TIME foreign affairs

How Hamas Wields Gaza’s Casualties as Propaganda

Israeli airstrike on Gaza
Smoke rises from a building following the Israeli attacks in Gaza City on July 25, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

The terrorist group casts Israel’s military as indiscriminate and civilian deaths as disproportionate, but Hamas-affiliated fatality figures should be viewed with suspicion

An informational battle of competing messages directed at international audiences parallels the military fighting between Israel and Hamas. Accompanying a barrage of wrenching images are Palestinian fatality statistics alleging disproportionate numbers of non-combatants. These figures are crucial because they form the basis of accusations that Israel uses excessive and indiscriminate force.

Hamas, the terrorist group controlling Gaza, endeavors to turn Israel’s military superiority to its own advantage by portraying the Israeli response to intense rocket and mortar fire as disproportionate and indiscriminate. In doing so, it hopes to turn public opinion against the Jewish state, as well as bolster its own standing at the expense of the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank.

Fatality figures provided by Hamas and other groups should be viewed with suspicion. Not only do Israeli figures cast doubt on claims that the vast majority of fatalities are non-combatants, but a careful review of Palestinian sources also raises doubts.

Analyses of the casualties listed in the daily reports published by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, a Gaza-based organization operating under Hamas rule, indicate that young males ages 17 to 30 make up a large portion of the fatalities, and a particularly noticeable spike occurs between males ages 21 to 27, a pattern consistent with the age distribution typically found among combatants and military conscripts. Palestinian sources attempt to conceal this discrepancy with their public message by labeling most of these young men as civilians. Only a minority is identified as members of armed groups. As a result, the PCHR calculates civilian fatalities at 82% as of July 26. PCHR provides the most detailed casualty reports of the various Palestinian agencies from Gaza that provide figures to the media and to international organizations like the UN. Its figures closely match those of the Hamas-run Gazan Health Ministry and other groups.

We have seen this before. A similar dispute over casualty figures occurred during Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in the Gaza Strip in January 2009. The Israelis contended that the majority of the fatalities were combatants; the Palestinians claimed they were civilians. The media and international organizations tended to side with the Palestinians. The UN’s own investigatory commission headed by Richard Goldstone, which produced the Goldstone Report, cited PCHR’s figures along with other Palestinian groups providing similar figures. Over a year later, after the news media had moved on, Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hammad enumerated Hamas fatalities at 600 to 700, a figure close to the Israeli estimate of 709 and about three times higher than the figure of 236 combatants provided by PCHR in 2009 and cited in the Goldstone Report. Initially, playing to the international audience, it was important for Hamas to reinforce the image of Israel’s military action as indiscriminate and disproportionate by emphasizing the high number of civilians and low number of Hamas combatants among the fatalities. However, later on, Hamas had to deal with the flip side of the issue: that Hamas’s own constituency, the Gazan population, felt they had been abandoned by the Hamas government, which had made no effort to shelter them.

Scrutiny of Palestinian figures in the current conflict reveals a spike in fatalities among males ages 21 to 27 and an over-representation from ages 17 to 30. Data gleaned from the daily reports of the PCHR show that from July 8, the start of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge,” through July 26, 404 out of 915 fatalities tallied from daily reports in which the ages were identified occurred among males ages 17 to 30, comprising 44% of all fatalities among a group representing about 10% of Gazans.

Expanding the age range from 17 to 39 and including those identified as combatants whose ages were not given increases that number to 551 fatalities, or 57% of all fatalities, even though this group represents less than one-sixth of Gazans. By contrast, adult female fatalities were less than 10% of total fatalities for a group that comprises a quarter of the total population.

Children, here defined as those under age 17, represented 194 of fatalities, 20% of the total. Any child fatality is a tragedy, but it is important to note that children make up over half the population of Gaza.

Despite the discrepancies noted, the substantial number of civilian fatalities leaves room for further scrutiny. In seeking an alternate explanation for the excess of young male fatalities, it might be posited that this reflects some behavioral feature of this group separate from combat-related activities. However, the shape of the fatality demographic makes this unlikely. What feature would explain the sharp increase from age 17, peaking at ages 22 to 25 and then declining rapidly after age 30?

A more plausible explanation is that the age demographic of the fatalities reflects the relative involvement of different age bands in hostilities. Of course, some of those in the most represented age-bands aren’t combatants. However, balancing that, Palestinian and Israeli sources confirm that a portion of the fatalities over age 40 were senior Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives targeted by Israel.

Furthermore, this overall breakdown of the number of fatalities doesn’t address important issues like the portion of female and children casualties who were family members of targeted combatants who failed to heed Israeli evacuation warnings or were perhaps intimidated into remaining as “human shields.”

The demographic analysis of the fatalities in the Gaza conflict has limitations. It can’t identify who is or isn’t a combatant. But the spike in fatalities among males starting in their late teens and peaking in their early to mid-twenties, and the divergence of the pattern of fatalities from the demographic pattern of the population, raises considerable doubt about claims that as many as 75% or more of the fatalities are non-combatants. In light of evidence—provided by groups that monitor Arabic language media (like the Middle East Media Research Institute)—that Hamas has instructed Gazans to describe anyone killed as a civilian, journalists have a responsibility to convey this uncertainty to their audiences and not present figures provided by Hamas and Hamas-affiliated sources as unqualified fact.

Steven Stotsky is a senior analyst with The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a U.S.-based group that monitors the news media for what it considers to be anti-Israel bias.

