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Ukraine Unspun

The world through Russian state television's eyes

A U.S. company says it is exploring legal action after its advertisement was manipulated on Russian state television to suggest Western countries are corrupting children with sex education and tolerant views toward homosexuals.

Fathead, a Detroit-based company specializing in sports and entertainment decals, said in a statement to RFE/RL: "We will not tolerate the reconstruction of one of our family friendly TV spots into a hateful, bigoted, and outrageous attack on the gay community as well as children."

A November 28 report by Russian state broadcaster Rossia-1 used footage from a 2012 Fathead commercial in which a father surprises his young son with a monster-truck decal on his bedroom wall.

Footage from the ad aired in the Russian report showed drawings of naked men photoshopped over the truck decal in what Rossia-1 portrayed as a dangerous example of Western sexual values.

"Is this how a child's playroom should look?" the report's narrator asks over footage of the boy's stunned, joyous reaction.

Fathead says it found the original video on YouTube and that the family of the boy granted permission to the company to use it for an advertisement.

The company is "exploring any and all legal actions available to remove the fraudulent and unauthorized alteration of one of our national TV commercials," it said in the statement.

"We will vigorously pursue those who created this abhorrent depiction of our content, as well as those [who] host it online, to facilitate their prosecution to the full extent of the law,” Fathead added.

The altered footage was aired by Rossia-1 on its show "Special Correspondent," which boasts that it delivers the "most incisive investigations" by the network's "best correspondents."

The program, which features roundtable-style debates as well, frequently takes aim at Kremlin critics who in turn have accused the show’s correspondents of producing hatchet pieces based on misrepresentations and outright fabrications.

TAMPERED WITH: The manipulated footage appears at the 43:56 mark in this full Rossia-1 program.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last year signed a law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships" in what is widely seen as part of his broader shift toward conservative values to shore up his political base.

Russian officials have claimed the law is aimed at protecting children and encouraging Russia's birthrate, while Western governments and rights activists call it discriminatory against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.

This photo -- showing a Russian soldiers inspecting bodies of civilians in a mass grave in Chechnya in 1995 -- was used by Russia's state-owned Channel One television to highlight recent Ukrainian suffering.

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 capture of the Russian Channel One report, in which the Russian troop seen in the original photo (above) has been cropped out.
A capture of the Russian Channel One report, in which the Russian troop seen in the original photo (above) has been cropped out.

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

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