Sometimes people get a little ahead of themselves, which can be understandable when dealing with a high profile disaster that is deeply emotionally charged. Hiring and dictating a fake witness into a stellar Hollywood-performance by text message is something entirely else.
MH-17 the Crash and Investigation.
In July 2014 a code-shared flight (MH17) of Malaysia Airlines filled with many KLM passengers met its demise over the Eastern Ukraine. Approximately three hundred people lost their lives, including almost an entire convention full of AIDS/HIV researchers on their way to Australia for an international conference. Two hundred of the people aboard were Dutch, from young to old – sending shock waves through the country.
It soon became clear, from eyewitnesses and evidence, that the disaster was not any kind of accident but a deliberate attack. Both from the countless bodies recovered down to aircraft wreckage itself evidence surfaced that this was a missile attack. At the time however it was extremely difficult to recover anything from war-torn Eastern Ukraine, then heavily fighting for and against independence and seeking to join Russia – which Crimea actually did.
The Dutch took a massive gamble by dispatching “Marrechaussee”-agents and troops (Royal Military Constabulary) directly into rebel-controlled areas to protect and escort investigators. There were multiple times the investigation teams had to scramble to hide from attacks going back and forth between the Ukrainian government forces and rebel on the other side – some have seen it on video from a Dutch news crew as mortar rounds flew over their positions.
After enough was recovered a painstaking investigation began to the cause of this event – one that was politically, judicially and technically exceedingly complex and difficult. As part of the process a number of Dutch members of parliament were appointed to oversee matters as well as to stay in contact with the countless loved ones struggling to find answers. One of those people involved was CDA parliament member Pieter Omtzigt.
Russian Fake News in the Netherlands and a Personal Obsession.
The still on-going conflict in Ukraine has been a showcase example of the new kind of warfare, one that largely evolves around a media- and cultural war. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, himself an ex-KGB officer, has a knack for understanding media – or better said propaganda – wars and heavily applied his skills in the Ukrainian conflict. Russia Today, Russia’s international news channel, and many other sources bombarded Western media with ‘alternative facts’ and botnets flood the comment sections on popular social media to swing views towards Russian ‘facts’ or simply to sow confusion.
As the investigation soon revealed the missile fired at the plane was a BUK-missile, a surface-to-air weapon, in service with Russia specifically and known to be active in Eastern Ukraine rebel controlled territory at the time. Previously a Ukrainian transport plane full of paratroopers was downed by a BUK missile, also from Eastern Ukraine. Many intelligence services globally then released their evidence, or gave tips, about the Russian government’s direct involvement – by dispatching troops and units into the conflict area, as they had openly done in Crimea, and now including BUK-missile launchers. The BUK-system is too advanced and logistically complex to be handled by anybody but a well-trained crew with heavy support from others.
In order to divert allegations the Russian government went on the attack and insisted that the Ukraine had deliberately downed the plane using a specific type of jet, which was later officially directly denied as ‘implausible and impossible’ by the actual manufacturer of the fighter jet in an embarrassing moment for Moscow. However, by keeping up the pressure and running 24/7 multi-media operations the Russian government managed to sow doubt with many.
Pieter Omtzigt, the Dutch politician, became deeper and deeper personally involved with the investigation – constantly reminding Prime-Minister Mark Rutte that he had promised answers, leaving no stone unturned, that those guilty of the crime would face the consequences. This went to a point where Rutte and Omtzigt openly sparred in cabinet, the Prime-Minister accusing the latter of playing a political game.
Where it went Wrong – Omtzigt in Trouble.
Omtzigt, in his role as spokesman for the MH17 Investigation, attended a gathering to inform and update both press and loved ones about the on-going investigation. At the time however, it was already becoming clear that the BUK-scenario was the only real, plausible scenario. But Omtzigt, a little too enthusiastic about keeping all options open, took things a little far.
Omtzigt came into contact with a Ukrainian man who had recently been refused asylum in the Netherlands, the politician then suggested he come visit the meeting at Amsterdams “Vrije Universiteit” and help him form a ‘plausible scenario’ regarding the, what has been dubbed, “Russian Theory” of Ukrainian jet fighters downing the plane. Omtzigt even went as far as dictating the man, and a translator, a whole text by WhatsApp in which the man stated to be an eyewitness and saw fighter planes active around the area during the crash, and that he needed help because he feared for his life. None of which turns out to be true. None at all.
Only a few days ago did it become clear that Omtzigt had simply set matters up, leading to much anger and embarrassment both against him and the CDA party he belongs to. Omtzigt publicly expressed his regret this Monday and CDA-leader Siebrand Buma has taken away his spokesman function – “temporarily” but likely permanently. Though he is allowed to stay in function as a member of parliament it appears that his image will have permanent dents, if not severe damage.
Fake News in the Netherlands: A Threat
Needless to say the matter is a set back for everyone involved, in an on-going media war you need to stick with the truth at all times if you want to beat propaganda. That Omtzigt didn’t is of course hard to swallow. But he has not been the only successful target of Russian fake news.
The new Minister of Interior Affairs, Swedish born Kaisa Ollongren, wrote in a letter to the House of Representatives that the nation finds itself directly in the crosshairs of Russian (counter-)intelligence. Though she has also stated that Russia is not the only nation who actively pursues such activities.
As a result the Netherlands’ new government will be spending an additional 95 million Euros on top of current cyber budgets, in order to recognize, fight off and if necessary counter-attack against intelligence services from other countries. What the future of cyber- and media-warfare holds nobody knows, but everyone knows that it is more important than ever. Especially in a super-digitized country like the Netherlands.