TIME foreign affairs

Why the Broadcasting Board of Governors Is Nothing Like RT

Russia Today Putin
An internal view of the former Russian RIA Novosti news agency headquarters, which is now Rossia Segodnya (Russia Today) global news agency since President Vladimir Putin signed a decree liquidating the former news agency, in the capital Moscow, on Dec, 12, 2013. Sefa Karacan—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Media supported by the U.S. government may serve the nation's interests — but they still adhere to the highest standards of journalism.

This week, a stirring new documentary from the Voice of America called “AIDS: Living in the Shadows” made its world premiere at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. The 30-minute report — introduced by the British music legend and longtime AIDS activist Elton John — takes a global look at one of the most daunting side effects of AIDS: the stigma that makes its victims outcasts even within their own families.

The documentary takes audiences on a journey to Nigeria, Cambodia, Haiti, Uganda, Canada, and the United States to meet those living with HIV and AIDS. This is the most recent example of the excellent work done by VOA as it serves its audiences around the world while promoting the interests of the United States — in this case, helping halt a global pandemic.

Also this week, Time.com published an article regarding RT, an English-language propaganda outlet for the Kremlin. This article explored the many ways in which RT spreads distortions in support of the Russian government’s geopolitical aims, including outright lies that have prompted some of its top journalists to quit.

Amid all that, the article noted: “RT is neither the first nor the only outlet that exists to serve the state rather than its citizens. Nearly every major country has a thriving state-sponsored media. (The U.S. funds media organizations like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia that target foreign populations through the Broadcasting Board of Governors.)”

While it’s true that these media are, indeed, funded by the U.S. government, the arrangement differs in just about every other way from RT.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is an independent federal agency that oversees civilian U.S. international media (USIM), including the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. The BBG is one of the world’s largest news-gathering and reporting enterprises, with 61 language services, 50 overseas news bureaus, 3,500 employees, and 1,500 stringers among the five media entities.

These networks are founded on the belief that it is in the interest of the United States to communicate directly with the people of the world and for the people of the world to have access to accurate information about local, regional, and global events, including in the United States. The VOA Charter asserts, “To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners.” Our international audiences turn to VOA and the other BBG-supported media because they count on their accuracy and reliability. If these media were to engage in propaganda or false reporting, our audiences would simply tune us out and we would not be able to accomplish our mission. This is why we work to meet the highest standards of reporting and journalistic integrity.

These standards are at the very heart of USIM. VOA’s journalistic code states, “VOA reporters and broadcasters must strive for accuracy and objectivity in all their work. They do not speak for the U.S. government. …Furthermore, VOA professionals, careful to preserve the integrity of their organization, strive for excellence and avoid imbalance or bias in their broadcasts … Accuracy and balance are paramount, and together, they are VOA’s highest priority. …Though funded by the U.S. government, VOA airs all relevant facts and opinions on important news events and issues.”

The professional journalists around the world who work for our networks are tasked with presenting accurate and objective news and information for audiences in many countries where it is difficult or impossible to receive locally-produced, uncensored or unbiased programs. Our networks provide responsible discussion and open debate in places where this is rare in the media. And our reporters sometimes do so at great personal cost: One of our reporters in Pakistan was killed by the Taliban for doing his job in January 2012. Another reporter went missing in Syria in August 2012. One has stood up to harassment, slander and blackmail for her reporting on corruption in Azerbaijan, for which she was recently honored by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s “Courage in Journalism” award.

The credibility of USIM outlets is underscored by the many acclaimed, popular, private sector, and well-respected media that frequently cite our reporting. A few recent examples include a citation in the Wall Street Journal of a VOA story about corruption in Vietnam, a post in the New York Times China blog citing RFA’s reporting, a Washington Post article citing a Radio Liberty reporter, and the inclusion in this New York Times blog post of interviews of Russian citizens done by RFE/RL following the downing of MH17.

Our founding legislation mandates that our programs be conducted in accordance with the highest professional standards of broadcast journalism, and it provides guarantees against government interference in our journalists’ work; it also insists that our agency’s broadcasting standards be consistent with broad U.S. foreign policy objectives. The BBG’s mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy. In the sense that informing international audiences with news that is consistently reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective, and comprehensive is beneficial to U.S. interests, yes — the BBG and its media do serve the state. However, by doing so through credible and balanced reporting, we serve both the state and the citizens of the world.

Shell is the Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. If you are interested in learning more about the BBG and USIM, visit www.bbg.gov.

TIME foreign affairs

Malaysia Flight 17: The Unique Way the Dutch Mourn

With their innate distrust of ideology, the Dutch are strikingly different from Americans in their gut reactions.

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A cultural conundrum that I struggled to comprehend during my six years of living in Amsterdam concerned the Dutch attitude toward celebrities. They are passionate about their own celebrities – far more than about Hollywood stars, which is fair enough – but in the midst of intensely gossiping about a homegrown film or sports personality, they will suddenly turn blasé, as if the celeb were a mere family member who had started to become uppity.

The explanation is in the size of the nation. When you’ve got a total population of 16 million crammed into a country smaller than most individual U.S. states, everyone is within a couple of degrees of separation of everyone else. Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, and the other stars of the country’s World Cup team are brought down to Earth by the fact that, chances are, you know them, or your uncle does.

That thought came to mind as I’ve watched somber memorials unfold like dreams in cities all over the country this week. Roughly two-thirds of the 298 people who died on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 were Dutch. I asked several Dutch friends how they were doing. As I more or less expected, every one of them knew at least one person who was on the plane. One, who lives in The Hague, said her daughter was friends with a girl whose entire family was on the flight: they were going on vacation to Borneo. “They were in primary school together and took the same ballet lessons,” my friend said of her daughter and the girl who died. “When you think of their empty house, it is all very unreal.”

