Listening to Russia’s State Media, It’s Hard to Tell Fact From Fiction
The Kremlin’s government-media complex spins the Ukraine crisis
In late April, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a decree awarding a special prize to 300 members of the media. The “Order of Merit for the Fatherland” went to reporters who displayed “high professionalism and objectivity in the reporting of events in the Republic of Crimea,” according to the decree.
Awards from the state imply service to the state. Sure enough, at Moscow’s behest the Russian press has worked hard to justify Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula … and subsequent intimidation of Kiev.
The press has become a weapon.
In the state-controlled newspaper Izvestia, writer Alexander Prokhanov heralded the annexation of Crimea as bringing new legitimacy to the Russian government. “The state for the Russian people—the second religion,” Prokhanov wrote.
This is extreme. But statements of the sort are not unusual in Russia’s major media outlets, which are mostly owned or indirectly controlled by the state. They paper right over the deep complexity of the Ukraine conflict.
Battles between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces have killed dozens of people in the cities of Mariupol and Slavyansk.
A referendum is underway in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts to decide on the creation of an independent Donetsk People’s Republic. The polling stations are under the control of armed separatist groups, and there is no evidence of voter rolls—making it impossible to prevent fraud.
The separatists’ motivations vary. Some are fighting for greater autonomy for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east. Others hope to create an independent republic that Russia could easily annex. Some want eastern Ukraine to outright split from the rest of the country and formally join Russia.
But Russian media blithely portrays the fighting as a good versus evil struggle between the dark forces of fascism and a besieged Russia. A narrative that easily justifies military force.
The Kremlin routinely invokes, well, Nazis to justify Moscow’s military actions. To hear state-backed media tell it, Ukrainian fascists threaten to conquer not only Ukraine, but Russia too.
In bloodiest battle in Ukraine since the Maidan revolution, a mob in Odessa set fire to a building occupied by pro-Russian activists.
Russian politicians and pundits pointed to the violence as proof of the rise of fascism … and the media ran with it. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called the events “typical fascism.” He said that the tragedy would not be “swept under the rug,” and that Russia had a “duty not to allow fascism to spread throughout Europe and the world at large”.
The state-owned RT network hinted at “unknown forces” secretly manipulating a mob of soccer fans to start the violence. Sergei Naryshkin, speaker for the Russian state of Duma, called the fire an act of “genocide.”
Genocide is systematic. While not to minimize the tragedy, the violence in Odessa was anything but systematic. It was chaos. A genocide of Russian speakers would mean the methodical killing, whole or in part, of the Russian-speaking population.
But the Russian language is also integrated into Ukrainian society. It’s dominant in media and business, spoken by government officials—including members of the current government—and is the most common language of Ukrainian Internet users.
According to Naryshkin, the pro-Russians are “federalization activists.” The new leaders of Ukraine are “political adventurists.” Armed actions by separatists are “pro-federalization rallies.”
Admittedly, claims that fascism is rising in Ukraine do have the veneer of credibility. Some of the activists who toppled former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych hold far-right views, especially the Right Sector group. But the same is true of some pro-Russian militants.
In that regard, Russian media’s narrative of a Russian people united against fascism are hypocritical.
The same media outlets warning about the rise of fascism in Ukraine also give a platform to some of Europe’s most prominent far right voices—notably state-owned Channel One.
Russian neo-fascist theorist Alexander Dugin is also a recurring on-air personality on both Channel One and Komsomolskaya Pravda. The bearded, middle-aged Dugin is one of Russia’s most prominent far-right ideologues. He supports Putin, but is far more radical than the president.
One of Dugin’s main ideas is that Russia should create an expanded, authoritarian Eurasian land empire to counter the “maritime” empire of the United States. This new Russia will be “historically, religiously, culturally, ethnically, linguistically part of our common Slavic, Orthodox Eurasian world,” he told Komsomolskaya Pravda.
According to Dugin’s worldview, Russia’s identity is based on moral values found in blood and soil, in contrast to the rootlessness and cosmopolitanism of the West.
In Dugin’s view, the European Union is a conspiracy of pro-American liberals and gays, tantamount to fascism. Russia’s state-owned media encourages this assertion.
Sometimes Russian media spins itself just to stay alive. The notion of a free press has hard limits in the East—and the Kremlin, especially, employs a variety of tactics to bring wayward journalists to heel.
A popular method of control is facilitating the hostile takeover of media companies by cronies. This happened to Pavel Durov, the founder of the popular Russian social media site VK.
Durov claims he was pressured by the Kremlin to turn over user data to the Federal Security Service. After he refused, he was forced out of the company and has since fled Russia.
Who’s in charge now? Alisher Usmanov and Igor Sechin, two big-time Putin fans.
More than half of the newspapers and most of the television stations in the country are either owned and operated by the government … or by a parent company with close government ties.
Gazprom-Media—the entertainment wing of Russia’s state energy company—owns nine radio stations, five television stations, video sharing site RuTube, book publishers and a string of film studios.
Moscow doesn’t need direct control to manipulate the press. News outlets with views unpopular in the Kremlin often find themselves on the outside looking in.
Access to press conferences and political figures is hard to come by for media outlets that don’t play ball. The Kremlin leaks stories and information to the agencies that follow the rules and buries difficult news agencies in a nightmare mix of libel suits and tax investigations.
The popular Website Lentra.ru fired its editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko in March. Her offense? She published an interview with a member of the Ukrainian nationalist party.
TV Rain was the last independent news station left in Russia before they criticized Putin on the air. The channel subsequently lost both the lease on its headquarters and its cable distribution deals.
Putin is reining in the Internet, as well.
This month, he signed a law requiring blogs with more than 3,000 regular readers to register with the government. Part of that registration process involves disclosing the bloggers’ real names—and requires registrants to stand behind the accuracy of what they publish.
Any search engine or hosting company that lists the blog must also keep a log of published material on a server—on Russian soil—for a rolling period of six months.
If all else fails, ornery reporters have a habit of straight up dying. Nor do those reporters receive awards from the state.