World
Subscriber Only

How Clare Daly and Mick Wallace became stars of authoritarian state media

A new Irish Times investigation shows the MEPs’ outsized profile in regime-controlled media

When Dublin MEP Clare Daly stood up to denounce sanctions on Russia last week in the European Parliament and say that the EU's response makes her "absolutely sick", within a day the clip was being played on Russian state television.

The speech was broadcast on the country's two most popular channels, the state-controlled Rossiya-1 and Channel One, where a presenter and a guest discussed it as evidence that western politicians were coming around to the Kremlin point of view on the Ukraine invasion.

"This is a very important precedent which suggests that many politicians in Europe don't want to participate in this information campaign which demonises our country," remarked the guest, Nikita Danyuk of a Russian strategic studies institute.

STOP KILLING DONBASS CHILDREN! Сегодня в Европарламенте было жарко! Дебаты по ситуации на Украине длились почти три...

Posted by Tatjana Ždanoka on Wednesday, February 16, 2022

It's an example of how Daly and her close political ally Mick Wallace have become staples of state-controlled media in the Russian, Chinese, and Arabic languages since they were elected to the European Parliament, coverage in which they are presented as important international figures who confirm regime positions.

A 10-month investigation by The Irish Times to track the international footprint of the two MEPs has revealed their outsized profile in the state-controlled media operations of various authoritarian regimes.

'Those two Irish people are absolutely involved on the wrong side of history,' said one Lithuanian MEP

While their activities may not always make waves in their own home constituencies of Dublin and Ireland South, in the past year their mere tweets have repeatedly made headlines internationally, from Russia Today to Iranian state news.

Their speeches have gone viral multiple times in China, boosted by Chinese government officials: since the invasion of Ukraine, speeches by Daly in the European Parliament have been posted at least four times by official Chinese foreign ministry accounts on Twitter.

Since January 2021 the two have received far more coverage in Chinese-language media than Ireland's top political leaders or even Irish celebrities and sports stars like Conor McGregor and Rory McIlroy, according to news database LexisNexis, becoming so familiar to viewers that Wallace was given a nickname in Chinese: "Golden Lion King."

Last month the two appeared in a very different place: in Lithuania, where they travelled to meet and speak in support of a man convicted of spying for Russia – even appearing on his chat show.

Supporting the spy

In November 2021, the two travelled to Lithuania to join a handful of people to protest in support of Algirdas Paleckis, a former Lithuanian politician who is appealing a conviction of spying for Russia.

The small demonstration and the MEPs’ attendance was covered by Russian state-controlled Sputnik news and by the pro-Kremlin EADaily and RusDnepr sites, which present Paleckis as a dissident persecuted by the West.

The scion of a well-known political family whose grandfather is associated with the induction of Lithuania into the Soviet Union, Paleckis was once a mainstream MP who became increasingly isolated in his political views over time and is known as a critic of Lithuania's membership of the European Union and Nato.

His quick repayment of a mortgage raised the suspicion of authorities, and, following an investigation, in July Paleckis was convicted of collecting information for Russian intelligence services in return for money and other benefits, after a businessman who was also on trial pleaded guilty and turned witness against him, Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT reported.

An attempt to reach Paleckis for comment was not answered, but he has denied wrongdoing and maintained he was gathering information as part of a journalistic investigation.

Three weeks into the invasion of Ukraine, on March 16th Daly and Wallace returned to Lithuania to attend court as Paleckis’s appeal was being heard.

In a video distributed by fringe pro-Kremlin Lithuanian media, Daly and Wallace stood alongside the convicted spy, making statements condemning the conviction.

Daly called the case “frightening” and said there had been no evidence, while Wallace questioned whether Lithuania was following the rule of law.

The Irish MEPs also joined Paleckis as guests on a YouTube chat show that he hosts. On the show, Daly told Paleckis his case was "reminiscent of the worst of times in Northern Ireland" and "part of a bigger clampdown on differing views and dissenting voices".

“What is being unleashed is a really dangerous Russiaphobia, which was under way anyway, but it’s now accelerating and Russian children are being targeted in European communities,” she added.

As the Lithuanian translated for his viewers, Wallace told Paleckis that “this conflict in Ukraine is being used to silence dissent”.

“If we want peace, we should dissolve Nato,” Wallace said.

Lithuanian politicians contacted by The Irish Times were surprised to hear that Wallace and Daly even knew about the case, which they described as a marginal event with little public purchase even within Lithuania.