A few people want to lash out, saying the country should strike out against Russia. Someone posted the address of Vladimir Putin’s daughter, who lives in the Netherlands, on the Facebook page of the Netherlands-Russia Center. There are some vicious tweets.

But in the main the reaction to the sudden loss of a cross-section of Dutch society – the proportionate loss of life for a country the size of the United States would be about 6,000 people – has been muted. The government declared a national day of mourning, but events were already taking place everywhere, in a natural, non-official way. A mountain of flowers in front of a restaurant in Rotterdam. A pall of silence descending on the “Rose Kermis” gay festival in Tilburg. The deaths were evenly spread all over the country, and the memorials are localized.

The Dutch are strikingly different from Americans in their gut reactions to things. When hit with a national shock, Americans will almost instinctively reach for ideology or ideals. People saw 9/11 as an assault on “freedom.” The Dutch have an innate distrust of ideology. You could relate that to World War II and their experience under Nazism, but it goes much farther back. It has something to do with being a small country surrounded by larger countries that have had long histories of asserting themselves.

It also stems from the fact that Dutch society grew not out of war against a human foe but out of the struggle against nature. Living in low lands on a vast river delta, the Dutch came together to battle water. Building dams and dikes and canals was more practical than ideological. For better or worse, the Dutch are more comfortable with meetings and remembrances than with calls to arms.

Geography has defined destiny throughout Dutch history. The little country has reached outward, and prospered thanks to its ability to trade and engage with others; it also has proven a safe for refugees from less tolerant lands. Even before its 17th century golden age, Holland had become an intensely polyglot hub for goods and ideas, intricately connected with farflung places.

Flight 17 reflects and updates that history. Of course, by definition the plane was packed with travelers. But this tragedy gives an inadvertent indication of how racially mixed the country has become. Among the Dutch passengers listed on the flight manifest were a Vietnamese family who lived in Delft, the city of Vermeer; a Chinese couple from Rotterdam; a Dutch-Israeli student; a Dutch-Malaysian family; a Dutch-American; people born in Curacao and South Africa; and others with German, Indonesian and British backgrounds.

We hear about the growing multiethnicity of the country mostly through the screeching of right-wing fanatic Geert Wilders, member of parliament and leader of the Freedom Party, who riles up some elements of society by declaring that newcomers (read Muslims) are torpedoing Dutch traditions and turning the land of windmills into a giant mosque. The international media is a sucker for Wilders because he seems to give the lie to what the Dutch are most famous for (besides tulips and marijuana cafes): tolerance. The Dutch pioneered the concept in the 16th century, enshrining it in their de facto Constitution two centuries before “all men are created equal.” America’s history–especially New York’s–was deepling influenced by it, via the Dutch colony of New Netherland and its capital of New Amsterdam on Manhattan.

Wilders knows that the media always glom onto a counter-narrative, and he has used that fact repeatedly to his own advantage and to the detriment of his country’s image abroad. But one truth revealed by this tragedy is that the country is quietly becoming a melting pot, a place intricately connected to other parts of the world. The Dutch people who died on MH17 mirror their own rapidly evolving society, and remind the rest of us that our futures don’t lie in tribalism, but in expanding our connections.

Russell Shorto is the author of Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME foreign affairs

Putin’s Power: Why Russians Adore Their Bare-Chested Reagan

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Alexey Druzhinin—AFP/Getty Images

The history of strongmen leaders helps fuel a passion for capitalism—even if there's a cost

There he is, the President of Russia, riding bare-back and bare-chested astride a galloping steed; spending $50 billion on a resort town most Russians will never see; seizing Crimea, instigating unrest in Ukraine; maybe even making himself indirectly responsible for the murder of nearly 300 innocents aboard a downed passenger plane: Vladimir Putin, shaking his fist in the face of a West that often seems unable to do more than avert its eyes.

When we in The West do look, it can seem perplexing: How can Russians buy into such blatant bravado? How can a country that is (at least nominally) democratic support such near-authoritarian power? And why does Putin remain so popular?

“Why,” Russians might ask us in return, “do you support a system of government that is so weak?” In 2010, traveling through Russia to research a novel, I was asked this a lot. I’d press people on the way Putin had cowed political opposition, castrated the parliament, brought the media mostly under his control. Usually, they’d shrug. Then they’d tell me, “At least he does stuff, makes stuff happen. Unlike in America. Where your government can’t get even the smallest things done.” Yes, Putin goes big, they’d say—maybe even sometimes goes wrong—but we in America can’t manage to go anywhere at all. Heck, we can barely manage to fund our own government, let alone set aside our squabbling long enough for anyone to actually lead.

I’m not a political scientist; I couldn’t respond with more than a layman’s opinion. I’m not a scholar of Russian history; it’s not my place to proclaim intimate knowledge of a complex and multifaceted culture. And I’m not Russian; I’d never purport to speak for the people themselves. But I am a novelist. And, as a novelist, my job is to listen—to the voices of others, to the voice of a place—and then to attempt to understand, not just intellectually but emotionally. In other words, to empathize.

