December 06, 2004

Whose knees?

A 12/5/2004 item on the English-language Maidan site reads:

Legal action must immediately be brought against ORT, a Russian TV channel.

Eye witnesses to Viktor Yushchenko’s speech at Maidan have reported that the Russian ORT TV network has just broadcast video footage of the speech edited to have Yushchenko say that he will "bring the miners to their knees."

The witnesses unanimously confirm that Yushchenko said, in fact, that he is ready to kneel before the miners.

Such actions as undertaken by ORT, considered a "public" broadcaster and therefore not a private one, exceed all known limits of permissible international communications rules, and decency.

I was not able to find the corresponding item on the Ukrainian site. I'm curious about what the (alleged) linguistic trick was here: are the two Ukrainian expressions for "kneel before the miners" and "bring the miners to their knees" close enough that simple waveform editing turns one into the other? Or was some more complicated form of audio processing required? Or is something altogether different going on (like an unsubstantiated rumor about what ORT broadcast, or what Yushchenko said)?

There have been a number of recent scandals about news photos being photoshopped to convey a different message from what the participants intended. And of course the idea of non-persons being airbrushed out of photographs from Stalinist times is well known. And there are a number of standard journalistic tricks for getting interview subjects to say things that can be quoted out of context to give a misleading impression. But I think this is the first time that I've ever heard it alleged that a major news outlet actually falsified the words of a political figure by transforming an audio recording, not just by taking a clip out of context. It's perfectly possible to do this, and I'm sure that it's been done in other cases, at least as a joke and probably sometimes for fraudulent purposes; the question is whether a major Russian news outlet has done it to a public speech by Viktor Yushchenko, in an attempt to stir up sentiment against him in the eastern oblasts. So I'm interested to get some more detailed documentation. Write me if you know something more about this.

[For those who haven't been following events in Ukraine, some context is here, here and here. A quotation from the last source:

At the state-owned Oktyabrskaya (October) coalmine on the edge of Donetsk city 1,500 miners labour in filthy, freezing and often dangerous conditions for 1,200 hryvna per month -- about £160. As prime minister in 1999-2000, Yushchenko closed several mines as part of a restructuring policy and, unforgivably in the minds of the people, failed to pay salaries and pensions for as long as six months at a stretch.

Yuri Mikhailovich, a manager at the mine, said, "Yushchenko's 'restructuring' brought the mining industry and many towns to the verge of extinction. There were hunger riots.Yanukovich reversed these criminal policies. Now the workers are paid promptly, they received a 50 per cent pay increase, and we have new British and German machinery." This alone goes some way to explaining why exhausted miners are willing to stand in the falling snow on Lenin square after a day underground to show their support for Yanukovich.

So you can see why it makes a difference, in the current political context, just whose knees Yushchenko was talking about. ]

[Update: the corresponding Ukrainian item is here -- I guess I was in too much of a hurry to see it before, right there in plain sight with almost the same time stamp, and a headline that even I can read by reference to my almost-evaporated college Russian. The phrases corresponding to "bring the miners to their knees" (a direct quote whose word-by-word gloss seems to be "put miners on knees") and "kneel before the miners" (an indirect quote whose word-by-word-gloss seems to be "ready to stand/become on knees before miners") don't offer any obvious enlightenment as to how the audio editing could have been done any more simply in Ukrainian than in English. ]

[By the way, this Ukrainian dictionary site is quite helpful.]

[Update #2: ironically, the most famous recent Ukrainian complaint about allegedly doctored recordings came from the other side. A bit more than four years ago, the journalist Heorhiy Gongadze was abducted, tortured and murdered. Mykola Melnychenko, one of President Leonid Kuchma's former bodyguards, came forward with tape recordings of Kuchma (allegedly) telling associates to "throw Gongadze to the Chechens". Apparently "the government eventually acknowledged that it was Mr Kuchma's voice on the tapes. It insists, however, that the recordings were doctored in such a way as to put words into the president's mouth."

Melnychenko also released a recorded on which "a voice similar to Mr Kuchma's gives a green light to the sale to Saddam Hussein of Ukrainian radar capable of detecting Stealth planes". This accusation raised quite a bit of interest, since it was during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and experts such as Peter French, chair of the International Association for Forensic Phonetics and Acoustics, were involved in analyzing the Melnychenko recordings.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 6, 2004 12:22 PM