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Ukraine war: Teens used to report Russian propaganda

Children as young as 16 are working at TV channels in occupied Ukraine, spouting Russian propaganda.

Image source, Instagram

While Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenaries have been at the forefront of fighting in Ukraine’s ravaged eastern town of Bakhmut, a close associate of Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has been involved in another battle – for the hearts and minds of people in occupied areas behind the front lines.

Alexander Malkevich has helped set up pro-Russian TV stations in key areas captured since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Through his links to Prigozhin the media boss has been involved in projects spreading Russian influence from Africa to the US and he is under Western sanctions for spreading disinformation.

Formally, Malkevich’s job is running state-funded TV in Prigozhin’s home city, St Petersburg. But in the summer of 2022 he moved to then-occupied parts of Ukraine, making the southern city of Kherson his base.

His main task was to set up pro-Russian television stations in regions captured since the start of the full-scale invasion. He has masterminded Tavria TV in Kherson, Za TV in Melitopol and Mariupol 24 in the eastern Donetsk region.

Image source, Telegram

The channels’ reporting strictly follows the Kremlin’s propaganda narratives. For example, a recent programme aired by Tavria TV reminded its viewers of the reasons given by Moscow to justify its war against Ukraine. “Russian President Vladimir Putin says the special military operation was a forced step, because Moscow had been left with no other choice. Such security risks had been created for Russia that no other reaction was possible,” it said.

One major obstacle facing Malkevich was an acute shortage of people willing and able to work for his channels.

To train staff, he opened a “media school” in Kherson, became head of the journalism department at the local university and authored a textbook for aspiring media workers in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine, called “Real Russian journalism for new regions”.

Some of his students joined his TV stations before becoming legally adults. Two reporters who started working for Za TV and Tavria TV respectively were both employed at the age of just 16. The BBC has chosen not to identify the two girls because of their age.

Image source, Tavria TV

But Malkevich’s stint in Kherson was short-lived. Shortly before the city was retaken by Ukrainian forces in November, he fled along with some equipment and staff. While evacuating, they came under fire, and one staff member (a Russian journalist and former FSB operative) was killed.

One of the teen reporters was wounded during the shelling, and was later presented with an Order of Bravery by President Putin at a ceremony in the Kremlin.

Malkevich first rose to relative prominence in 2018, when he launched USA Really – a website set up in the US by RIA FAN, which, in turn, is the most prominent outlet in the stable of propaganda and disinformation media associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner head once dubbed “Putin’s chef” because he supplied food to the Kremlin.

RIA FAN grew out of Prigozhin’s infamous “troll factory”, which spread pro-Kremlin views across social media and the internet from offices in St Petersburg.

But USA Really failed to take off, and Malkevich was briefly detained and questioned by the US authorities and later sanctioned for “facilitating Prigozhin’s global influence operations”.

A year after launching USA Really, Malkevich was back in St Petersburg, where he set up another propaganda venture, a foundation, reportedly with a spin doctor linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Image source, Reuters

The Foundation for National Values Protection sent a man named Maxim Shugalei to Libya, ostensibly to research public opinion. The same man had been involved the previous year in Russian meddling in presidential elections in Madagascar, which saw one candidate offered a suitcase stuffed with cash, according to a BBC investigation.

While in Libya, one of Shugalei’s engagements included a meeting with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the late deposed leader Col Muammar Gaddafi. Soon afterwards, in May 2019, he was arrested on suspicion of interfering in Libya’s affairs on Prigozhin’s behalf.

One Libyan intelligence officer told the BBC: “If Russia had its way, we would have had Saif Gaddafi giving his victory speech in Tripoli’s famous Martyrs’ Square.”

Shugalei was freed in December 2020 and claimed in an interview that he had only been released because Prigozhin had sent “several thousand fighters” to Tripoli.

While in charge of the propaganda foundation, Malkevich also campaigned for the release of Maria Butina, a Russian agent sentenced to 18 months in jail in the US for attempting to infiltrate American political groups.

When she returned to Russia, Butina became an “expert” at the foundation, and when Shugalei came back from Libyan captivity, he replaced Malkevich as its head.

But Malkevich’s links to Prigozhin’s organisations remained. For example, his video programme for RIA FAN, called “Just A Minute”, continued at least until September 2022, and the latest of his numerous interviews with the outlet is dated February 2023.

Malkevich’s work in Ukraine did not go unnoticed by the Russian government. In January 2023, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin rewarded him for “organising TV broadcasting in territories which are being liberated.”

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