The Great Glass Sea, by Josh Weil Courtesy Grove/Atlantic

Everywhere in Russia that I traveled to research my new novel, The Great Glass Sea, I felt a yearning. Sometimes it took the shape of nostalgia: a man who’d made a fortune in the early ‘90s lit up talking about that wild time of unleashed, unfettered capitalism when millions could be made overnight; a school teacher spoke of the way, under communism, everyone knew their neighbors, shared what little they had—a birthday cake cut into dozens of tiny slices to serve the entire apartment block, an apartment block now filled with families too busy trying to make ends meet to even know each others’ names; I even spoke to young men who hungered for a return of the tsar. Sometimes the yearning was for a future for which they fiercely grasped: I saw a deep appreciation for the opportunities that the release from communism had afforded, the new paths capitalism had opened up.

But in all of it there was an undercurrent of aggrievement; a sense of having to restart after seven decades of the Soviet State, having to retrace steps back to the path the rest of the world had been on—and then struggle to catch up; a feeling that the chance for Russia to remake itself had been hampered by the hegemony of the West; a knowledge that the county was less than it could be, should be, that their individual lives were lessened too; or maybe just a knowledge—especially among the populace in poorer towns and villages outside of Moscow—that what wealth and success has come to the county has come only to a very few.

That’s a feeling a great number of Americans can relate to: not only the frustration with growing inequality, but the sense that our country is also somehow becoming smaller than it should be. Here, when our sense of self is threatened, we turn to historical mythology that buttresses our belief in who we are: The American Dream, our forefathers wrestling with what that would be, the presidents who, through our beloved democracy, shaped how we understand it now—FDR, JFK, Reagan. We look for the next in that mold.

But Russians don’t have that history. Theirs is one in which revolutionary uprisings led to instability before being channeled by a system of control; one in which democracy is associated with a time of devastating economic collapse. We all know the long history of Russian strongmen—from Ivan the Terrible to Joseph Stalin—but can you imagine having that history as our own, having those leaders to look back on? Can you imagine our own country collapsed, our own inequality increased, our own dreams squeezed? Maybe you can, all too well. Now imagine that we had a leader who not only gave us hope, promised us change, but delivered.

Josh Weil Jilan Carroll Glorfield

Josh Weil is the author of the novel The Great Glass Sea and the novella collection The New Valley, which was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. A Fulbright Fellow and Nation Book Award 5-under-35 honoree, he has written for The New York Times, Granta, and Esquire.

TIME Media

Inside the Bizarro World of ‘Russia Today’

James Kirchick on RT. RT

RT never lets such things as basic facts get in the way of crude propaganda.

Last Friday, Sara Firth announced via Twitter that she had resigned as a correspondent for RT, an international, multilingual news network entirely funded by the Russian government. “I couldn’t do it any more,” the London-based reporter told Buzzfeed. “Every single day we’re lying and finding sexier ways to do it.”

Firth’s resignation came a day after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed into the fields of Eastern Ukraine. Aside from Kremlin dissimulators and professional conspiracy theorists (often one and the same), nobody at this point doubts that Russian-backed separatists, using military hardware at the very least provided to them, if not operated, by Russian agents themselves, shot down the plane. Yet watching RT in the aftermath of the disaster, in which all 298 passengers were killed, one would have learned a very different story.

One hypothesis, floated insistently by the RT anchors and guests, was that the Ukrainian military shot down MH17, under the erroneous impression it was actually Vladimir Putin’s presidential jet. Forget the absurdity of accusing the Ukrainians of trying to assassinate the Russian president, thus bringing upon themselves a full-on, open invasion of their country (in contrast to the limited and largely covert operation that the Russians have been waging). As the separatists have not been in command of any planes, the Ukrainian military has not deployed air defenses in the area under contestation.

But RT never lets such things as basic facts get in the way of crude propaganda. In one segment I watched, an RT anchor incessantly asked an aviation expert if it was conceivable that the Ukrainians mistook MH17 for Putin’s due to the fact that both aircraft are painted in red, white and blue. That these are the colors of British Airways, Air France, Aeroflot and untold other national carriers did not give the host pause. Nor did the fact that his hypothesis attributes super-human eyesight to the would-be Ukrainian mass murderers, who must have somehow been able to discern President Putin’s plane from 33,000 feet (the height at which MH17 was flying when it was struck). Finally, if they could detect the colors of the plane’s exterior from such a distance, would they not also be able to see the “Malaysia Airlines” lettering?

It has been an embarrassing year for RT, the network formerly known as Russia Today. Founded in 2005 to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, RT – which broadcasts in English, Arabic and Spanish – aims to counter the influence of what Putin calls the “Anglo-Saxon mass media.” It does so via a poisonous admixture of hysterical anti-Western propaganda, financial alarmism, conspiracy theorizing and the promotion of political extremists from left and right united in hatred of America and liberal democracy.

I had my own run in with RT last August when the network invited me on to discuss the sentencing of Chelsea Manning, the former Army private who leaked hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables to Wikileaks. Donning a pair of rainbow suspenders, I proceeded to protest the recently enacted Russian law prohibiting propagation of “non-traditional sexual relationships to minors.” In March, RT host Abby Martin made headlines when she criticized Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, her mealy-mouthed, morally equivocating 60-second statement newsworthy only in the sense that opinions diverging from the Kremlin line are all but nonexistent on the network. Days later, RT anchor Liz Wahl quit live on-air, citing her grandparents’ fleeing the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary as one of several reasons why she could no longer “be part of a network that whitewashes the actions of Putin.”

