there were that many. The short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic only issued five original stamps, and these were mostly uncancelled as very few were actually used. But there was quite a treasure trove of what has come to be known as “underground stamps”.

These alternative postage stamps were issued by a variety of Ukrainian communities around the world. Each of these stamps is a work of art and a small page in Ukrainian history. Well-known artists (the most famous name is Robert Lisovsky) participated in their creation, but most of the authors of the graphics remained anonymous; this only gives the underground mail a special charm.

Kyiv photographer Oleksandr Kosmach collects these diaspora stamps and shares his findings in the blog “Underground Post of Ukraine”.

Recently, he was contacted by Kadish Morris from the British newspaper The Guardian/The Observer with a proposal to make a short publication about his research regarding these stamps. The ones he provided ranged from cultural, Christmas, and Plast (Ukrainian scout organization) themes to those criticizing the Soviet regime. Of course, among them were stamps about UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) which fought against both Nazis and Soviets during the Second World War and continued the struggle against the USSR for another 10 years after the war.

As Kosmach explains: “The editor, in the end, chose a lot of politicized stamps as well as a loud and striking title for the publication. In two days, the publication was suddenly deleted. The email from the editor Elisabeth Ribbans claimed that their media outlet had received backlash from some readers and that the stamps required additional clarification and context. But, instead of correcting the descriptions or the title, the publication was deleted completely”. Kosmach was ready to provide additional material to clarify the historical context, but this was rejected.

I asked Kosmach whether the Guardian let him know who it was that was objecting, but they did not tell him. Nevertheless, he noticed that a number of articles highly critical of Guardian’s decision to publish this vignette appeared on the internet. Assuming that these may have been the people complaining, these articles are very illuminating and clearly show who is behind this heavy-handed assault on an innocuous piece of philatelic history.

One such article entitled “Guardian scrapes new depths with its anti-Russia propaganda” was posted on a website calling itself “The New Observer” and run by a British writer living in the Russian Federation. His objections carry the now-familiar Russian narrative that the UPA were a bunch of Nazis who collaborated with the Germans in killing Jews and so on. We are all familiar with these lies because they’ve been regurgitated so often. But a check of the website and the other articles posted clearly shows where it’s all coming from. “Unlikely tales about Novichok” is one headline. The story basically disputes the proven evidence that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned by Novichok, a nerve agent whose use can only be authorized at the highest levels of Russian government. Another, headlined “Phantasy journalism (Shaun Walker on Belarus)” whitewashes dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Another article critical of the Guardian’s decision to publish the piece about the stamps, was written by former British diplomat Craig Murray and contains the same Moscow-inspired allegations against the UPA. It also disputes the fact that the Russians interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections and labels both Bellingcat and the Atlantic Council as “warmongering propaganda operations”.

The Atlantic Council is an American think tank in the field of international affairs, which has done some very fine research into current Ukrainian affairs and has sponsored a number of highly informative webinars related to Ukraine.

Bellingcat is an investigative journalism website that specializes in fact-checking and open-source intelligence. It was Bellingcat’s investigation that provided the evidence that a BUK missile, originating from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Brigade in Kursk, Russia was responsible for downing flight MH17 over the Russian-occupied territory of Donbas, killing 298 innocent civilians. If Bellingcat is “warmongering”, then is the killing of these civilians, “peacemaking”?

First, the decision to delete the article about the Ukrainian stamps amounts to editorial cowardice. The editors could have printed letters from various sides debating the issues involved, allowing readers to make their own judgement.

Second, any cursory cross-checking of the sources of the complaints would have revealed that the writers are simply disseminating pure, unadulterated Russian propaganda and thus have absolutely no credibility.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. Here, in Canada, the largest newspaper chain prints Russian disinformation with impunity and won’t even allow the Ukrainian community to point out the truth. And, across the ocean, in the United Kingdom, a highly respected publication like The Guardian/The Observer, caves in to pressure from pro-Russian trolls to censor an innocuous piece of philatelic history. This, unfortunately, is what we have to deal with.

It’s high time that editors in the mainstream media recognized Russian propaganda for what it is and what the purpose is of vilifying any Ukrainian who refuses to prostrate him or herself before “Big Brother” in Moscow.

The purpose is to:

  • Deny Ukrainians the right to learn their true history;
  • Deny Ukrainians the right to develop their own culture;
  • Deny Ukrainians the right to speak their own language;
  • Deny Ukrainians the right to their national identity;
  • Deny Ukrainians the right to self-determination; and
  • Deny Ukrainians the right to exist as a distinct nationality.

That is Moscow’s agenda and journalists who allow themselves to be influenced by Russian propaganda are complicit in perpetrating this attempted cultural genocide.