A day before the October 26 parliamentary elections in Ukraine, hackers accessed electronic billboards in Kyiv and broadcast gruesome images of what they portrayed as civilian carnage wrought by Ukrainian forces battling pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.
Russian state-owned Channel One television then aired a report on the stunt, describing the photographs as “horrifying images of the events in Donbas,” a reference to the Donetsk and Luhansk areas where separatists control of swaths of land.
At least one of these images, however, pre-dates the Ukraine conflict by nearly two decades. It originally showed a Russian soldier standing over mass graves of civilians in Chechnya in 1995 during Russia's own bloody battle with separatists in the restive North Caucasus republic.
The image was snapped by photographer Alexander Nemenov on March 31, 1995, at an Orthodox cemetery in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, according to the AFP photo archive. The bodies were those of civilians "killed in winter fighting" that were "exhumed for identification," according to AFP.
The soldier was cropped out of the image broadcast October 25 on the Kyiv billboards. Only the dozens of decaying bodies sprawled out in a shallow ditch were shown from the original photograph.
A group calling itself "Cyber Berkut" took credit for the billboard cyberattack.
It was not the first time that disturbing images of violence in the North Caucasus have been passed off as evidence of atrocities by Ukraine’s government in the conflict.
In May, state-owned Russian broadcaster Rossiya-1 used video material aired 18 months earlier in a report on an antiterrorist operation in the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. The footage was used to suggest that Kyiv forces murdered a civilian to intimidate separatists in the Donetsk region.
Kremlin-appointed media boss Dmitry Kiselyov later called the broadcast "an error" but "in no way a manipulation." He said that "young, nymph video technicians" were responsible.
Footage of the hijacked electronic billboards aired by Channel One included the image of the mass grave in Chechnya.
The hackers’ montage flashed other photographs of the dead and maimed as well, alternating these images with headshots of Ukrainian politicians, including Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whose People’s Front Party was running neck and neck with President Petro Poroshenko's bloc to win the election, according to partial results as of October 27.
Each politician’s photograph in the video was embossed with a red stamp reading, "War Criminal."
The United Nations has accused both the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatists of abuses in the seven-month-old conflict, while rights group like Amnesty International charge that both sides have engaged in torture, shelling of civilian areas, and summary executions.
John Dalhuisen, the Europe and Central Asia director at Amnesty, singled out the Russian media last week for its reporting on atrocities, saying that "some of the more shocking cases" it has reported "have been hugely exaggerated."
Cyber Berkut takes its name from the disbanded Berkut riot-police force, which has been implicated in the February killing of 100 protesters in Kyiv during street protests against then-President Viktor Yanukovych.
The group claimed responsibility for cyberattacks on NATO websites earlier this year.
-- Carl Schreck