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Russia's Missing Article: Censorship, Prudence, Or A Win For Moscow's Troll Army?

  • Mark Krutov

Is this Russian soldier Dorzhi Batomunkuyev in a Donetsk burn unit, or not?

Is this Russian soldier Dorzhi Batomunkuyev in a Donetsk burn unit, or not?

MOSCOW -- For three straight days last weekend, the employees of the Novaya Buryatia newspaper in southern Siberia used scissors to remove an article from 50,000 copies of the weekly before it could be distributed.

The same article, which had been posted a few days earlier on the paper's website, was pulled down. (It can be seen in an archived file here.)

As a result, an article that was intended to clear up some mysteries involving alleged Russian military participation in the fighting in eastern Ukraine has itself become the center of a mystery: Is this a case of Soviet-style censorship? Or was it an example of the successful functioning of the Kremlin's notorious "troll army"?

"I think this is a case of censorship on the part of the security services because I have felt pressure from them myself," says Arkady Zarubin, a journalist with the Buryat newspaper Arshan. "They have tried in many ways to influence my publications and have even directly told me which ones shouldn't be published."

"I know for a fact -- they let it slip -- that they put pressure on other media, both print and Internet publications," he adds.

The vanished Novaya Buryatia article was a follow-up to a controversial interview published by Novaya Gazeta in early March. Journalist Yelena Kostyuchenko spoke with a 20-year-old Buryat man who said he had been severely burned while fighting in a tank of the separatist side near the city of Debaltseve.

The same man, Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, was featured in a video report in late February by the Kremlin-friendly LifeNews channel that showed Russian Duma Deputy Iosif Kobzon visiting a burn ward in Donetsk. In the video, the badly disfigured Batomunkuyev can be seen chatting with the famous singer and recalling how he once shook Kobzon's hand as a child when the celebrity visited Buryatia.

Although LifeNews identified Batomunkuyev as a volunteer "defender of Donbas," Novaya Gazeta revealed him to be a contract soldier in the Russian Army and gave his unit and military identification numbers.

Moscow has consistently denied that any of its regular military units are fighting in Ukraine, so the Batomunkuyev interview caused quite a sensation. Immediately the Internet was full of assertions that the interview was a fake.

No Censorship?

When Novaya Buryatia journalist Sergei Basayev found out that Batomunkuyev was back in his home region, he decided to find out for himself the true story and write a follow-up article. That was the article that ended up in 50,000 pieces on the floor of the newspaper's offices.

The article itself was not sensational. Basayev was unable to get access to Batomunkuyev. "I wanted to get permission from his mother since Dorzhi is in serious condition," he said. "I simply wanted to find out if it would be possible to get an interview. She said categorically that it's impossible because he's in such serious condition."

In the article, Batomunkuyev's mother tells Novaya Buryatia that her son did not give any interviews in Donbas and that many details in the Novaya Gazeta interview were "made up." She denied that she was getting any assistance from the Russian Defense Ministry to help with her son's medical care.

Russian singer Iosif Kobzon (center) visits injured military men (with the man alleged to be Dorzhi Batomunkuyev on the right) at the Donetsk Burn Center.

Russian singer Iosif Kobzon (center) visits injured military men (with the man alleged to be Dorzhi Batomunkuyev on the right) at the Donetsk Burn Center.

Journalist Zarubin sees the hands of the Russian security services in this development as well. "His mother now says that there was no interview," he says, "but I know that our hard-working [security service] bureau also worked with her."

Timur Dugarzhapov, the acting editor in chief of Novaya Buryatia, denies that there was any order to censor the article. "It was our collective, editorial decision," he says. "Of course, it is a very unusual step. But such things happen."

He says the decision to kill the article was made after the online version provoked "a tremendous flood" of comments. "There was such an outpouring of commentaries -- completely incomprehensible, aggressive," Dugarzhapov says. "The situation began to get out of control."

March Of The Trolls

"We realized that we had entered into the territory of a fierce informational confrontation so we had no desire to get further dragged into this polemics or into a completely out-of-control information war," Dugarzhapov adds. "That's why we acted as we did."

He says removing that article was an act of prudence in a "quiet, calm" region like Buryatia.

It seems that the article may have been targeted by the so-called pro-Kremlin trolls that patrol the Internet and spin events according to a script provided by the government. Recently, St. Petersburg blogger Marat Burkhard told RFE/RL's Russian Service about two months he spent working in a "troll factory" that employs hundreds of people working in shifts around the clock to push the Kremlin's message in online comments.

"There are production quotas and for meeting your quota, you get 45,000 [rubles]," Burkhard said. "The quota is 135 comments per 12-hour shift." He described how his team was tasked with posting its comments on "regional forums" based in regions across Russia.

Similarly, British researcher Lawrence Alexander recently used big-data statistical analysis to identify more than 20,000 pro-Kremlin accounts on the social-media site Twitter, most of them automated "bots" "designed to look like real Twitter users.

In a special report titled The Menace Of Unreality published late last year, journalists Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss write that the Kremlin's goal in its disinformation tactics is "to sow confusion via conspiracy theories and proliferate falsehoods."

"There is increasing use of social media to spread disinformation and trolls to attack publications and personalities," the report says.

Such descriptions correspond closely with what Novaya Buryatia acting editor Dugarzhapov experienced in the case of the Buryat soldier article. "At first I read the article and it seemed normal to me," he says. "But then all this informational hysterics started and I began to have my doubts. I didn't want the matter to once again bother the Batomunkuyev family. So now it's hard for me to say whether it is worthwhile pursuing this story anymore."

Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague