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Al Jazeera
Al Jazeera

New Zealand’s RNZ apologises for ‘pro-Kremlin garbage’ on Ukraine

Protesters in Ukraine's Maidan Square in December 2013 [File: Sergei Grits/AP Photo]

The editor-in-chief of New Zealand’s national public service radio broadcaster has apologised for publishing “pro-Kremlin garbage” after changes were found to have been made to more than a dozen wire agency articles covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Appearing on RNZ’s Nine to Noon programme, Paul Thompson, who is also the station’s chief executive, apologised for the “serious breach” of editorial standards.

“It’s very disappointing that this pro-Kremlin garbage has ended up in our stories,” he said. “It’s inexcusable.”

Thompson announced an independent investigation on Saturday after it emerged that a story attributed to the Reuters news agency had been changed to reflect the Russian narrative on Ukraine.

The article in question was found to have been edited on RNZ’s website to read that in 2014 “a pro-Russian elected government was toppled during Ukraine’s violent Maidan colour revolution“, the agency said, and continued, inaccurately, that “Russia annexed Crimea after a referendum, as the new pro-Western government suppressed ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine”.

Pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich was forced out of office in 2014 in what became known as the Maidan Revolution following months of protests that began after he rejected a European Union trade deal in favour of closer ties with Russia. More than 100 protesters were shot dead by security forces and Yanukovich eventually fled to Moscow.

Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and annexed it following a referendum that has not been recognised by the international community. The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution declaring the referendum invalid.

Amid an ongoing forensic audit of articles published on its website, RNZ said it had so far corrected 17 published stories because of what it said was “inappropriate editing”. The articles, nearly all of them from the Reuters news agency, some of which appeared with the bylines of the agency reporters, were republished with corrections and editors’ notes. The earliest pieces date from April 2022.

“Reuters has addressed the issue with RNZ, which has initiated an investigation,” Reuters quoted a spokesperson as saying.

“As stated in our terms and conditions, Reuters content cannot be altered without prior written consent. Reuters is fully committed to covering the war in Ukraine impartially and accurately, in keeping with the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.”

A digital journalist has been placed on leave. They told a separate RNZ programme, Checkpoint, that they had been editing stories in the same way for five years and “nobody has tapped me on the shoulder and told me what I was doing was anything wrong”.

Thompson admitted that RNZ’s editorial systems had been insufficiently robust and said all copy from wire agencies was now required to go through a second edit.

“I’m gutted,” he told Nine to Noon when asked how what amounted to “outright propaganda” could have been published. “It’s painful. It’s shocking and we need to get to the bottom of how it happened.”

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