A particularly egregious example was the most recent episode of the Truthseeker, an inaptly named program seeing that its host, Daniel Bushell, never finds it. Titled “Genocide in Eastern Ukraine,” the 14-minute segment alleged that the Ukrainian government is conducting a crime on par with the 1994 Rwandan genocide (responsible for 500,000 to 1 million victims), which, for good measure, the United States enthusiastically supported. The Ukrainian government (“the most far-right wing government on the face of the Earth,” a description that far better suits the current Russian regime), whose leaders “repeat Hitler’s genocidal oath,” is “bombing wheat fields to ensure there’s famine,” a perverse claim in light of the Soviet-orchestrated Holodomor, the killing by starvation that took the lives of millions of Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933. The segment featured an interview with crank “historian” William Engdahl, a regular columnist for the virulently anti-Semitic website Veterans Today, where he has suggested that terrorist bombings in Russia earlier this year were conducted by Israel in retribution “for Putin’s role in winning Obama away from war against Syria last fall and openly seeking a diplomatic resolution of the Iran nuclear problem.”

Such ravings are par for the course on RT, but what happened afterwards surprised observers who have grown accustomed to the network’s practice of throwing out an endless stream of indefensible allegations in hopes that some of them will stick in the media ecosystem. Two days after the program aired, RT announced via Twitter that it had removed the episode from its website due to “uncorroborated info.” If this were to be the new standard by which RT determines what material to air, it would have no choice but to shut down altogether.

James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative.

TIME Foreign Policy

Russian Television Under Spotlight After Malaysia Airlines Crash in Ukraine

Russia Putin
Employees of RT prepare for a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on June 11, 2013. Yuri Kochetkov—AP

The crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 exposes the truth about RT, the Russian English-language propaganda outlet

In late 2009, the British journalist Sara Firth became a Russian propaganda mouthpiece.

The decision seemed to make sense at the time. Firth had just earned a postgraduate diploma in investigative journalism when she was offered a role as on-air-correspondent for RT, a Russian television network that is broadcast for foreign audiences in English, Spanish and Arabic. The gig came with an attractive salary, vibrant colleagues and the chance to report big stories in global hotspots. Firth had ambition, a sense of adventure, and a fascination with Russia. She took the job.

Founded in 2005, RT is billed as a counterweight to the bias of Western media outlets. In reality, the broadcast outlet is an unofficial house organ for President Vladimir Putin’s government. Under the guise of journalistic inquiry, it produces agitprop funded by the Russian state, and beams it around the world to nearly 650 million people in more than 100 countries. RT is Russia’s “propaganda bullhorn,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said recently, “deployed to promote President Putin’s fantasy about what is playing out on the ground.”

Firth was no dupe. She knew the politics of her paymasters. “We are lying every single day at RT,” she explained Monday afternoon in a phone interview from England. “There are a million different ways to lie, and I really learned that at RT.”

Since a Malaysian jetliner crashed in a wheat field in eastern Ukraine last week, RT’s pro-Putin packaging has been exposed in grim detail. In the aftermath of the tragedy, which killed all 298 souls on board, the outlet—like the rest of Russian state media—has seemed as if it were reporting on an entirely different crime. As the international media published reports indicating the plane was shot down by pro-Russian separatists, RT has suggested Ukraine was responsible, cast Moscow as a scapegoat and bemoaned the insensitivity of outlets focusing on the geopolitical consequences of the crime.

For Firth, the coverage was the last straw. She announced her resignation on July 18, as her employer broadcast a flurry of reports that read more like Kremlin press releases. She described a five-year fight to uphold the principles of journalistic integrity in a place where every reporting assignment comes with a “brief” outlining the story’s conclusion. “It’s mass information manipulation,” she says. “They have a very clear idea in their mind of what they’re trying to prove.”

RT is neither the first nor the only outlet that exists to serve the state rather than its citizens. Nearly every major country has a thriving state-sponsored media. (The U.S. funds media organizations like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia that target foreign populations through the Broadcasting Board of Governors.) In Russia, the domestic media have long been lapdogs, and reporters who bite their masters sometimes turn up dead. “The media in Russia are expected to be mouthpieces for power,” says Sarah Oates, a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland who studies the Russian media. “RT follows this model. They’ll mix a little bit of reality with a little bit of smearing, and they’ll steer the viewer into questioning things.”

RT’s motto is “Question More,” which sounds like a worthy credo. In practice, it arranges those questions to light the way to specific answers. The formula is well-honed. RT hires young, telegenic correspondents who speak fluent English and believe, as Firth does, that a flawed media ecosystem benefits when broadcasters challenge the dominant narrative. And it pays them lavishly to report from far-flung battlefields or its gleaming studios. “They want you to be on air looking young, looking sexy, looking fresh. Being a bit quirky,” says Firth. “They’re after impact. They don’t mind too much about the fact checking.”

In the aftermath of the crash last week, the RT machine kicked into overdrive, churning out a steady stream of strange reports. In an effort to implicitly assign blame on the Ukrainians, it noted the proximity of Putin’s own plane. It quoted a Russian defense ministry source asking why a Ukrainian air force jet was detected nearby. And it quoted another anonymous Russian official, who volunteered the juicy claim that a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile was operational in the vicinity at the time of the incident. This is how RT works, explains Firth: by arranging facts to fit a fantasy.

“What they do is a very smart, slick way of manipulating reality,” she says. “In Ukraine, you’re taking a very small part of a much wider story, totally omitted the context of the story, and so what you wind up with on air is outright misinformation.”

