How Russian Propaganda Showed Up in an Italian Murder Trial21.01.2020
ROME — Few disputed the guilt of Vitaly Markiv, a Ukrainian who also holds Italian citizenship, when an Italian court sentenced him to 24 years in prison this summer.
Most of the evidence showing that he had helped coordinate an artillery strike in a conflict zone of his native country, killing an Italian war photographer, had been retrieved from his electronic devices.
But it raised eyebrows when the court released its reasoning in the fall showing that among the evidence presented by Italian prosecutors were reports from publications that are generally considered outlets for Russian propaganda.
Experts say the inclusion of two videos from Russia Today, plus a report on the website Russkaya Vesna that the Ukrainian government said was false, raised questions about the extent to which fake news, after infiltrating the West’s news media and elections, is now penetrating its courts.
“Contamination is by its nature expansive,” said Luciano Floridi, a professor of philosophy and the ethics of information at Oxford who has studied the effects of disinformation. And it can easily spread from media and politics to the judiciary, he added.
Prosecutors said they did not consider the Russia Today reports decisive in the verdict, and members of the jury are not permitted to discuss what convinced them of Mr. Markiv’s guilt.
But the inclusion in court of the propaganda and disinformation, regardless of its persuasiveness, has raised alarm with experts and some politicians.
In November, the Ukrainian government, which was made a co-defendant in the case and thus liable for economic damages, appealed the decision. It has engaged in its own propaganda war with Russia and has routinely blamed Russian disinformation for anything that puts its military in a bad light.
This month, the liberal party, More Europe, argued that the trial was tainted by “hearsay and prejudices” and asked the European Union to send observers to the appeal trial, which is expected to begin this spring.
Mr. Markiv, now 30, left Italy to take part in the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv in 2014. When the war erupted in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region a few months later, he joined Ukraine’s National Guard to fight against Russian separatist forces.
While a guardsman, prosecutors charged, he helped coordinate an attack by a Ukrainian Army unit against a group of civilians. Among the group was the Italian photographer Andrea Rocchelli, 30, who was killed by the artillery fire along with other journalists on May 24, 2014.
For two years, an inquiry by investigators in Pavia, Mr. Rocchelli’s hometown, led nowhere, because of a lack of cooperation from the Ukrainian authorities, said the prosecutor in the case, Andrea Zanoncelli.
But in the summer of 2016, Mr. Zanoncelli said, a Google search led him to an article published by Italy’s leading daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera.
It was a purported interview with an unidentified captain from the Ukrainian army stationed in the area.
“Don’t come here, it’s a strategic area,” the captain was quoted as saying. “Usually we don’t shoot toward the city or at civilians, but as soon as we see anything move, we fire heavy artillery. That’s what happened with the two journalists and their interpreter.”
The prosecutor saw it as an admission of guilt, despite Italian journalism’s usual lack of rigor.
When the police questioned the article’s author, the journalist told them that the purported interview was a compilation of remarks she had heard in a conversation between the soldier and a photographer.
The Italian police subsequently determined that the anonymous army captain was Mr. Markiv.
The Italian authorities began tapping Mr. Markiv’s conversations with his mother in Italy to gain evidence. They arrested him and charged him with murder as he returned to a Bologna airport in June 2017.
The case drew high-profile lawyers and became a rallying cry for press freedom. A senator from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party defended Mr. Markiv. The former left-wing mayor of Milan represented two prominent media guilds, which presented themselves as injured parties, on behalf of the photojournalist.
Among the evidence presented were videos described as “open source,” “found on YouTube” or “from a local TV station,” all of which bore the logo of Russia Today and are still found on its YouTube channel.
The ruling also cites an article in Russkaya Vesna, alleging that Ukraine’s Interior Ministry conspired with Mr. Markiv’s fellow guardsmen to protect him.
It included a document, purportedly leaked from the Ukrainian authorities, instructing Mr. Markiv’s comrades to testify in his favor.
The Ukrainian government said the document was a forgery.
“Our interior minister intervened personally to make it clear that the thing was fake,” said Yaroslav Moshkola, an official from the Ukrainian Embassy in Rome. “It’s very strange that the court accepted this document.”
The conviction of Mr. Markiv caused outrage in Ukraine. Media outlets and nationalist politicians have sought to exonerate him by discrediting the Italian legal system with claims that the trial in Pavia was tainted by “anti-Ukrainian” bias and Russian propaganda.
The prosecutor, Mr. Zanoncelli, said that the article was not pivotal in discrediting the witnesses called by the defense. “They were disproved because they contradicted one another,” he said.
As for the document it cited, he said that “it was never clear how genuine it was” and that he had presented it “to show this thing existed, so that the court could evaluate it.”
The jurors wrote in the final ruling that Mr. Markiv’s fellow guardsmen “were instructed to give pre-agreed answers” and that the Russkaya Vesna article “contains some elements that seemed to be pointing toward the truth.”
Without addressing Mr. Markiv’s guilt or innocence, Serena Quattrocolo, a law professor at Eastern Piedmont University whose expertise is in the digital distortion of evidence in court, said that more broadly, the inclusion of material found online from disputable sources in Italian courts was “part of an unsettling scenario and of larger problem.”
Russia has spread disinformation online as a part of a broader strategy to destabilize the West. The United States Department of Justice has accused a Russian organization linked to the Kremlin of meddling in the 2016 elections.
Russian-backed groups carried out a disinformation campaign in Europe ahead of the European Union elections in May, according to a report issued by the European Commission. And Kremlin-backed influence networks targeting African countries were recently discovered and taken down by Facebook. Analysts believe the networks could serve as a test for next year’s elections in the United States.
Italy is particularly vulnerable. According to Italy’s Authority of Communication, disinformation is growing in the country, although it has not been directly linked to Russia. The lines between mainstream outlets and propaganda are often blurred.
The current chair of Italy’s state television broadcaster RAI has spread conspiracy theories online and has been frequently interviewed by Russia Today and Sputnik.
In September, the private broadcaster Mediaset aired a “deep fake video,” which used seamless visual effects to doctor speech by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
The appearance of Russian propaganda in court crosses a new threshold, a challenge for which Italy may not be fully prepared.
Mr. Markiv is appealing the verdict, which also demanded that Ukraine pay reparations to Mr. Rocchelli’s parents, widow and young son and to the two journalists’ guilds.
Paolo Perucchini, who heads one of those guilds, the Lombardy journalists association, praised the verdict as a demonstration that “information is valued in our country.”
Asked about the inclusion of anonymously sourced reporting and Russia Today into evidence, he seemed unbothered.
“It’s not up to me to decide if Russia Today spreads fake news,” he said. “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”