"It's such a local story, with no meaning for the average Irish man on the street. It's like a traffic accident that happened in a province of the Democratic Republic of [the] Congo, " marvelled Petras Austrevicius, a liberal Lithuanian MEP.

“Those two Irish people are absolutely involved on the wrong side of history,” he added. “Keep them in Ireland.”

How did the case come to their attention?

Ally MEP

A likely clue is an MEP from Latvia, Tatjana Zdanoka, who Daly and Wallace have joined for political events and demonstrations four times since September.

At the time of Latvia's struggle for independence Zdanoka advocated for it remaining in the Soviet Union. She has been banned from running for national office on the grounds that she was a member of the Communist Party of Latvia after the country declared independence, at a time when the Latvian state considers the party to have backed an attempted Soviet coup to overthrow the new government.

Zdanoka unsuccessfully challenged this ban in the European Court of Human Rights, but first won election to the European Parliament in 2004, backed by a support base in Latvia’s ethnic Russian minority, which constitutes about one-quarter of its population.

In September, Zdanoka's Latvian Russian Union issued a statement in Russian to say Daly and Wallace had taken part in an online seminar about "politically motivated persecution in the Baltic states", providing sympathetic statements from the Irish MEPs on the issue. Wallace thanked Zdanoka for bringing the Paleckis case to his attention, the statement read.

When they first visited Lithuania to take part in the pro-Paleckis demonstration in November, Zdanoka was at their side, as she was again when they returned for his March court hearing.

Eight days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Daly and Wallace joined the Latvian MEP for a protest again.

The three donned T-shirts bearing the slogan "stop killing Donbas children", and posed together in the European Parliament for photographs shared on Zdanoka's Facebook page.

The accusation that Ukrainian forces have killed children in the eastern region has been a central part of Moscow’s justification for invading its neighbour, reflected in the slogan “for the children”, which was written on a Russian missile used to strike Ukraine’s Kramatorsk train station in a recent attack that killed dozens of evacuating civilians.

Zdanoka’s protest about the issue was widely covered in pro-Kremlin media, particularly as she was reprimanded for breaking parliamentary rules that day for holding up a related poster in the EU chamber. She did not respond to a request for comment.

Nils Usakovs, a senior Latvian Social Democrat politician who is the former mayor of Riga, told The Irish Times it was not correct to describe his fellow MEP Zdanoka as "pro-Russian". Rather, she represents a particular subsection of the ethnic Russian electorate, he explained.

"I myself am ethnic Russian, and the majority of my voters come from the Russian-speaking community," Usakovs said. "She's regarded as a representative of the Russian Federation, of the Kremlin."

Usakovs said he could understand the political activities of Zdanoka because they reflected her electorate. But the actions of Wallace and Daly puzzled him.

“She has a certain amount of Russian-speaking voters who elect her. You may like it, you may not, but she acts rationally because it’s about her voters,” Usakovs said.

“But I’m not sure that you’ve got that many pro-Russian-minded voters in Ireland. So for me, I don’t really understand the logic of these MEPs. But everything I’ve heard from these MEPs, in committees, in the hemicycle, is the same as what you hear from Zdanoka.”

In January, Wallace criticised Nato expansion in an interview he gave to Belarus state television, which is a propaganda operation for the dictator and isolated Kremlin ally Alexander Lukashenko.

Golden Lion King

Further east, Mick Wallace’s rising prominence in Chinese-language media has been enough to win him the Chinese-language nickname Golden Lion King.

The nickname was bestowed by Chinese social media users “because he has spoken up for China many times”, Sina news reported in February.

Such nicknames are often given to prominent figures such as sportspeople, and they indicate familiarity and often affection.

“Golden Lion King” refers to Wallace’s hair, and to an old martial arts master with similarly flowing locks from a well-known book and television series, remembered for coming to the fierce defence of the protagonist at key moments. A later profile of Wallace reported a variation on the nickname: “Silver Lion King.”

As Wallace's prominence grew this spring, Chen Weihua, the Brussels bureau chief of Chinese Communist Party newspaper China Daily, got in touch to organise an interview with him, and the two met in the MEP's office.

“I actually joked with Mick Wallace, I said: ‘You are famous in China!’” Weihua recalled to The Irish Times, adding that Wallace had reached a level of fame there that was rare for most western politicians, without ever having visited the country.