Sometimes the end result is anything but slick. In March, a group of alumni and students from the Mohyla School of Journalism in Kiev, along with associated journalists, launched a fact-checking site to chronicle false reporting about the Ukrainian crisis. The site, Stopfake.org, features a long menu of whoppers from Russian media. Among the most egregious, the group’s founder told TIME, is the case of a blond actress who has cropped up in different roles over the course of conflict. The actress, Maria Tsypko, has been interviewed on state TV and identified as separatist camp organizer in Odessa, a political refugee in Sevastopol and an election monitor in Crimea, according to the site. The only thing that never changes is her affection for Mother Russia.

These outlandish flubs are a problem for the Russian propaganda effort, which forks out millions to cloak spin as truth-telling. It’s hard to maintain the illusion when the audience can see the strings and wires behind the scenes. “It’s been a particularly effective means of propaganda, and a very effective voice for the Russian state,” says Oates. “But if you’re going to engage in propaganda, you have to do it well. They have completely embarrassed themselves.”

RT did not respond to an interview request from TIME. According to Firth, you can reliably glean management’s perspective from the opinions they allow their employees to parrot. Many, Firth says, are like herself: committed journalists who thought they could persevere and take advantage of the opportunity to report important stories, the goals of their bosses notwithstanding.

“For five years, you’re kind of fighting against this—and with your colleagues you’re rolling your eyes and making jokes,” she says. “The worst-kept secret is that RT is blatant propaganda. I’m one in a very long line of people who have left for the same reason. Everyone has their breaking point. I wish I had done it sooner. But I didn’t.”

TIME foreign affairs

Death Count Rises As Parties Scramble for Israel-Gaza Ceasefire

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will meet with Hamas leader to promote a deal proposed by Egypt

JERUSALEM — The death toll continues to rise as a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel becomes more and more elusive.

At least 100 Palestinians have been killed since the start of Israel ground offensive, according to Palestinian officials in Gaza.

Among the dead is a family of eight, killed by Israeli tank fire in the northern Gaza Strip last night, adding yet another tragedy to the now 11-day-old Israeli Operation Defensive Edge, which has killed more than 340 Palestinians. Most of the dead are civilians, including at least 73 children. According to the UN, more than 50,000 people in Gaza have been displaced from their homes, but there are no refugees as Gazans are unable to leave the tiny coastal territory.

“My children ask me questions about why this is happening and I don’t have any answers,” says Mahfouz Kabariti, who lives near the Gaza seafront with his wife and six children. The buzz of Israeli drones, which are now a constant backdrop to the frequent sound of explosions, can be heard through the phone. “I can see the Israeli navy ships from my window.”

As Israel’s navy fired from the sea and the air force struck Gaza from above, Israeli troops engaged with Hamas fighters on the border Saturday after eight militants tried to enter Israel from the territory through an underground tunnel.

“This illustrates that our concerns are real,” said Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Lerner says the IDF has already destroyed 5,000 of the 10,000 rockets it believes Hamas has in its arsenal. Israel now has thousands of troops inside Gaza and says it will widen its offensive, which aims to crush Hamas’ infrastructure.

“We have our hands full to complete these missions,” Lerner said.

At least two Israelis were killed Saturday after militants breached the territory’s northern border, bringing the Israeli death toll to five. The Israeli army says they have identified at least 20 tunnels on the Gaza-Israel border, and that militants planned to sneak into Israel with the aim of committing attacks.

While the Israeli army battled Hamas fighters, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas flew to Qatar and will meet with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to promote a ceasefire proposed by Egypt. After years of division, a unity deal was struck in April between Abbas’ Fatah party–which rules in the West Bank–and Hamas, but this military escalation has put a new wedge between the factions.

So far all these diplomatic efforts have been in vain. Israel claims it launched its ground offensive only after Hamas rejected several ceasefire offers. Israel’s cabinet voted to approve a ceasefire deal earlier this week, but it was turned down by Hamas.

“We rejected the Egyptian initiative because it wasn’t fair, giving the Israelis whatever they want,” said Ehab Hussein, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza. “Nobody can accept that when you are getting hit and killed, that at the same time you should stop defending yourself without getting anything.”

Hamas is looking for more than just an end to hostilities. The leadership wants to gain new conditions from any deal to end the fighting.

“It’s not strange things we are asking for. We are saying, give us our freedom. Lift the siege. Open the borders. Implement the past agreement of 2012 and the agreement of the prisoner exchange,” said Ehab al-Hussein, in reference to prisoners who were re-arrested this month after being released in the swap for Gilad Shalit in 2011.

Egypt has been trying to broker a deal between Israel and Hamas in Cairo, but some speculate that Egypt is not a neutral mediator. Egypt’s new president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has an ongoing campaign in his country to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent organization, and many argue his sympathies lie with Israel. However, Hussein says they have not shut down that channel.

UN secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is expected in Israel today in attempt to push for a ceasefire.

“Hopefully we will reach something,” said Hussein, “because we didn’t want this war. The Israelis started it.”

TIME Malaysia

Malaysian Authorities Sharpen Tone on MH17 Attack, Call for Justice

Malaysia Airlines plane crashes in eastern Ukraine
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai, center, and civil-aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, right, speak during a media conference on Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on July 19, 2014 Azhar Rahim—EPA

While Ukrainian government alleges rebels are interfering at the crash site, hiding evidence

Malaysia has stopped mincing their words. Ismail Nasaruddin, president at Malaysia Airlines staff union NUFAM, said the MH17 attack amounts to “murder,” and Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said the world has a “moral obligation” to ensure the safe recovery of remains as well as punishing those culpable. This was the message that came out of Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, after news that pro-Russian rebels have been restricting access to the crash site.

