“Disinformation efforts” to discredit a Belarusian activist
Shortly after Belarus hijacked an international flight, forced it to land in Minsk, and then arrested militant journalist Roman Protasevich on board, an online campaign to discredit him began.
Stories alleging that Protasevich had neo-Nazi ties initially appeared in Russian-language media and quickly spread to dozens of languages.
Photos of young men giving Nazi salutes or wearing SS badges began to appear on social media, falsely claiming to show Protasevich in his youth in what experts called a similar disinformation campaign against critics of the Kremlin.
AFP found the man in the photo of the Nazi salute.
Konstantin Akhrmenko, a young Belarusian, confirmed his identity and said the photo was taken “10-12 years ago”.
“We were never Nazis. We took such pictures just for fun, because Belarusian state propaganda called us Nazis,” he told AFP.
Likewise, the man in the SS helmet turned out to be not Protasevich but Eduard Lobov, a former Belarusian political prisoner turned volunteer fighter in eastern Ukraine.
– Journalist or fighter? –
Many articles have focused on the fact that Protasevich, by his own admission, spent time with Ukrainian paramilitary units in eastern Ukraine after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
Calling him a “terrorist” and “extremist,” they said he had fought with the Azov Battalion, some of whose soldiers are known to have white supremacist and neo-Nazi views.
Protasevich’s family, colleagues and even some Azov fighters insist that he was only in Ukraine as a journalist, despite being part of Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists.
Some online statements regarding Protasevich contain photos of a young man in military uniform and AFP has not been able to verify if it is him.
In some of the photos that look like him, the young man is wearing a military uniform; in others, he holds up a Kalashnikov rifle and smiles for the camera.
He is often surrounded by soldiers wearing the insignia of the Azov Battalion, a volunteer unit formed following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
– “Belarus should be free” –
Vladyslav Sobolevsky, Chief of Staff of the Azov Battalion in 2014-2017, said Protasevich had signed up as a journalist to “help Ukraine, and in the future to help his own country”.
“His opinions were: Lukashenko must go. Belarus should be free,” said Sobolevsky, referring to President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994.
Likewise, Protasevich’s father Dmitry, who lives in Poland, said Roman had never actively fought as a soldier.
“My son is and was a journalist. He was in Donbass as a journalist doing his job,” he said.
This was confirmed by both Commander Azov Andriy Biletsky and battalion spokeswoman Anastasya Rymar, both of whom said Protasevich was following the unit only to report on the action and did not take a active part in the fighting.
– “Typical Kremlin propaganda” –
The 26-year-old has often mentioned his time in Ukraine in interviews, and there is video of him being treated for a combat injury.
But he always maintained that he was there to document the fights rather than fight himself.
Euvsdisinfo.eu, a European Union foreign service project set up to tackle Russian disinformation, said there had been a deliberate attempt to “smear” Protasevich online.
An article on the project’s website compared these “disinformation efforts” to those seen against Kremlin critics such as anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny.
Russia is a key ally of Lukashenko, who jailed hundreds of opponents following the mass protests that erupted after his disputed re-election last year.
Such a mix of facts, lies and unfounded or unprovable allegations “bears all the hallmarks of typical Kremlin propaganda,” said Jakub Kalensky, senior researcher at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
“The point is not to convince the audience of one version of the event, but to present many different versions, to cover their tracks and to bury the facts under a thick layer of lies,” Kalensky told AFP.
strawberries-lab / dt / ach
© 2021 AFP