We decided to turn to the media about the versions of what happened on August 20, 2020 with the Russian politician Alexei Navalny. We analyzed articles from reliable sources in Germany and Russia and identified the most common positions in the case of the possible poisoning of Alexei Navalny by Novichok. We found contrasting views.
Common media attitude in Germany
The first source we rely on sets a clear statement in one direction: in several sentences or rather abstracts, they report that Navalny was poisoned.
The German central news web portal of the ARD called Tagesschau.de published an article about the poisoning of Navalny on 02.09.2020. The author’s name is not given.
To start with the headline: it is “Navalny poisoned with nerve toxin”. This is a direct, first reference to the fact that Navalny was maybe poisoned. In addition, the term “nerve toxin” has a very negative connotation. In the course of the article, this type of formulation is repeated more often and is always supported by the investigations and medical findings of a Bundeswehr laboratory.
Later in this article it is also mentioned that in an earlier, similar situation to the Navalny’s, Government critics were poisoned with the same poison. So the reader gets the impression that it could be the same situation with Navalny, because something like this already happened in the past.
Tagesschau.de continues to report that the German government has called the incident a “shocking event” and that it condemns the attack in the strongest terms. In addition, Heiko Maas (Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs) is quoted: “It is important that those responsible in Russia are also called to account. In addition, the EU and NATO are discussing an appropriate reaction. Everyone who was quoted in this article are politicians of the German government or the Charité Berlin.
We noticed that in this article it was mentioned four times that Navalny was “doubtlessly poisoned”. There was no statement mentioning the pancreatitis, which was claimed by Russian president Putin. However, this may also be due to the fact that the Russian government did not come out in public with its counter position until around mid-November.
The central statements in the article are that Navalny was doubtlessly poisoned. The examination of the statements is conclusive, since reliable sources are cited. Furthermore, there are no references of a counter position.
The line of argument starts with the statement of the Bundeswehr laboratory that Navalny was poisoned. The whole thing is substantiated by quotations and statements of politicians including the attitude towards the Russian government and is continued with statements of the German government as well as NATO and EU. At the end of the article it is mentioned that Navalny’s condition is stable, but one is not aware of the consequences. It is also stated that the Russian government considers an assessment by German doctors to be too premature.
To sum up: The article of the Tagesschau gives only one point of view of the Navalny case: that Navalny was poisoned. The author uses quotations from German politicians and the Bundeswehr-Laboratory to support their statements. He als makes clear that the German government does not want to accept the situation and would like to initiate sanctions against the Russian government.
The German broadcast called “Deutsche Welle” published an article about the results of the analysis by the OPCW (intergovernmental Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) due to the Navalny case.
The headline of this article claims “OPCW confirms nerve poison”. OPCW examined samples of Alexei Navalny that allegedly contained signs of the chemical weapon “Novichok”, so the article refers to it’s official statement published on the website. In order to state the German point of view, the article refers to an official statement of the German government spokesman Steffen Seibert. He demands an elucidation by the Russian government. Furthermore, Seibert threatens that Russian government has to bear the consequences because of the use of chemical weapons. The Russian government denies all charges against it. The teaser of the article claims that Alexei Navalny was attacked with a nerve agent. First of all, the word “attacked” is a powerful verb and implies an aggressive and wittingly behavior. In addition, the word “nerve agent” is negatively connoted. Besides, the article defines Navalny as “the sharpest critic of the Russian president Vladimir Putin”. By that, the relationship between Navalny and Putin is described as critical.
On October 16 2020, the offshoot of the Russian television news channel RT, which is founded by the Russian government and has international reach, published an article about Navalny’s hospitalisation. It’s headline is: “Latest posse in Navalny case: now it is said that he was poisoned by tea in the airport again after all”.
The teaser of the article says that the New York Times, giving a reference to a senior German security official, that German experts now believe the powdered Novichok poison was mixed into Navalny’s tea. The claim ends with the sentence: “However, this version is said to raise numerous questions.” The article starts with the following statement : “Shortly before the EU, with Germany leading the way, could submit further sanctions against Russia, the New York Times (NYT) published an article about new findings by German investigators. This is backed up with a citation from the NYT.” However, this version is supposed to contradict the version told by Navalny’s team. They say that a water bottle contaminated with Novichok caused the poisoning. A video is also linked here, which shows how opened bottles are recovered from Navalny’s room.
RT further writes that the version presented by the NYT as new had been postulated by German media right at the beginning of the incident. This is equally supported by a quote from the New York Times.
After the publication of the video, the German media are said to have distanced themselves from the version in which Navalny was poisoned by tea . In addition, the German government has closed all avenues stating that the contaminated water bottle is in the possession of German authorities and is being examined by the Bundeswehr special laboratory.