“Wallace really speaks with a voice that many Chinese feel speaks on their behalf,” he explained. The article introduced Wallace as the man whose tweets and speeches “have been widely reported by Chinese news outlets and social media” even though he has “never been to China”.

Indeed, data suggests the media footprint of Daly and Wallace in China is coming to exceed that of Ireland’s most famous celebrity exports.

More news hits than Conor McGregor

Measuring mentions of Wallace and Daly compared with mentions of other prominent Irish figures in Chinese-language news reveals they may be becoming Ireland’s most prominent figures in the country.

Since January 2021, Daly has been mentioned in 118 Chinese-language news items picked up by LexisNexis, and Mick Wallace in 81.

In comparison, globally famous MMA fighter Conor McGregor had 44 news hits in Chinese in the same period, Bono about six, and Saoirse Ronan and Rory McIlroy one each.

Among political figures, Leo Varadkar had 10, Simon Coveney one, and Taoiseach Micheál Martin zero.

Mick Wallace has been mentioned 29 times since February 2021 by China Youth Daily alone – the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League of China – while Daly was the subject of five such articles.

Speeches by both MEPs with Chinese subtitles have gone viral in China various times and both have given various interviews to Chinese state media.

Particularly popular were an interview of Daly’s to state newspaper Global Times in which she said that “I don’t see China as the threat at all”, and a speech in which she said the EU should abandon its alliance with the US.

A tweet by Wallace in which he declared that "Taiwan is part of China" made headlines, as did an address in which he said "China has not bombed anyone in the last 40 years".

Boosts by the Chinese government itself don’t hurt. Since the invasion of Ukraine, clips of Daly’s speeches in parliament criticising the western response to the war have been posted no less than four times by spokespeople of China’s foreign ministry on Twitter.

Promoted by Syria’s ministry of information

Beijing is not the only government that has cited an Irish MEP in its communications.

In April 2021, Syria’s ministry of information issued a release detailing statements by Wallace and Daly, describing them as “western voices debunking the false allegations” of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

It followed a session in the European Parliament in which Daly and Wallace had challenged the head of the Hague-based organisation.

The same comments by Daly were reported by the Syrian state news agency, as well as the party newspaper of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, in news articles to say that the OPCW had lost credibility and could not be trusted regarding a chemical weapons attack on civilians of which the Syrian regime was accused by the OPCW.

Wallace subsequently visited Syria, sharing more statements that chimed with those of the regime, in social media posts from Damascus.

At the time of the Daly and Wallace visit, there was already a lot of evidence against the PMF

Since the invasion of Ukraine various speeches by Daly – criticising sanctions on Russia, accusing the West of hypocrisy, and blaming Nato – have made news in Arabic, including on the Arabic channel of Chinese state television.

The Arabic-language editions of Russian state media have also covered the various activities of Daly and Wallace for Middle Eastern audiences, from Daly's criticism of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny as a "racist", to the MEPs' opposition to the European Parliament's motion condemning the invasion of Ukraine.

But perhaps most popular of all in the Middle East has been the two MEPs' praise of Qassem Soleimani, who led the overseas and clandestine operations of Iran through its Quds Force before he was killed by a United States drone strike in 2020.

Iran-backed militias

Wallace made the news in Iran and Iraq in December when he retweeted a post by Iran's embassy to the EU commemorating "the second anniversary of the martyrdom" of Soleimani, while adding his own words of praise of the general and criticism of the US.

The same happened a week later when Daly shared a similar tweet in remembrance of Soleimani, and of a commander of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) who was killed in the same strike.

“Their heroic struggles against terrorism will never be forgotten,” she wrote. “Their legacy will prevail.”

It was a visit of the two to the headquarters of the PMF, or Hashed al-Shaabi, in Iraq in April 2021 that raised concerns among some political colleagues that their views were becoming increasingly fringe.

In a promotional video published at the time by the PMF, an umbrella group of militias believed to be backed by Iran, Daly said the group “upholds international law” and praised its “egalitarian nature” and “inclusiveness”.

Last month, Human Rights Watch released an 86-page report describing 39 cases in which the NGO had evidence that PMF militia members attacked Iraqi civilians who they perceived to be LGBT, including cases of disappearances, kidnapping, torture, burning, death threats, and rape.

