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The Malaysia Airliner Downing Through The Eyes Of Russian State Television

Vox Pop: Muscovites On MH17 Crashi
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July 18, 2014
RFE/RL's Tom Balmforth asked Moscow residents what they knew from the Russian media about the July 17 crash of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine. Some respondents blamed the Ukrainian government -- and the United States -- for the apparent downing of the passenger airplane. Others dismissed Russian television as an unreliable source of information and said antigovernment rebels in eastern Ukraine were responsible for the plane crash.
WATCH: RFE/RL's Tom Balmforth asked Moscow residents what they knew from the Russian media about the July 17 crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine. Some respondents blamed the Ukrainian government -- and the United States -- for the apparent downing of the passenger airplane. Others dismissed Russian television as an unreliable source of information and said antigovernment rebels in eastern Ukraine were responsible for the plane crash.

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By Robert Coalson

As the story of the downed Malaysia Airlines jet broke, Russian state television scrambled to get out versions of the story that pointed in every possible direction -- except toward Russia and the pro-Moscow militants fighting in eastern Ukraine.

While much of the world's media dug relentlessly into the mounting evidence that the militants accidentally shot down the plane using an advanced Russian-made Buk antiaircraft system, Russian state television looked elsewhere.

"Missile? An accident? A terrorist act on board? The first possible theories about the perishing of the Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine," a moderator intoned on NTV's evening news wrap-up show.

An NTV reporter from the field then accused the Ukrainian authorities of prematurely blaming the separatists before presenting two officials of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR) who denied having the "technical ability" of shooting down such a plane.

"The cause of the crash will be looked into by a commission that was immediately set up by Malaysian and Ukrainian authorities," the NTV reporter said. "Naturally, in the first minutes after the disaster, information appeared that the plane had been shot down. And literally immediately -- without any investigation of the circumstances -- the Ukrainian authorities announced it had been done by the militias, who supposedly shot it down with a Buk antiaircraft system. At the moment, the leader of the DNR is on the scene and we contacted him by telephone. Here is his commentary...."

In all, NTV devoted 14 minutes to the tragedy, including Russian President Vladimir Putin's statement that responsibility for the incident belongs "to the country on whose territory it happened."

Most of the Russian newscasts on the evening of July 17 speculated that the Malaysian airliner might have strayed off course into closed airspace and either stated or implied that the Ukrainian authorities had shot it down.

NTV reported that civilian airliners continued flying through the zone "because of the Ukrainian government's certainty that militants do not have weapons capable of shooting down planes flying at such altitudes."

The "Vesti" news program, on the Rossia-1 television channel, reported a recent statement by Ukraine's prosecutor-general that militants in Donetsk had not captured Buk antiaircraft systems from the Ukrainian military as "proof" that the militants do not have such weapons. The same program, however, reported on June 29 that the separatist militants did capture the Buk system and would use it to "defend the skies over Donetsk."

"Vesti," like the other programs, also pointed out that in 2001, the Ukrainian military accidentally shot down a Russian passenger plane during an exercise in the Black Sea.

"We remind you that this was not the first extraordinary situation regarding a passenger plane above the territory of Ukraine," "Vesti" said. "Thirteen years ago, a Ukrainian antiaircraft missile shot down a Sibir Airlines Tu-154 flying from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk. Everyone on board was killed."

"Vesti" gave the most extensive analysis during a 35-minute segment featuring Andrei Klintsevich, whom they identified as a "weapons expert."

Klintsevich is the son of United Russia Duma Deputy Frants Klintsevich, who on June 12 "confirmed" on Rossia-24 that Ukrainian forces had used phosphorus weapons during fighting in Slovyansk.

Klintsevich insisted that the militants could not have shot down the airliner at such an altitude and speed. "The main conclusion we can make is that it would be practically impossible for the militants to shoot down such a plane. Just so that you understand -- it was moving very fast -- there would be less than one minute for the Buk system to shoot it down," he said. "The time for making such a decision was too short. An untrained crew would hardly manage to react in such a situation -- they would have other things to do."

Klintsevich ended by offering three theories about the ill-fated airliner. First, the incident could have been caused by a technical malfunction or terrorist explosion on the plane. Second, he said, the plane might have been shot down by a fighter plane that was scrambled either because the plane strayed into restricted airspace or because it was believed to have been hijacked. The third -- "and extremely unlikely" -- possibility is that it was shot down by an antiaircraft system.

According to a Levada Center poll in June, 94 percent of Russians say they get their information about Russia and the world from television (as opposed to 9 percent who said they get information from the Internet). More than 50 percent said they receive such information from only one source. About 60 percent said they think state television relates information about events in Ukraine objectively.

In Moscow and other big cities, however, not everyone is under the spell of Russian state television.

"I was actually amazed when Channel One reported that the plane was shot down by Ukrainian [government] missiles," 32-year-old Ilya Nemets told RFE/RL in central Moscow on July 18. "They cited no sources. This situation is a little frightening. We don't know what the truth is. We don't know where we can get reliable information."

RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Tom Balmforth contributed to this report from Moscow

Robert Coalson

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