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Lying for the sake of truth – TASS on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church

Denigrating TASS for exhibiting political bias may be pointless — But Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, and there was a brief moment when TASS and other Russian media outlets sought to follow the Anglo-American principles of disinterested reporting. That era has ended.  

Slowly [under Stalin] we had come to believe . . . that there are two kinds of truth. If there is a truth of a higher order than objective truth, if the criterion of truth is political expediency, then even a lie can be ‘true’ …

Bếkế ếs Szabadsaq (3 October 1956), quoted in translation by Michael Polanyi, ‘Beyond Nihilism’, Encounter (March 1960), p. 42

So wrote the Hungarian poet Miklós Gimes in describing intellectual life behind the Iron Curtain. Though people and ideologies have changed since he penned these words in 1956, the contest between truth and political expediency has not — though the field of battle has expanded westwards. The “Fake News” controversies animating the US and Europe present the same questions as did the truths of Soviet agitprop. Does anyone remember Dan Rather and the fake but accurate stories about President George W. Bush?

The Russian media scene presents a sobering picture for those who hold to theories of the inevitable progress of mankind. (Should we now say peoplekind?) Though the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a decade of a press freedoms in Russia under Boris Yeltsin, with Vladimir Putin the situation has tightened. The state does not pervade all aspects of intellectual life. But where its interests are concerned — dissent is not tolerated.

The change in Russian reporting has been most notable in TASS. Officially known as the Russian News Agency TASS (Информационное агентство России ТАСС), TASS is the fourth largest news agency in the world, after Reuters, the Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse. TASS is owned by the Russian Federal government and has 70 bureaus in Russia and 68 bureaus overseas, and its journalists publish 350 to 600 stories everyday.

The initials TASS come from its name in Soviet times, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (Телеграфное агентство Советского Союза). In 1992 President Yeltsin changed its name to the Information Telegraph Agency of Russia – TASS (ITAR-TASS), but President Vladimir Putin dropped the “Telegraph” in the title, changing it to IAR-TASS, or more commonly TASS.

Gimes, who would be hanged in 1958 by the Communist regime for his part in the Budapest uprising, likely would recognize the games played in an article published last week on the split between the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate).

The article entitled “Attempts made in Ukraine to merge canonical Orthodox Church with schism” is advocacy journalism taken to its logical conclusion — truth subordinated to a political agenda.

But first some background … following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Metropolitan Philaret of Kiev led a large portion of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) — (meaning it was a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church) in the newly independent Ukraine out from under the control of the Moscow Patriarchate to form the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate). This new body has not been recognized by most Orthodox churches, but the Ecumanical Patriarch has agreed to review the situation — and decide if it is entitled to independence.

At the same time as Philaret and his supporters sought to break free from the control of Moscow, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church sought its freedom from Orthodox control. Disparagingly called “Uniates”, the Greek Catholics had been suppressed under Stalin and its property confiscated and turned over to the Moscow Patriarchate. All of its bishops and most of the clergy died under Soviet repression — though its Archbishop survived 18 years in the Gulag before being exiled to Rome. The Greek Catholic Church is under the jurisdiction of the Pope, and its claims for restoration of its property following the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a chill in relations between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Vatican.

The dispute took on heightened political and nationalistic overtones following Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and portions of Eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian nationalists in Parliament backed the Kiev Patriarchate and Greek Catholic Church in its dispute with the Moscow Patriarchate, while the Russian government has pressed the claims of the Moscow Patriarchate.  No side can claim innocence in this dispute. In those regions of the Ukraine and Crimea under Moscow’s military control, the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Church are all but non-existent. In Lviv, the former Polish city of Lvov before the Second World War, the Greek Catholics are the majority and have taken back property once theirs, but evicted Moscow Patriarchate congregations — while the Kiev Patriarchate has enlisted the help of nationalist political groups in supporting its goals in areas under Ukrainian control.

