Kremlin broadcaster selects facts and translations to blame UK
On November 15, an Argentinian diesel-electric submarine, the ARA San Juan, was lost off the South American country’s coast with all hands on board. The @DFRLab extends our sincere condolences to the families of the deceased, and all the people of Argentina.
A month later, Kremlin propaganda outlet RT published a headline implicating the United Kingdom in the loss of the submarine.
The headline read: “Argentine submarine ‘chased by British helicopter’ before disappearing.”
The article provided a case study in deniable propaganda. It distorted its original source, omitted key facts, inserted twisted translations, and drew on a false historical parallel to imply British guilt. It also appears to have copied and lightly edited passages from a UK tabloid, without attributing them.
RT will likely attempt to deny malicious intent behind the article, which is the whole point of deniable propaganda. We base our assessment on a comparison between RT’s reporting and that of the Argentinian and UK newspapers, on which it based its story.
According to the Argentinian press — which cannot be accused of anti-Argentinian bias, as foreign outlets might be — the following dates were assigned to the San Juan’s last voyage.
Late October: San Juan departed Mar del Plata, her home port in northern Argentina, heading for Argentina’s southernmost port at Ushuaia, over 1,000 nautical miles away. The main source of this reporting was La Gaceta Salta.
November 4: San Juan, accompanied by other naval vessels, made a refuelling stop in Ushuaia. The primary source of this reporting was Gaceta Marinera, the official outlet of the Argentine Navy.
November 6–9: San Juan took part in naval exercise Etapa de Mar III, off Ushuaia, which culminated in a live-fire exercise.
November 13: San Juan departed Ushuaia, making for her home port of Mar del Plata. Again, the main source for this reporting was La Gaceta Salta.
Her departure was photographed from a commercial airliner; the Ushuaia control tower posted the image on Facebook in memory of the crew on December 3, although the date on which it was taken is not given.
On December 4, a Twitter account, @falklands_utd, posted the same image, which claimed the departure date was November 13.
— Falkland Islands (@falklands_utd) December 4, 2017
November 15: San Juan recorded its last known communication. According to an internal Naval message published by Argentinian outlet Infobae.com, the submarine’s last confirmed position was 46° 44′ S, 060° 08′ W, some 500 nautical miles short of her home port.
Early articles in Argentina claimed the submarine reported a leaking snorkel, which started a fire in the battery compartment late on November 14, and that an explosion (or possible hull implosion) was picked up by listening devices on November 15.
International rescue attempts
Two of the vessels involved in the early stages of the search were British, according to official Argentinian sources: a Royal Air Force Hercules C-130 based in the Falklands / Malvinas, and HMS Protector, a hydrographic and ice-patrol vessel. The United States, Brazil, and Chile were also listed as early contributors; Russia joined in December.
The Protector was noted by the official Argentinian Navy gazette on November 18, and singled out as following the San Juan’s route northwards as of November 19. According to the Royal Navy, another patrol ship, the HMS Clyde, and the Royal Navy’s specialist Submarine Parachute Assistance Group, were also to join the mission.
A Royal Navy press release underlined that the deployment followed a request from the Argentinian government; the commander of HMS Protector added:
“Our thoughts remain with the crew of the ARA San Juan and their families at this time.”
This suggests that relations between Argentina and the United Kingdom — who fought a brief but bloody war over the Falklands in 1982 — were stable enough to allow a request for help, as well as a rapid response.
RT muddies the waters
On December 14, however, RT ran a 16-paragraph article insinuating that the UK might have had something to do with the sinking. The article was attributed to an interview in Argentinian daily La Gaceta, and opened with this summary:
“An Argentine submarine that went missing with its 44 sailors in November had been chased by a British helicopter before its disappearance, it has been claimed.”
RT went on to repeat excerpts from the interview, in which Jésica Medina, sister of a junior officer on the San Juan, Roberto Daniel Medina, quoted a WhatsApp message her brother had sent her. RT said the messages were sent “just days before the vessel vanished on November 15.” The headline timed the incident, vaguely, to “before” the San Juan’s disappearance.
She reports her brother telling her that the ARA San Juan was sailing close to the British-held Falklands (known as Islas Malvinas in Argentina) when a Royal Navy helicopter started chasing them down, along with a Chilean ship.
