By William Horsley, CFOM’s International Director

What responsibility should be borne by journalists who knowingly propagate lies which promote and enable the mass killing of civilians in war? That question came into stark relief when Anna Murlykina, a leading Mariupol-born journalist, gave chilling testimony from Ukraine at an online event hosted recently by the Council of Europe.

Anna Murlykina is editor in chief of CitySites Network, the largest regional online media in the Donetsk region. She survived the Russian missile and bomb attacks which by her estimate destroyed 90 percent of the city’s buildings within three weeks of the start of the invasion. Thousands did not survive.

Anna and other Mariupol journalists witnessed, and verified from eyewitness accounts, the destruction of eight residential buildings in the first few hours of the assault. Russia’s Cruise missile attacks targeted the power lines into Mariupol, and the water and gas supplies. Then came the Russian blockade against vehicles bringing in food and fuel as well as military materiel. Within days 140,000 of the city’s 400,000 population had got out. But as she testified in detail, the Russians targeted humanitarian convoys as they left, destroying some of the buses that carried would-be refugees seeking safety elsewhere.

Addressing diplomats, senior Council of Europe officials, fellow-journalists and others by video app, she shared her day-by-day video diary of the near extinction of her city. On 9 March the first bombs fell on Mariupol from the air. They brought more death and terror to the inhabitants than the missiles had done. A massive bomb killed everyone taking shelter in one 9-storey building that suffered a direct hit, including many families huddled in the basement.

Mariupol’s technical university was struck. Then the city’s maternity hospital. Three mothers and one child were killed there on that day. The whole world saw the Associated Press agency’s video images of a wounded pregnant mother being stretchered away from the scene of devastation.

“The mothers were moved to Mariupol’s theatre”, Anna Murlykina said. They would not take shelter with their children in the damp basement. So all those who were gathered in the right wing of the building died on 16 March when it suffered a direct hit from a Russian warplane overhead.

Russian snipers started appearing in the city, multiplying the deadly risks to whoever ventured outdoors. The journalists’ monitoring of the pattern of enemy attacks allowed them, Anna claimed, to provide life-saving information to many Mariupol residents who were cut off, hungry and desperate.

By 18 April the last journalists in Mariupol had got out. At least two, by her count, had been killed. The only sources of first-hand information from inside the city now were the remaining Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. Word then came out that the Russians were forcibly deporting some residents to Russia against their will.

Her appeal echoed that of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky as she addressed the international audience, including European ambassadors seated in a Council of Europe meeting room in Strasbourg: “Save us, help us! Close the skies!”, she cried.

On 12 April the mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boychenko, estimated that the death toll of civilians there may already exceed 20,000. Anna Murlykina said on the basis of her evidence the number could be as high as 50,000. “The time will come”, she vowed, “when the names of each one of those dead people will be known and recorded. Then the world will see the scale of the abyss of this tragedy.”

“People in Russia support the war because of lies told by their journalists”
Anna Murlykina was asked what she would say to the Russian journalists who spread the Kremlin’s lies to justify the war. Were they too complicit in war crimes? “Have no illusions that you are not guilty”, was her answer. “Russian people who support the war do so because the lies told by journalists are believed. The blood of all who have died in on your hands.”

And not only the journalists. Every person who has stayed silent in Russia over the past 20 years, she said passionately, has allowed and shaped Putin’s criminal regime over the past 20 years. It has created the climate of hateful violence and cruelty that is now directed against the peaceful people of Ukraine.

Russian state propaganda has played a central part in sustaining the fictions on which Putin’s government has conducted the war. The law in Russia has made it a crime to question whatever fictions the government puts out about the conduct of the war. State media have claimed the images and reports about atrocities in Mariupol including the bombing of the maternity hospital and the theatre were staged — claims that Murlykina scorns as “cynical lies”.

The European Union’s EU vs Disinfo unit monitors and analyses Russia’s disinformation machine in minute detail and exposes its flaws and contradictions. With respect to the missile attack against the railway station in Kramatorsk in the northern part of Donetsk oblast, on April 14 the site published this account:

When a Russian Armed Forces missile strike hit the Kramatorsk railway station on 8 April, killing dozens of innocent people fleeing the horrors of war, Russia quickly turned to accuse Ukraine of the attack. As if on cue, first came the denials of responsibility, then, unable to sweep this atrocity under the rug, came dismissal and distortion. In this case, it was questioning the missile used for the attack and falsely claiming that Russia no longer uses the Tochka-U missiles that struck the station. Curiously though, the Russian state-controlled disinformation machine is not watertight. Some of the more eager propagandists had already reported a successful Russian missile strike against Ukrainian fighters at Kramatorsk station.

Why Mariupol? A symbol of Ukrainian national resistance
Anna Murlykina was asked why she thought the Russians had attacked Mariupol with such extreme ferocity. Widespread destruction and atrocities have occurred in other places too. But in 2014 Mariupol was not only of crucial importance to Ukraine’s future as a major Black Sea port and centre of heavy industry. At that time it served as a vital bastion of resistance against intense Russian-backed rebels’ attempts to take it over and so link occupied Crimea with rebel-held parts of the Donbass and Russia itself.

The journalist declared: “Putin is not just waging war against our army. He is trying to kill our people because we refuse to be part of his totalitarian world. We want to be free. For us the choice is obvious. What about you?”