Rasha Younes, the NGO’s LGBT rights researcher, said the evidence had been painstaking to compile because victims were terrified to come forward due to the level of power and control that the militias wield in Iraqi society.

“The Popular Mobilisation Forces are actually under the prime minister’s control since 2016, so they are de facto state actors,” Younes explained.

Prominent foreigners who support regime points of view are highly valued by authoritarian regimes, analysts say

The militias, who operate checkpoints that civilians must pass through across Iraq, take their role to be policing social order and morality, and target people who they perceive to be LGBT as a scapegoat. Often, those picked out are teenagers with painted nails or an adventurous hairstyle, who are perceived as deviant, Younes said. “It really depends on who they encounter” at the checkpoint, Younes added.

Khadija, a 31-year-old transgender woman, told the NGO that men who identified themselves as PMF found her at home in Baghdad, doused her with gasoline, and set her on fire.

Anwar, a 21-year-old gay man, said he had been imprisoned for 10 days by PMF members, electrocuted and sexually tortured.

Rania, a 21-year-old transgender woman, said that after weeks of death threats PMF members kidnapped her on her way to university, and raped her.

The 39 cases are those in which the NGO has evidence of a PMF link, such as threatening messages sent to victims in which the attackers identified themselves. The report also documented multiple cases of LGBT people who had been murdered or disappeared.

At the time of the Daly and Wallace visit, there was already a lot of evidence indicating that PMF forces had been assassinating protesters and activists who were demonstrating against the government, Younes said.

“It is definitely unacceptable for any . . . official to praise these groups who are involved in the most heinous crimes against individuals, against ordinary people,” she said.

Request to bar reporter from parliament

Daly did not respond when approached for comment about the contents of this article outside the voting chamber of the European Parliament. When asked specifically whether she stood by her praise of the PMF, she did not respond, and walked away.

Wallace said “No thanks”, and subsequently remained silent other than to occasionally laugh in response to questions.

The MEPs then called security and requested the Irish Times reporter be barred from European Parliament, this newspaper was informed. The reporter currently remains accredited with access to the parliament.

The two MEPs did not respond to follow-up calls and emails.

Daly and Wallace have a growing reputation among Irish journalists as combative figures to cover, who use complaints and the implied threat of legal action to quash reporting.

This week the MEPs both separately lodged High Court proceedings against the broadcaster RTÉ concerning alleged defamation. The details of what it regards have not been released.

A report on RTÉ’s Drivetime programme about their activities in the European Parliament was pulled from public access following a complaint last year.

What’s going on?

Prominent foreigners who support regime points of view are highly valued by authoritarian regimes for internal propaganda purposes, analysts of Russian and Chinese media told The Irish Times.

It is difficult for fringe figures to gain prominence in authoritarian societies that enforce conformity. So to an audience within such a country, someone with an important title like Member of the European Parliament is assumed to represent influential and authoritative views.

"It's impressive when they are watching TV and see a foreign politician and they are repeating these narratives of propaganda – it's impressive for a Russian audience," said Viktor Denisenko, an associate professor at Vilnius University specialising in media coverage.

“They do not know how popular these politicians are in their own countries. They are presented as very important.”

Wallace and Daly are among various western figures who get featured on Russian and Chinese state media. In Russia, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson is particularly popular for his criticisms of Nato and view that Russia is acting in self-defence in Ukraine, a view widely dismissed in the West. (A memo from the Kremlin's information department telling friendly Russian media outlets to feature him "as much as possible" was leaked to the US magazine Mother Jones. )

Beijing highly appreciates praise from abroad and pays online influencers to post pro-China content, according to investigations by the London Times and New York Times, something the Chinese government denies. There is no suggestion that has happened in the case of Wallace and Daly.

The value of Daly and Wallace for the Chinese government lies in their European Parliament titles rather than the fact that they are Irish, according to Wu Min Hsuan, CEO of Taiwan-based nonprofit organisation Doublethink Lab, which monitors Chinese state media.

“I personally don’t think that they are quoting those people because they are Irish. The most important [thing] is that they are a European Union MP. If you look, every quotation is about the European Union. They try to use this voice to depict an alternative universe within China where even the West doesn’t agree with [what US president Joe] Biden or Nato are doing,” he said.

“Personally, I think it’s very effective.”

The most effective kind of advocate for such views is not someone who is paid to do it, but someone who is genuinely ideologically committed to those beliefs, analysts said.

Read More

Recommended