‘On Monday, an English helicopter was looking for us, and yesterday the Chileans, there has been a lot going on,’ second sub-officer Roberto Medina told his sister in the message, adding that they were now heading for home.
In an interview with Argentina’s La Gaceta newspaper, Jesica said ‘many’ families were also told the submarine had been fleeing the British.
‘It was a strange message in which he told us a British helicopter and a Chilean ship had been chasing them,’ she said.
RT acknowledged that the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) called the story “completely untrue”. The article did thus contain a reference to the point of view of the British side. It also stated, in the tenth paragraph, that the submarine was “believed to have disappeared following a battery failure.”
It is worth noting that helicopter search services on the Falklands are provided by a US-based company, AAR Corp. The company announced a contract with the UK MoD in January 2015 under which it was to take over search and rescue (SAR) and support services from the Royal Air Force:
“The mission includes all-weather SAR, helicopter emergency medical services, rescue hoist operations, passenger and cargo transfers, and night vision imaging systems.”
According to an article on UK military website forces.net, the contract was for a ten-year period, and the handover was completed in April 2015. The only military helicopters stationed on the Falklands since then have been Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, which do not have a submarine-hunting function.
Medina’s claim of being “looked for” by a British helicoper should therefore be viewed with caution. The submarine may have spotted a helicopter in the air, but if it was British, it cannot have been a submarine-hunter. Either the identification of the nationality, or its purpose, appears incorrect.
Beyond that, RT’s article made a number of distortions and omissions which changed the tone of the original, and insinuated the possibility that the UK had been to blame in a way that the original had not.
First of all, there is the claim that the WhatsApp messages were sent “just days before” the San Juan disappeared. According to the original interview, the messages were sent on November 4; this date was not reported in the RT article. This was the day on which the San Juan is known to have made a port call in Ushuaia; it is therefore consistent with the submarine’s route and probable access to phone signals.
It was also eleven days before the submarine’s disappearance. This is, technically, a matter of “days”, but the statement that it was “just days before” seems distinctly over-dramatized.
That is all the more so when the text of the messages is taken into account. As RT correctly said, the message dated the alleged incident to “on Monday”. November 4, 2017, was a Saturday. “On Monday” can therefore have referred to, at the earliest, Monday October 30, seventeen days before the disaster.
“Just days before” is hardly an accurate description of the timeline.
RT’s translation of the Spanish original also created a false sense of drama. It quoted Jésica Medina as saying, “It was a strange message in which he told us a British helicopter and a Chilean ship had been chasing them.”
RT’s own editorial language used the phrases “chasing” and “chasing them down”.
However, the verb which both Jésica Medina used in her interview, and her brother used in the WhatsApp message, was “buscando”, from the verb “buscar”. This is better translated as “looking for” or “searching for”. The Collins Spanish dictionary gives these meanings; Google Translate includes “pursue”, but only as its seventh option, together with half a dozen alternatives.
Again according to Google, the only appropriate translation for “to chase down” is “perseguir”. The Collins Spanish dictionary gives “localizar” and “recabar”. None of these words was used by either Medina sibling, although La Gaceta used the verb “perseguir” in its headline.
Thus RT’s translation, like its sense of time, added a degree of drama to the story which the original quotes from the Medina siblings lacked.
RT also wrote that “Jesica said ‘many’ families were also told the submarine had been fleeing the British.”
In fact, she did not. The original quote, in Spanish, ran:
“Yo creo que no somos la única familia que tiene algo así, me parece que son muchísimas. La jueza Yáñez tendrá que investigar.”
This is more accurately translated as:
“I don’t think we’re the only family which has something like this, it seems to me that there are many. Judge [Marta] Yáñez [charged with investigating the disappearance] will have to investigate.”
There was no use of the word “fleeing”, nor a claim as specific as that other families had been “told the submarine had been fleeing the British”. The reference is more likely to be to messages from crew members, referring to incidents earlier in the submarine’s voyage.
It is telling that the only word RT put in quotes was “many”. The rest of the sentence was editorial interpretation, distorting what was actually said.
Curiously, RT’s reporting was extremely close to an article in British tabloid the Daily Mirror, published over 24 hours earlier (the Mirror piece was date-stamped at 16:37 UTC on December 13, the RT piece at 22:53 Moscow time, 19:53 UTC, on December 14). The Mirror, for example, included this sentence, with the quotation of a single word and the word “fleeing”:
“Jesica told Argentina’s La Gaceta newspaper that ‘many’ other families of other missing crew members also received reports from their loved ones that they had been fleeing a British helicopter.”
