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BBC Accuses British, Russian Media Of Skewing MH17 Reporting

  • Carl Schreck

Armed Russia-backed militants walk past wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 debris in July 2014.

Armed Russia-backed militants walk past wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 debris in July 2014.

The BBC has issued a rare defense of an upcoming documentary about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, accusing British media of distorting its report about a tragedy that killed 298 passengers and crew in July 2014.

A report by Britain's Sunday Express tabloid "misrepresented" the BBC program, which offers a "balanced" look at competing theories, the broadcaster said.

Experts interviewed for the film describe as "unlikely" a theory put forward by Moscow and pro-Kremlin media -- and rejected by Dutch investigators -- that blames Ukrainian military aircraft for the crash, the BBC said.News of the documentary -- titled Who Shot Down MH17? -- rippled through Russia on April 24 after the Sunday Express published a story about the film on its website that said the program "will present new evidence that a Ukrainian fighter jet may have shot down the aircraft."

Kremlin loyalists have long pushed this theory in public, although investigators from the Dutch Safety Board concluded in their official report in October 2015 that the plane was brought down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile fired from an area that was mostly controlled by Russian-backed separatists at the time.

While the hourlong documentary is only slated to air on May 3, it ignited an online maelstrom, with Kremlin critics accusing the BBC of providing a platform for Russian conspiracy theories aimed at muddying the waters about Russia's alleged role in the downing of the plane.

The midsummer tragedy was met with shock among the European public and contributed to the political climate for further sanctions against Russia's government over its seizure of Crimea and alleged fueling of armed separatism in eastern Ukraine.

Pro-Kremlin media outlets framed the BBC film as a straightforward rejection of the version of events broadly accepted by Western governments: that Russia-backed separatists shot the passenger jet down, mostly likely thinking it was a Ukrainian military plane.

A headline in Russia's national Komsomolskaya Pravda daily read, "BBC Film: Malaysian Boeing Shot Down By Ukrainian Jets."

Aleksei Pushkov, head of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an April 24 tweet that the film could "bring the truth about the downed Boeing closer.""The false masks are starting to come off," wrote Pushkov, a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

Pushkov's hopes for the film, however, may be misplaced.

"Contrary to their headline, experts in fact tell the program it was unlikely a Ukrainian fighter jet could have shot down MH17, as they cannot fly at such high altitudes," the BBC said in its April 25 statement."This impartial documentary takes a balanced view in reporting the competing theories surrounding the fate of MH17, including evidence for and against those involving Russia, Ukraine, and the CIA," it added.

Purported evidence of CIA involvement in the incident includes an alleged "intercepted" phone call between two men that Komsomolskaya Pravda identified as "CIA agents" and which drew widespread ridicule for being an obvious ruse.

The BBC said in its statement that the film, part of a series titled The Conspiracy Files, "also examines in detail the findings of the official Dutch inquiry into the incident, which provide compelling evidence that the plane was brought down by a powerful ground-to-air missile."The network's defense did not appease all critics of the program, including former world chess champion and current Kremlin foe Garry Kasparov.

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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