With that complicated history, let’s look at the story from TASS. The article reports on comments made by the Moscow Patriarchate’s head of External Relations, Metropolitan Hilarion, to Greek reporters. Though the date given is February 13, 2018, the tone and language of the article could just as easily be dated 1958.

The lede begins:

MOSCOW, February 13. /TASS/. Ukrainian authorities are striving to merge by force the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which reports to Moscow Patriarchate, with the schismatic Ukrainian Orthodox Church reporting to the so-called Kiev Patriarchate that is not recognized by the global community of canonical Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches, a high-rank cleric of the Russian Church told Greek media on Tuesday.

TASS’s editorial line is clear — those who have broken away are “schismatic” and members of a “so-called” Orthodox church. No need for nuance or explanation here.

The article goes on to recite Hilarion’s denunciation of the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The article states:

“The Ukrainian Orthodox Church [that reports to Moscow Patriarchate] is the largest religious denomination in the country and it stays outside politics and doesn’t support any of the parties to the conflict [in eastern Ukraine],” said Metropolitan Hilarion, the chief of Moscow Patriarchate’s department for external church relations.

The fact makes it possible for the Church to retain the peacekeeping potential that can put Ukraine together again in practical terms, His Beatitude Hilarion said. “But now attempts are made to force the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church to merge with the schism. More than that, they’re trying to legalize the process by through several bills that will discriminate against the disciples of the canonical Church.”

“Lurking behind the attempts to create the so-called unified local [national] Church is one more threat,” Metropolitan Hilarion said. “Proponents of the project and representatives of the Catholics of the Eastern Rite say increasingly often that the real objective of the forcible unification of the Orthodox Christian organizations is their further merger with the Catholic Church of the Eastern Rite.”

In sum, Hilarion states the Moscow Patriarchate can be an honest broker between the Russian and Ukrainian governments because it has members on both sides of the battle lines. The breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox and the Greek Catholics, however, have enlisted the support of the Ukrainian government to advance their cause. The end game, Hilarion argues, is for the Catholic Church to take over the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. TASS cites Hilarion as saying:

“The main threat to inter-denominational peace in Ukraine is the politicians’ interference in the internal life of the Church,” Metropolitan Hilarion said.

The article then offers background details, saying the Moscow group represents 70 percent of the population and has 12,000 communities while the pro-Kiev faction has only 5000 communities.

This article does not seek to take issue with the claims of Metropolitan Hilarion. It is the business of journalism to put forward the claims and beliefs of competing parties. What TASS does, however, is to present one side of the dispute and use language that denigrates those whom it has singled out as the enemy. This is not reporting but propaganda.

Even the paltry attempts at background fall short — as the demographic facts put forward in this piece are subject to dispute. Other sources report the Kiev Patriarchate is the larger of the two, while in Galicia the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the largest.

Were this a press release from the office of Metropolitan Hilarion the criticisms of bias and absence of context, history and dodgy facts would not matter. It would be a press release — the starting point for a reporter covering the story who would then seek to verify, expand and craft a story that offered a full picture of the situation. TASS does nothing of the kind. What we have is agitprop that advances the interests of the government of Vladimir Putin and his ally the Moscow Patriarchate.

Those with memories of the past might well respond that denigrating TASS for exhibiting political bias is pointless — that it should not be held to the same standards of journalistic integrity as Western news agencies because it is not really a news agency but the mouthpiece of the Soviet state.

But Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, and there was a brief moment when TASS and other Russian media outlets sought to follow the Anglo-American principles of disinterested reporting. That era has ended.  

In the preface to his book, The Literary Critics, A Study of English Descriptive Criticism (1964), George Watson wrote:

Criticism, of course, cannot prevent lies from being told. But it does make it its business to see that they do not establish themselves as truth.

Journalistic criticism as practiced by this website seeks to uphold the same standard — decrying the corruption of the media and the rise of advocacy journalism. TASS is not alone in its wholesale adoption of European-style advocacy reporting — the New York Times and other American and British outlets that once championed traditional reporting have gone over to the dark side. TASS merely has had more practice than its American counterparts.

First printed in The Media Project

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