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How Russia Distorted, Censored MH17 Trial Coverage

How Russia Distorted, Censored MH17 Trial Coverage
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Video production: Nik Yarst

RIA Novosti

RIA Novosti

Russian state-owned news agency

“A relative of the victims of the MH17 crash accused Kyiv of not closing the airspace.”


Families of the 298 people who died on Malaysian Airlines flight 17 (MH17) began testifying in a Dutch court on Monday, September 6. The plane was shot down by a Russian missile while flying over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

An international investigation team (JIT) concluded that a Buk-TELAR missile system had been delivered from Kursk in Russia to Ukraine by the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Army. Russia denies all responsibility for shooting down the airliner.

In the trial, three Russians and a Ukrainian citizen are accused of murder. Russia has rejected Dutch extradition and access requests. Ninety family members are testifying over three weeks in the live-streamed event.

Coverage of the trial is sparse on Russian state media. The website of the Kremlin’s main international outlet, RT, has carried no news of the trial. Other state-owned outlets like Sputnik and RIA Novosti have either ignored or misrepresented what the relatives said in court. Instead, these outlets have often repeated debunked claims made by Russian officials about the MH17 incident.

On September 6, RIA Novosti ran a story headlined, “A relative of the victims of the MH17 crash accused Kyiv of not closing the airspace.”

That misleading headline, implying that Ukraine was to blame for the incident, was based on an interview with Robbert van Heijningen, who lost his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew in the tragedy. At the time the plane was downed, of course, Russian-backed separatists were at war with Ukraine in its Donbas region along the Russian border.

RIA Novosti’s Amsterdam correspondent asked van Heijningen whether he thought it was important to investigate the Ukrainian authorities for not closing the airspace over the conflict zone. MH17 was en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam when it went down, killing all on board.

According to RIA Novosti, van Heijningen answered that the open airspace was “part of the problem,” but that prosecutors haven’t accused Kyiv of a crime. “We all want to have a clear picture of what happened,” RIA Novosti quoted him as saying.

The Dutch news outlet Trouw also interviewed van Heijningen. Like some other relatives of MH17 victims, Trouw reported, van Heijningen struggled with “unanswered questions,” such as: “Did their loved ones feel pain or fear? Why was a passenger plane allowed to fly over such an unsafe area? And what was the motive of the perpetrators?”

The Russian government claims that Ukraine should be tried for not closing its airspace. However, that claim is misleading, because the legal authority for establishing international no-fly zones belongs to the United Nations.

For example, in 2017 the U.N. decided not to declare a no-fly zone after North Korea’s reported missile testing, while some European national civil aviation authorities directed their aircraft to avoid flying over North Korea.

The Dutch Safety Board ran two investigations into the MH17 crash from 2014 to 2015 and determined that multiple parties were involved in the decision to allow continued civilian air traffic over the conflict zone in Ukraine.

“None of the parties involved adequately identified the risks to civil aviation brought about by the armed conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine,” the board concluded.

In 2015, the board determined: “The crash of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200 was caused by the detonation of a model 9N314M warhead, fitted to a 9M38-series missile that was fired from a Buk surface-to-air missile system.”

The RIA Novosti report also omitted the fact that relatives of the victims overwhelmingly blame Russia for their loved ones' deaths and for lying about it and have demanded that the Russian government be held to account.

Dutch citizen Riva van der Steen, whose father and stepmother died aboard MH17, quoted Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, addressing her words to those “listening in on behalf of the Russian regime.”

“They are lying, we know they are lying, and they know that we know that they are lying,” van der Steen said.

Australian Vanessa Rizk blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government for creating a “political nightmare” that led to the crash, Reuters reported.

“How would the perpetrators feel if it was their loved ones? How would [President Vladimir] Putin and his corrupt Russian government answer that?” Rizk asked, according to Radio Free Europe\Radio Liberty (a Voice of America sister news agency).

In October 2020, the Dutch government filed a criminal complaint against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights. “[B]y submitting this inter-State application, the Netherlands stands by all 298 MH17 victims, of 17 different nationalities, and their next of kin,” the Dutch government said.

Most of RIA Novosti’s report about the trial repeated false or misleading claims that has fact-checked over the years.

Among them is the Russian Defense Ministry's false claim that it provided the JIT with documentary evidence proving that Ukraine shot the jet down, but the information was ignored.

Another is Putin’s false claim that Russia was not allowed to take part in the investigation and was never presented with credible evidence proving Russian responsibility for the incident.

In addition, RIA Novosti repeated the Russian Foreign Ministry’s false claim that the investigation was biased against Russia and that its conclusions were unsubstantiated.