Defense Ministry blasts Italian photojournalist over cadet pictures

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Latvia's Defense Ministry issued a stinging rebuke to an Italian photojournalist July 28, accusing him of a "classic provocation" and distributing "misleading information" about the Jaunsardze (Young Guard, Latvia's military cadet organization).

In a strongly-worded statement titled: "A foreign journalist distributes misleading information about Young Guard and the Baltic states" the ministry takes Italian journalist Tomaso Clavarino to task for a photo-story appearing on Dutch website "The Correspondent" which shows pictures of young people in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania engaged in military training in voluntary cadet-type organizations.

The ministry says the story amounts to "biased misleading information that attempts to undermine the Young Guard's prestige and, via using children in information operations, discredit the Baltic states."

The ministry takes exception to the depiction of the Jaunsardze members as preparing for combat with Russia and carrying heavy backpacks and weapons.

"It is a cynical and unacceptable employment of children in information operations. I therefore call on the public to critically evaluate this type of information and not to become supporters of a smear campaign, spreading unverified and inaccurate information from dubious sources," said Ministry of Defense State Secretary Jānis Garisons in the ministry's statement.

While the ministry does acknowledge that Clavarino spent time with members of the Jaunsardze, they also allege that while in Lithuania and Estonia the photojournalist encouraged youths to pose with guns in order to give the impression this was commonplace when in fact strict rules apply. 

"The Ministry of Defense points out that this is a classic provocation and an information operation in which the journalist manipulates with partially realistic facts, and also uses the image of children to try to influence the minds and hearts of people," the ministry concludes, warning about "populist efforts to implement information operations in the information space of Latvia and the Baltic States."

LSM contacted Mr Clavarino for his reaction. He was aware of negative reaction after a story appeared in the Postimees newspaper in Estonia, but had not been informed about Latvia's accusations against him. We read him the comments from the defense ministry.

He vehemently denied both that he had staged any photos and that he was part of any disinformation campaign, saying the accusation were "completely false".

"I'm speaking now with my lawyers," he told LSM.

"These are the classic comments governments give trying to defame the work or independent journalists. I'm not the first person this has happened to."

He did express regret at the original headline chosen by The Correspondent but pointed out that it was not his headline, which is indeed standard journalistic practice for freelance contributors. At no point did he refer to child soldiers, he insisted.

At no time did anyone, either minors or adults, object to the pictures he was taking, he said.

"I'm not a paparazzi. I didn't hide behind any walls. I just took the photos after asking permission from the people," he told LSM, adding that there was nothing underhand in his methods which followed standard journalistic procedure.

"I was invited to participate in the training and allowed by the chief commanders to take picture and do interviews. Without their permission of course I would have not been able to take part." 

"Of course I'm not being paid by Russia. I even don't like the Russian government. I would have no problems writing against them. But these [Baltic] governments don't realise the way they are acting - to accuse independent journalists without asking for their side - is acting just like Russia acts towards journalists."

In releasing a statement on the matter, Latvia's Ministry of Defense appears to be emulating their Estonian counterparts, who did so in response to a story in the Postimees newspaper. Estonian Defense Ministry official Rauno Veri was quoted by the newspaper describing Clavarino as a "useful idiot" whose pictures were liked by Russian propaganda channel RT. 

"Useful idiot" is a euphemism from the Cold War days describing a dupe of the Kremlin.

Ironically, Postimees' own story was accompanied by a picture sourced from Sputnik, RT's sister organization.

Clavarino told LSM he was not contacted by Postimees until after the newspaper had already run its story about him and that in the wake of its publication he has received death threats via his cellphone.




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