Comparing the two articles, the RT text looks like an edited version of the Mirror’s text, cut down to save space:
RT’s opening sentence was so close to that of the Mirror that it looks like a piece of lightly-disguised plagiarism.
These passages are too close for coincidence or parallel creation: they read as if the unnamed RT journalist copied the Mirror piece, then edited it enough to pass it off as an original production.
It is curious enough that RT — a state-funded broadcaster which boasts that it reports stories the mainstream media ignore — should have based its reporting on a mainstream UK tabloid.
More strikingly still, the one place in which the two articles substantially diverged was the end. The Mirror’s piece recounted what is known of the San Juan’s last hours, focusing on factual reports of a technical failure:
The German-built sub went missing on November 15 in the South Atlantic as it made its way back to the Navy base in Mar del Plata, with 43 men and one woman on board.
The vessel last made contact with commanders to report that water had entered through its snorkel and caused a battery fault.
Experts said the crew only had up to 10 days of oxygen if the sub remained intact under the sea. An explosion was later detected around the time and place where the submarine last made contact.
Rather than focusing on the technical details, RT’s final three paragraphs harked back 25 years to the war in the Falklands.
Britain and Argentina fought a short, savage war over the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982 when Argentina seized the British overseas territory in the South Atlantic. Then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent a task force to retake the islands. In the fighting that followed, 655 Argentine and 255 British servicemen lost their lives, as did three Falkland Islanders.
Argentina still claims the islands as its own. The issue has resurfaced in recent years as Britain has begun to explore possible offshore oilfields in the area.
It may seem farfetched to suggest the British are involved in the submarine’s disappearance, but many Argentines remember how brutal the Brits can be. The ARA General Belgrano was sunk by the Royal Navy submarine Conqueror during the Falklands war, killing 323 Argentine sailors. The ship had been retreating.
The final paragraph, with its mention of “suggesting” a British involvement in the disaster, is particularly egregious. Neither the La Gaceta interview nor the Daily Mirror article made any such suggestion. La Gaceta did not voice any conclusions about the meaning of the messages: it described them as “mysterious”, and quoted Jésica Medina as saying, “I don’t know if they will have gone very close to the Malvinas; I don’t know what the political theme will be like. This is what he told us, and it’s what we have left.”
The insinuation, and the reference to the General Belgrano, appear unique to RT, which did not justify the comment by attributing it to an Argentinian source, but inserted it as a piece of editorial language.
RT’s reference to the sinking is unjustifiable by any standard of responsible journalism, as it provides no kind of relevant parallel to the loss of the San Juan which could shed light on her disappearance. The General Belgrano was sunk 25 years ago, at a time of war. Together with the claim that it shows “how brutal the Brits can be”, the reference exposes this as a piece of propaganda, aimed at stirring up negative sentiment against the UK — which had, in fact, helped in the search.
In sum, RT added the suggestion that the United Kingdom was involved in the sinking (while simultaneously distancing itself from the claim with the phrase “it may seem farfetched, but…”) and the inappropriate reference to the General Belgrano, while it omitted the dates of the WhatsApp messages, and of the alleged incident itself. It also mistranslated basic Spanish, adding a touch of drama (“fleeing”, “chasing them down”) where none was apparent in the original.
It also appears to have copied sections of the Daily Mirror article, lightly editing them to avoid outright plagiarism, but without attributing them. This argues poorly for RT’s editorial and journalistic standards and credibility, not least from the fact that its story is based on reporting by a UK tabloid.
Taken together, RT’s changes insinuated a possible link between the alleged helicopter incident, somewhere near the Falklands, on October 30, and the loss of the San Juan, over 400 km to the north, seventeen days, a port visit, and a military exercise later.
This is propaganda of a more subtle sort than straightforward lying. Rather than asserting a direct falsehood, it expresses a possibility which its sources had not raised, backed up with an inappropriate historical parallel, tendentious translations and the omission of key facts.
The aim appears to be to use the tragedy of Argentina’s missing submariners, lost on what should have been a routine mission while on their passage home, to re-open the old wound of the Falklands war, and portray the UK in as bad a light as possible.
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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