LETTER TO THE EDITOR

Report implicating Russia in bid to influence elections ‘nothing more than clickbait’

By Daily Maverick Reader 17 May 2019

Documents detail attempts to turn Africa into a Russian hub led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close Putin ally known as ‘Putin’s chef’ because of his catering contracts with the Russian state. (Photo: EPA / Sergei Ilinitsky / Pool)

The Russian Embassy in South Africa takes strong exception to a Daily Maverick article published on 7 May.

The Embassy takes note of the article Did Putin’s ‘Chef’ attempt to interfere in South African election? published by Daily Maverick on 7 May 2019.

Having gone through this piece, we must regretfully conclude that this is yet another poorly disguised attempt from certain South African media outlets and journalists to “cash in” on the election period public fever. One may call it sensationalism or even, using modern internet terms, clickbait, conveniently published just one day before the election itself, at the peak of public interest.

This article follows a well-known pattern of promoting an anti-Russian “fake news” narrative through what seems to be documentary evidence provided by organisations with pretentious titles and, again, seemingly reputable backgrounds. For an unprepared reader, such competently presented (but essentially baseless) allegations look convincing. At first glance.

Let us look at the facts.

The entire story is based on the presented A4 papers, obtained and provided by the so-called “Dossier Centre” – a self-proclaimed “investigative” organisation based in London, established and financed by a certain Mr Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He is a former Russian oligarch and a convicted felon found guilty of tax evasion and embezzlement of funds who served 10 years in jail. He was pardoned by President Vladimir Putin to allow him to be with his terminally ill mother, but hastily left the country and is now living in London, making his life’s goal to launch and sponsor information attacks against Russia. He is currently under investigation for allegedly ordering the murder of the mayor of the city of Nefteyugansk. Can one call him an unbiased and impartial party?

The “investigative” abilities of this Dossier Centre are also questionable at best, as its main source of outside information is the “free-for-all tip line” where anyone is able to submit any kind of data and which is hindered by little to no verification process, zero transparency and no responsibility. A huge disclaimer on the unit’s website stating that it cannot be held responsible for any information it disseminates or publishes is a pretty strong hint on how trustworthy this Dossier Centre is. Here we enter the domain of maybes, probably and highly likely. How can people be certain they are not dealing with fabricated stuff?

These papers have no imprint or output data, there is no way to verify or identify them. In serious investigative journalism, which regretfully seems to have largely become a thing of the past, this “evidence” would not stand basic scrutiny. It is sad that in today’s reality, the temptation to go for a juicy albeit ultimately false headline outweighs both professional considerations and (lack of?) facts.

Even within this carefully constructed and highly likely fake narrative where these so-called “documents” bear relevance, the analysis done by Daily Maverick is still extremely one-sided and ignores its own mythology. For example, not a word is said on the declared goal of “countering the rise of extremism and showing negative consequences of radicalisation and violence” mentioned in these papers. We wonder why?

Meanwhile, comments of third parties quoted in the article itself, e.g. made by William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa and DA Federal Executive chairperson James Selfe, clearly show lack of evidence of any “nefarious” activities aimed at interfering in the election. With no real facts to present, the noise about the “Russian hand” is being raised. At the same time, the very real fact that influential foreign outlets such as The Economist, which form public opinion, openly call people to vote for a certain political power, is downplayed or ignored.

The entire Yevgeny Prigozhin rigmarole, “a tale of a businessman turned Russian George Soros”, makes for some good fiction and article headlines, but little less. Our US partners are still adamant in trying to persuade the world that a restaurateur could influence the election in the US, a major power, through social media posts. Let this lay on their consciousness, if they themselves consider their own democracy such a “house of cards”.

All of this brings up a question: if this alleged information campaign has not left a single trace, sans the blurred, unidentified PowerPoint scans, and had zero influence on the election, did it exist in the first place? Occam’s Razor principle says that the answer is evident. How would you like us to call all this: a “storm in a tea-cup”, a “non-story”, or just “nonsense”? DM

From the Russian Embassy in the Republic of South Africa.

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