Monday, March 17, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: 7 Reasons Why Crimea Results Aren't Credible -- And Media Coverage Stinks

Media reporting on Sunday's referendum in Crimea is a study in bad journalism.

An Associated Press story today on the results was typical. 

"Crimea Referendum: Final Results Show 97 Percent of Voters in Crimea Support Joining Russia," the title uncritically said.

Crimean electoral chief Mikhail Malyshev is quoted saying his officials hadn't gotten "a single complaint" about the vote.

The results are beyond dispute, Russian parliamentarian Valery Ryazantsev is quoted saying. 

"(There are) absolutely no reasons to consider the vote results illegitimate."

Voter turnout was supposedly 83 percent, Malyshev said in other stories.

North Korea-Style Results

The AP story was typical of much of the coverage.

Like many other stories on the vote, AP portrayed the implausible 97-percent result with no qualification. It also failed to note reports of intimidation, fraud and misinformation in Crimea that raise questions about the referendum results. 

The Wall Street Journal's similarly unqualified headline was "Ukraine Region Votes to Join Russia." Even U.S. government-run Voice of America ran with the uncritical title "Crimea Votes in Favor of Union With Russia."

In fact, the Crimean results are reminiscent of similarly absurd votes in Turkmenistan (whose president won 97 percent of votes in 2012), North Korea (where Kim Jong-in recently won 100 percent of votes) and Chechnya (where one overenthusiastic polling station made the mistake of reporting a 107-percent turnout in 2012, with all but one of the votes going to Russia's Vladimir Putin).

7 Reasons Official Results Not Credible

Here are seven reasons to suggest the Crimean referendum result is implausible -- and that we actually have no idea if most Crimeans really voted to join Russia:

1) Reports of Fraud: Russian citizens were reportedly allowed to vote in the referendum, while one person was able to vote four times, the Kyiv Post reported today.

News reports also said some referendum ballots reportedly arrived pre-marked.

Malyshev, the Crimean electoral chief, also acknowledged that deceased people may have been included on electoral lists, raising more possibility for fraud, the Kyiv Post said.

In another Kyiv Post story, a Russian journalist is quoted saying she was allowed to vote after showing a temporary one-year residency permit and disclosing to an election official that she is a Russian citizen.

"According to all the laws, this is illegal," the journalist says in this interview on YouTube describing how she managed to vote.

"I am a foreign citizen. How can I decide the destiny of the Crimean Autonomous Republic of Ukraine?" she asked, saying she "obviously questions the legitimacy of the whole referendum."

2) Turnout Was Closer to 30%, Tatar Leader Says: Crimean Tatar officials monitoring the vote report that 99 percent of Tatars boycotted the vote, while overall turnout was actually only about 30 percent, said this Espreso.tv story and this Ukrinform item.

The huge turnout claimed for Sunday's referendum is also in sharp contrast to historic turnout in recent elections in Crimea, which hovers at around 50 percent, Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev told Espreso.tv.

For example, only 56 percent of Crimeans voted in the 2007 Ukrainian parliamentary election. 

In addition, for the vote Sunday, Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian officials called for a boycott. Tatars and Ukrainians make up 36 percent of the Crimean population, further suggesting the claimed turnout is implausible.

3) Surveys Show Only 40-45% Pro-Russia Support: Two recent surveys, including one in early March, suggest only 40 to 45 percent of Crimeans actually support accession to Russia.

Support wasn't in majority territory and was nowhere close to the overwhelming result claimed by Crimea's pro-Russia government, which was installed at gunpoint after pro-Russia soldiers without insignia took over Crimea's legislature.

4) No International Observers: Outside monitors weren't present to monitor the vote -- a point many reporters failed to mention in their stories.

The Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe was in fact prevented from sending observers into Crimea on three occasions in the days leading up to the vote, while UN envoy Robert Serry was threatened by pro-Russian armed gunmen when he entered the region and was forced to leave.

Crimean authorities later invited the OSCE to send observers, but by this point the organization declined, citing its previous failed attempts to enter the territory and calling the vote illegal.

A small number of unofficial observers were invited from other countries, including a delegation of the European far right and neo-Nazis. The Russian government reportedly offered to pay expenses of any Russian-speaking EU citizens who wanted to act as an observer.

Reporters were also not allowed to observe voting, the Kyiv Post reported today.

5) Intimidation by Pro-Russia Forces: Few stories mentioned the multiplying reports of rights abuses in Crimea since Russian soldiers took control of the Ukrainian territory.

The rights climate again suggests voting wasn't conducted in legitimate circumstances.

The group Reporters Without Borders has called the region "lawless," while journalists and pro-Ukraine activists have been detained and gone missing. 

Crimean authorities took Ukrainian TV off the air, while blanketing the region with signs and messages supporting accession to Russia.

Heavily armed pro-Russia gunmen and gangs are ubiquitous and have created a climate of intimidation. Tatars say their people are afraid to venture into city centres and are fleeing to Ukraine.

Adding to concerns, a Tatar rights activist was found dead Monday in Crimea with signs of torture, the Kyiv Post reports.

6) Climate of Deception and Legal Impunity: Few reports questioned whether the vote could be credible in a generalized climate of misinformation and legal violations. 

That includes bizarre Russian and Crimean government denials that the thousands of Russian-speaking soldiers who have taken control of Crimea are in fact Russian soldiers.

It also includes Russia's discredited claims that it intervened in Crimea to stop anti-Semitic attacks.

Also salient, of course, is Russia's creeping invasion of Ukraine in violation of international law.

7) Exit Poll Dubious Too: The referendum result coincided closely with a widely reported exit poll yesterday that supposedly found 93 percent of voters favoured accession to Russia.

This poll was also uncritically reported in many stories. (See for example this BBC item yesterday.)

Unmentioned in most stories was the fact that the poll was commissioned by the KrimInform news service, which was recently created by Russia's state-owned Itar-Tass news agency.

The connection is important to note because of the Russian government's tightening control over media and the Russian media's notoriously pro-Kremlin coverage of the crisis in Ukraine.

Not sure why reporters outside Russia didn't do a better job.

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