When does a gathering of protesters become a ‘mob’? When do political activists become a ‘rabble’? When does political anger become ‘hysteria’? When does the storming of government buildings by a people who feel neglected by officialdom become ‘vandalism’? When we’re talking about eastern Ukrainians. When we’re talking about the people of Odessa, Donetsk and other parts of eastern Ukraine that lean more towards Russia than they do to the new, EU-backed government in Kiev.
When, six months ago, western Ukrainians were camping out in squares in Kiev, protesting against the then president of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovich, and occupying government buildings, they were hailed by the Western media as revolutionaries, democrats, 1989-style heroes taking a stand for liberty and decency. But when eastern Ukranians have done likewise, setting up protest camps in Odessa and elsewhere to signal their disdain for the new government in Kiev, or marching to government buildings and sometimes storming them, they’ve found themselves denounced by Western observers as ‘rabble-rousers’, ‘hysterics’, ‘fanatics’, ‘vandals’. The Western coverage of Ukraine has given new meaning to the phrase double standards; it has taken the ‘journalism of attachment’ – the fashion among Western observers for childishly painting foreign conflicts as simplistic clashes between the pure and the wicked – to a new low.
The language used by the Western media to describe the political anger of eastern Ukrainians has been striking – and ugly. These protesters, unlike those in the west of Ukraine, are ‘the mob’; they are ‘balaclava-wearing men’ who are ‘vandalising and occupying government buildings’; they are driven by a ‘secessionist hysteria’; they are Putin’s puppets, cajoled by Moscow into ‘successfully disrupting’ places like Odessa.
And the Kiev government’s authoritarian urge to clamp down on these protesters, to put them back in their place as effectively subjects of a government they didn’t vote for and do not like, is described by the Western media in the most glowing terms. Where Yanukovich’s assaults on the protesters-cum-government in Kiev a few months ago were branded ‘murder’ and ‘terror’, inviting opprobrium from Obama, Merkel and pretty much every leader writer in the Western world, the new Kiev government’s heavyhandedness with eastern protesters, which has included attempts to restrict official use of their preferred language of Russian and threats to ban pro-Russian protest camps, is euphemistically described as a ‘push to quell the pro-Russian insurgency’. So, angry Ukrainians carrying out fairly similar street-based protests against authorities they feel threatened by can be either democrats or insurgents, revolutionaries or a mob, heroes or hysterics, depending on whether they’re in western Ukraine (good) or eastern Ukraine (evil), and whether their ire is aimed at government figures that were backed by Russia (this is acceptable) or at a new government installed in Kiev by Washington and Brussels (this is a crime against global peace).
The double standards of the media coverage were superbly exposed during the ‘Jews registering’ hoax in mid-April. Local Ukrainian news sites reported that the Jews of eastern Ukraine, particularly in Donetsk, were being forced to register with officialdom, in a nasty echo of some of the events of the early Nazi period. The story spread like wildfire around the Western world, being reported in major newspapers, including USA Today, and eventually evoking an angry statement from the US secretary of state, John Kerry. ‘This is not just intolerable – it’s grotesque’, he said. The only problem was that Jews in eastern Ukraine were not being cajoled into registering with the authorities. The infamous flier calling on them to register, which caused the international storm, was actually cobbled together by a small gang of anti-Semitic opportunists and handed out by ‘three masked goons hanging around a synagogue in Donetsk’. There was nothing official about it at all. Yet still the completely unfounded registering rumours were latched on to by serious Western media outlets and leading politicians as evidence that the east of Ukraine is a cesspit of prejudice and backwardness.