“Malaysia is deeply concerned that the crash site has not been properly secured,” said Liow, just ahead of leaving with the second Malaysian team bound for Ukraine to oversee the investigation. “There are indications that vital evidence has not been preserved … Citizens of 11 nations … cannot be laid to rest. Their lives were taken by violence; now violence stops them from being accorded their final respect. This cannot continue.”

The Ukrainian government has accused the rebels of moving at least 38 bodies from the crash site to a morgue in the rebel stronghold area of Donetsk, according to the New York Times. They also say that rebels have been hiding weaponry, missile fragments and other pieces of evidence. Rebel leaders have denied any interference.

Official Malaysian statements so far have been notably guarded, avoiding calling out an aggressive act as the cause of the crash. But the tone has sharpened considerably since armed separatists hindered a team of international observers from spending more than an hour at the wreckage site on Friday, and further indications pointed at a missile taking the airliner down.

At Saturday’s press conference, the country’s Transport Minister also junked claims of any wrongdoings of Malaysia Airlines in connection to the disaster. “MH17’s flight path was a busy major airway, like a highway in the sky,” Liow said. “It never strayed into restricted airspace. All sources say that a missile shot it down … this is an outrage that cannot go unpunished.” Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, director general of the Department of Civil Aviation, answered to a barrage of questions over the decision to fly at 33,000 ft. — a mere 1,000 ft. above the no-fly zone over the restive Ukrainian region — saying that this was the order the aircraft received from flight control.

Still, worries mount over the conflicted national carrier. Malaysia Airlines’ shares plummeted 11% on Friday, on top of an 83% plunge over the past five years. Some believe that the airline may even struggle to survive two such major disasters so close to each other. This is a notion that concerns many Malaysians, who view the company with great patriotism.

“Malaysia Airlines is such a good face for Malaysia to the world,” says 23-year-old student Fatin Badjuri, waiting for her flight at Kuala Lumpur International, ranked as one of the region’s best airports. “I’m worried about the problems these incidents will cause to the company, as well as to the country. I feel people may start thinking negatively about Malaysia now.”

Among the staff at Malaysia Airlines, though, all public concern remains focused on the recent tragedy. The airline released the full list of passengers aboard MH17 on Saturday.

“The entire cabin crew population is mourning … we’re not really concerned with the financial qualms right now,” said Ismail, the air carrier’s union leader, at a separate press conference on Saturday. “The spirit is demoralized. Some have not been able to come to work. The question we ask is if this mass murder was done with the intention to kill everyone on the flight.”

Malaysia is craving answers, and fast. Their patience has been sufficiently tried over the past few months.

TIME foreign affairs

Putin’s Defiance After Malaysia Airlines Crash Points to Further Isolationism

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Trinity lavra of St.Sergius
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for the Orthodox festival to honour the birthday of Venerable Sergius of Radonezh in the Trinity Lavra of St.Sergius on July 18, 2014, in Sergiyev Posad. Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images

The President has stubbornly refused to even suggest that the rebel leaders share part of the blame in the disaster.

At some point on Thursday evening, just after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 blew apart over some wheat field in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin had a chance to take stock of his options. There were essentially two. The Russian President could stand behind the rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine, even as suspicion grew that they were responsible for shooting the airliner down, and risk implicating Russia in the tragedy and deepening the Kremlin’s conflict with Ukraine and with the West. The other option, a familiar one for Putin, would be to use the senseless loss of life as an opportunity to shift toward reconciliation.

He had taken the latter approach a few years ago, in 2010, when a plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his entourage crashed in western Russia, killing everyone on board. To the surprise of many in Poland, Putin took that tragedy as a chance to make amends, however briefly, easing the history of mistrust between the two nations. His displays of mourning and commiseration – Putin even hugged and comforted Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk near the crash site – allowed Russians and Poles to call each other brothers for the first time in a generation.

Taking the same approach after Thursday’s catastrophe would have helped Putin on several fronts. He could have distanced himself from the increasingly erratic rebel leaders in Ukraine and their supporters in Russia, who have been goading Putin deeper into war, without looking weak or inconsistent at home. More important for his interests, he could have defused the West’s case for further sanctions against Russia, at least by working with Ukraine to investigate the tragedy and showing some remorse for his role in fueling the conflict that, ultimately, led to the downing of that plane. But Putin seems to have chosen otherwise.

Instead of the displays of empathy he showed after the crash of the Polish plane four years ago, Putin immediately began casting blame on Ukraine and shielding the rebels from criticism. Some observers have suggested that this was a kneejerk reaction rather than a well-considered choice. “The Kremlin will, for all its immediate and instinctive bluster and spin, have to definitively and overtly withdraw from arming and protecting the rebels,” wrote Mark Galleoti, a prominent Russia expert and professor at New York University. “I suspect that when the histories are written, this will be deemed the day the insurgency lost. Or at least began to lose.”

That may be true. But Russia’s behavior so far suggests that it will not stand by and watch the insurgency falter, regardless of how much evidence arises that its foot soldiers shot down that plane. Russian state television has already begun defending the rebels from blame, offering theories on the culpability of Ukraine’s armed forces. Once that message is chosen as the official line, the Kremlin will be wary of veering away from it. Many top officials have already locked themselves into a position, well before all the circumstances became clear. Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the Russian parliament and one of Putin’s oldest and closest allies, even accused Kiev of “criminal negligence” on Friday for allowing the Malaysia Airlines flight to pass over the region where “the Ukrainian army uses armored vehicles, heavy artillery, warplanes and launch rocket systems against their citizens.”