RT describes that the situation has many different points of view and every party which is involved says different things which do not really fit together into one story. It admits that the current account of the German security services contradicts both the media account in Germany – for example, ZEIT and Spiegel reported that the Bundeswehr laboratory had found traces of Novichok on a water bottle – and the accounts given by those close to Navalny. It does, however, find an alternative explanation: perhaps Navalny was even poisoned twice.
After checking several private and public media, we came up with the conclusion that it’s nearly impossible to find a reliable source that says he was not poisoned.
Position of Russian media
Few Russian sources also claim that poisoning might have taken place. For example, Russian socio-political newspaper “Novaya Gazeta” conducted its own investigation: their journalist interviewed a pediatrician Yaroslav Ashikhmin, during which he found out that there is no disease that can cause such symptoms.
There is a distinct discrepancy in the wording: the German doctors say that they found traces of exposure to Novichok. And Russian politicians say that they did not find this very toxic substance. Both statements, in fact, do not contradict each other.
Even if we take the official version with an exacerbation of pancreatitis, the clinical picture does not converge, since in the most acute form, the progression of pancreatitis does not occur in seconds. People don’t spend several days in a coma after an exacerbation. Also, the NG journalist talked with doctor of chemical Sciences Boris Zhuikov about the properties of the substance, the signs of which were revealed by German scientists in the blood and urine samples of Alexey Navalny. Zhuikov admits that in Germany they could actually detect the decay products of the substance due to more sensitive equipment.
The title is a provocation – readers see this article immediately with a certain attitude that the editorial Board projects on them. The article does not contain any specific and one-sided conclusions. The reader can get some information about Novichok and expert opinions. The article contains photographs of experts who gave comments for the material, as well as a photo of the Bundeswehr ambulance car, in which Alexei Navalny was delivered to the clinic.
All official and the most popular Russian media claim that Alexei Navalny was not poisoned.
Information Agency “RIA Novosti” refers in its article to the words of a doctor of chemical Sciences, who is also one of the developers of Novichok – Leonid Rink. Dr. Rink believes that what happened to Alexey Navalny is nothing more than an exacerbation of pancreatitis.
“In my opinion this is a normal attack of pancreatitis after a small poisoning of the pancreas and reaction to a volley of insulin. This is exactly his case.”- the specialist said .
Rink also notes the difference in the victim’s symptoms and the actual symptoms of Novichok poisoning. The expert said that the use of Novichok would have led to the death of Alexey Navalny, and not to a coma. Russian doctors who considered the case of Navalny poisoning, after taking the necessary samples of various fluids from Navalny’s body, also could not find anything. Rink is convinced that the attempt to link the “poisoning” of Alexey Navalny with the use of Novichok against him is a political step.
It is worth noting that the Russian foreign Ministry considered suspicious the haste with which the US and the EU picked up the version of Navalny’s poisoning.
The existing photo material works as a hyperlink to other articles. But in any case, the photos focus on politics, not health. We see Alexey in a waking state, in a suite and etc. The headline doesn’t force any conclusions on people. The statement that the developer doubted does not push the readers to any additional assumptions.
Another source, “Krasnaya Vesna” News Agency is quoting the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry, published on November 6.
It reports that the chemical formulas of substances allegedly found in the blood and urine samples of the opposition leader Alexey Navalny have been carefully erased from the OPCW report, and among the numerous requests from the Russian side to obtain analyses of Mr. Navalny, there is not a single one that would be satisfied.
The Russian Agency noted another oddity in this situation. Berlin’s Charité clinic handed over biomaterials of Navalny to the German Army’s Military chemical laboratory, which issued a verdict on poisoning of Navalny just 9 days later. According to Russian diplomats, a high-quality chemical analysis of this level requires at least two weeks. At the same time, the Department recalled that earlier German military chemists “claimed that they had no idea about the structure of the notorious “Novichok”.
Recall that in early September, the German authorities announced that Navalny was poisoned with a substance from the Novichok group. They demanded that Moscow conduct an open investigation of the “poisoning”, however, they declined all requests for evidence.
The overall tone of the article is neutral. A sufficient number of facts are being carried out. There is one photo attached to the article – a Navalny supporter with a red balloon.
After checking several private and public German media, we find that it’s nearly impossible to find a reliable source that says Alexei Navalny was not poisoned. A study of Russian publications showed us that only opposition sources are ready to consider the version with his poisoning. All state media insist that the politician had an exacerbation of the disease. Thus, the media of Germany and Russia give completely opposite points of view. So, in Russia, the main version is an exacerbation of pancreatitis, in Germany – poisoning.
Cross-national media analysis by Jade University of Applied Sciences, Wilhelmshaven, DE and Lobachevsky University, RU