Propaganda as a tool of war: is it possible to bring Russian propagandists to justice?

Propaganda as a tool of war: is it possible to bring Russian propagandists to justice?

Russian propagandists are calling for the killing of Ukrainians and the use of nuclear weapons. The work of Russian propagandists is one of the pieces of evidence of Russian crimes. In particular, the material "What Russia should do with Ukraine", published in the Russian propaganda media "RIA Novosti," showed Russia's intentions to destroy Ukrainians as a national group. Such materials are a call to genocide, but can these journalists be prosecuted in an international court? During this year's Book Forum in Lviv, lawyers, journalists, and disinformation researchers tried to find this out.

Russian propaganda in Syria

Russia uses propaganda as a tool of war not only in Ukraine. In 2015, Russia joined the war in Syria, after which a campaign began in the English-language media space against the NGO "White Helmets," which provided first aid to the wounded and filmed the crimes of Bashar al-Assad's regime. The main platform for "criticism" was the "Russia Today" TV channel.

Emma Winberg, who researched the issue of disinformation against the White Helmets, says that during the information campaign, Russia used certain Western "experts" to form the opinion in the Western countries that there are allegedly no "good people" in Syria. The Russians also focused on the negative experience of the US intervention in Iraq and tried to "keep the West as far away as possible" from the events in Syria. As Russian propaganda calls Ukrainians "Nazis," representatives of the "White Helmets" were called "Al-Qaeda supporters." This raised doubts among British and American government officials about the organization's work. Winberg explains that disinformation campaigns undermine national and public institutions and in wartime conditions become especially dangerous because they can lead to the loss of lives.

The concept of "informational alibi" used by the Russians

An informational alibi is one of the elements of informational terrorism, explains Andrii Shapoval, representative of the Center for Countering the Spread of Disinformation at the National Security and Defense Council. On the eve of the bombing of the maternity hospital in Mariupol, the rocket attack on the railway station in Kramatorsk, and the terrorist attack in Olenivka, the experts of the Center recorded how the Russians were preparing the informational basis. These were publications stating that "there will be Ukrainian Nazis" in these places. All these materials were artificial.

Now the representatives of the Center are conducting consultations with legal experts and lawyers regarding the feasibility of using this term to later include it in Ukrainian law, and then, possibly, in international law.

To use data on the synthetic nature of information in court, it is necessary to develop a mechanism for digital examinations that would prove or disprove the artificiality of information. Both artificial intelligence and machine learning can make such examinations.

Is it possible to prove a link between propaganda and war crimes?

Lawyer and professor of law at University College London, Philippe Sands, explains that international law allows a person to be held accountable for their speech. For example, during the Nuremberg trials, the German propagandist Julius Streicher was found guilty of crimes against humanity, primarily for inciting international enmity, anti-Semitic propaganda, and calls for genocide, which resulted in the persecution of Jewish people. Streicher published materials with calls for genocide and directly participated in it.

Sands explains that to bring the propagandist to justice, the prosecutor must prove that the person did not just spread the information but knew for sure that it would lead to tragedy.

In the case of the maternity hospital bombing in Mariupol, the prosecutor will need to prove that, for example, Kiselyov or Simonyan had information that their statements would lead to an airstrike on the facility. This process is not simple, so Ukraine should collect the maximum amount of evidence that the statements of the propagandists and the actions of the Russian troops were coordinated.

Gaps in international law

Andrii Shapoval says that international law does not currently classify propaganda as a crime. So, propagandists cannot be brought to justice. In his opinion, people on the Internet who call for violence are the same combat units as the Russian military.

The head of the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security, Liubov Tsybulska, believes that today it is worth talking about the need for changes in the legal system so that Russian propagandists can be punished.