He made no mention of the fact that the rebels launch rockets as well, including the kind capable of taking down an airliner flying at more than 30,000 feet. Nor did Putin in his comments late on Thursday. “Obviously, the state over which this incident took place is responsible for this terrible tragedy,” Putin said.

The one-sidedness of the President’s response – his refusal even to suggest that the rebel leaders share part of the blame in the disaster – has given his critics a chance to lay the blame on him. Alexander Ryklin, a political commentator and vocal opponent of the Kremlin, wrote on Friday that “all of the political responsibility” lies on Putin’s shoulders. “He is the one who gave the orders to provide Russian technology and weapons to these mindless insurgents,” Ryklin wrote in an editorial on Friday. “And the result is clear.”

If the investigation into Thursday’s crash manages to prove that assertion in the coming weeks and months, the damage to Putin’s credibility at home and abroad would be enormous, and it is not clear what he has to gain from siding so clearly with the rebels this early in the investigation. Other than projecting a stubborn defiance in this conflict, and thus firming up his already sky-high support among hardliners in Russia, there is little obvious upside. So many Russia-watchers, particularly the investors who have a financial stake in Russia avoiding further sanctions, have held out hope that Putin will still shift to a more conciliatory line.

“Either the event will push Russia towards greater isolationism as a response to the broadly based global criticism,” said the Moscow-based investment adviser Chris Weafer, “or it will mark some sort of end, or the start of the end, of the most dangerous phase in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

Two days after the crash, that is still Putin’s choice to make. But from the signals the Kremlin is sending so far, it seems he has already made it. It would not only mean further isolation for Russia, it would also prolong or even deepen the most dangerous phase in its conflict with Ukraine.

TIME foreign affairs

Garry Kasparov: The Price of Inaction in Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists look at passengers' belongings at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region
Pro-Russian separatists look at passengers' belongings at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 18, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

Obama and Europe chose not to stand up to Vladimir Putin — now we're seeing the terrible toll.

There are many questions still to be answered about what happened to Malaysia Air Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. I will limit myself to what is known to a reasonable doubt based on the evidence and statements that have been provided by numerous officials in the 36 hours since the tragedy. Nearly 300 innocent lives were lost when Flight MH17 was shot out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile. The missile was launched from an area in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-supplied and Russia-supported paramilitary separatists that include at least some Russian officers and special forces. Three other planes have been shot down in the region in the last month.

Nearly 300 dead. Horribly, needlessly. We all mourn them and seek to understand how this could happen. Based on the day’s official statements and most news coverage the word blame is somehow forbidden, and I do not understand why. Establishing responsibility and exacting accountability for these murders is more important than fretting about reaching the right tone of restraint in a press release.

So who is to blame? This is not a simple question even if you know the answer. That is, of course, the person who pushed the button that launched the missile is to blame; that is the easy part. Shall we just arrest him and try him for murder? Responsibility is a greater concept than that. You have the leader who gave the order to push the button. Then the person who provided the missiles to the separatists. Then there are the officials who opened the border to allow military weaponry to cross into Ukraine and the ministers and generals in Moscow who gave those orders. Then we come to the desk where all power resides in Russia today, the desk of the man those ministers and generals obey very carefully: the desk of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Blaming Putin for these deaths is as correct and as pointless as blaming the man who pressed the button that launched the missile. Everyone has known for months that Russia arms and supports the separatists in Ukraine. Everyone has known for years that a mouse does not squeak in the Kremlin without first getting Putin’s permission. We also know very well what Putin is, a revanchist KGB thug trying to build a poor man’s USSR to replace the loss of the original he mourns so much.

But blaming Putin for invading Ukraine — for annexing Crimea, for giving advanced surface-to-air missiles to separatists — is like blaming the proverbial scorpion for stinging the frog. It is expected. It is his nature. Instead of worrying about how to change the scorpion’s nature or, even worse, how best to appease it, we must focus on how the civilized world can contain the dangerous creature before more innocents die.

Therefore let us cast our net of responsibility where it may do some good. We turn to the leaders of the free world who did nothing to bolster the Ukrainian border even after Russia annexed Crimea and made its ambitions to destabilize eastern Ukraine very clear. It will be interesting to see if the Western leaders and business groups who have been working so hard to block stronger sanctions against Russia will now see any reason to change their policy. I expect they will at least be quieter about it until the wreckage is cleared away.

Is the West to blame? Did they push the button? No. They pretended that Ukraine was far away and would not affect them. They hoped that they could safely ignore Ukraine instead of defending the territorial integrity of a European nation under attack. They were paralyzed by fear and internal squabbles. They resisted strong sanctions on Russia because they were worried about the impact on their own economies. They protected jobs but lost lives.

Would this tragedy have happened had tough sanctions against Russia been put into effect the moment Putin moved on Crimea? Would it have happened had NATO made it clear from the start they would defend the sovereignty of Ukraine with weapons and advisers on the ground? We will never know. Taking action requires courage, and there can be high costs in achieving the goal. But as we now see, in horror, there are also high costs for inaction, and the goal has not been achieved.

The argument that the only alternative to capitulation to Putin is World War III is for the simple-minded. There were, and are, a range of responses. A horrible price has been paid, but it will not be the last if even this fails to provoke a strong reaction. Financial and travel restrictions against Putin’s cronies and their families and harsh sanctions against key Russian economic sectors may also do some damage to European economies. Until yesterday, Europe could argue about how much money their principles were worth. Today they have to argue about how much money those lives are worth.

Kasparov is the chairman of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation.

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