James Kirchik, visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe and the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, addresses the 6th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
James Kirchik: I turned on the television to get the latest news from Ukraine. Since late November, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovyc, backed out on signing an association agreement with the European Union, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians from all walks of life, gathered on Kiev’s ‘Maidan’, or ‘Central Square’ to protest.
There, they initiated a movement calling for liberal democracy, an open and less corrupt society, modelled on European values. Yanukovych’s decision to buck the EU and take an aid package from the Russian government set the stage for a battle over the soul of Ukraine; whether it would integrate further into the West, or fall prey to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aim of bringing the former Soviet Republics to heel under Russian pressure.
Now according to the cable news channel playing on my hotel television, the protesters in the square were a bunch of “ultra-nationalists.” Many of them had spent time in ideological training camps in the Baltic countries, whose post-Soviet governments have long been critical of Moscow’s revanchist foreign policy. Over grainy images of an aeroplane unloading its cargo, a pro-Yanukovych member of the Ukrainian Parliament accused the United States government of using diplomatic pouches, which are exempt from customs inspections, to transport millions of dollars in cash to Ukrainian citizens in the Maidan. The implication being that no sensible person, other than an American paid stooge, would brave the harsh Kiev winter for a mere political protest. If this description of the events in Kiev sounds like the opposite of reality, well that’s because it is, but then pretty much everything that you see on RT, or Russia Today as it used to be called before its sponsors in the Kremlin tried to hide the station’s origins, has little relationship to the truth.
Founded in 2005 and funded by the Russian government, RT is a personal pet project of Putin, who has said that the network’s purpose is to “break the monopoly of the anglo-saxon mass media.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with offering a different perspective, this is what
happens in democracies, where people are free to express their opinions without fear that they will be fined, arrested, or worse. Of course, one cannot do this in Russia, where the state controls nearly all the media, harasses independent journalists and jails opposition leaders on trumped-up charges. So, it’s more than a little ironic that Putin would pour so much money – an estimated 300 million dollars per year – to diversify the international media landscape, while simultaneously crushing the media at home. With RT, the purpose is not only to air stories and opinions that the Western media neglects because of its alleged bias, it is to present unfiltered Kremlin propaganda, conspiracy theories and defences of authoritarianism all around the world. And not only in English, but also in Spanish and Arabic as well.
For example, during the 2008 Georgia War, RT correspondent, William Dunbar, attempted to file reports about Russian airstrikes on civilian targets. His superiors in Moscow prevented him from doing so. “The real news, the real facts of the matter, didn’t conform to what they were trying to report, and therefore they would not let me report it,” he said. Dunbar quit the network, saying, “any issue where there is a Kremlin line, RT is sure to tow it.”
In 2012, after Russian riot police violently put down a protest of Putin’s third inauguration as president, RT head, Margarita Simonyan, ominously tweeted, “you were warned that all your
starry-eyed idealism would end in fanatical carnage. You didn’t believe this, or are you just naive? Or do you like it?”
This is the language of a vengeful regime propagandist, not an independent-minded journalist. RT gives prominent place to conspiracy-theorising. As long as the conspiracy theory can make the West in general, in America in particular, look bad, RT will give it ample time, no matter how outrageous. On the Orwellian-named program The Truth Seeker, last year’s Boston bombings, perpetrated by two Chechnyans, were attributed to a US government plot.
One of the network’s most frequent guests is a man named Alex Jones, a notorious American conspiracy theorist, who alleges that the 911 terrorist attacks were perpetrated by
the American government. RT regularly features such fringe voices, as if they were respectable, informed opinions.
Typical guests include a purported historian, who claims that the CIA is testing drugs on civilians, a member of the American Revolutionary Communist Party, who was invited to talk about the earthquake in Haiti, and Nick Griffin, the neo-nazi head of the British National Party.
Recently, RT gave a program to George Galloway, a British member of Parliament, expelled from the Labour Party, after he called on Iraqi terrorists to kill British troops in Iraq. Galloway has been an outspoken supporter of Syrian president and mass murderer Bashar al-Assad, and in 1994, he paid a visit to the court of Saddam Hussein, where he exclaimed, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.” Galloway’s program on RT is called ‘Sputnik’, and like the Soviet space satellite, after which it is named, it is thousands of miles away from the reality on earth.
I recently watched an episode of Sputnik, which featured a surreal conversation about North Korea, between Galloway and Keith Bennett, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Galloway remarked that “the country’s recent power secession has passed, apparently seamlessly, which is not surprising in a country that does not have to endure nuisances like elections, and where bothersome family members can be taken care of, with the help of a firing squad.” But then, as Galloway said, “every country has factional problems.” For his part, Bennett remarked that a high school in Pyongyang boasts, and I quote, “facilities that would really be the envy of Eton and Harrow.”
As an outgrowth of Russian foreign policy, RT provides coverage generally supportive of dictatorships and human rights abusers around the world. As Russia is supplying weapons and diplomatic cover to the Syrian regime, so does RT air an utterly false report, accusing rebel forces of having massacred civilians by putting them into ovens. Meanwhile, an article recently posted on RT’s website, claimed that “Venezuela actually became a functioning democracy under Hugo Chavez.”
With its cynical coverage, RT is attempting to appeal to the younger generation, which is naturally sceptical of authority. But RT’s slogan, ‘question more’, is one that only applies to Western leaders, not those of Russia or its allies. For instance, an advertising campaign recently launched across the United States, featured a photo of Barack Obama morphing into former Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with the question, “who poses the greater nuclear threats?”
Lest you think RT is some minor nuisance to those of us concerned with quaint notions like objectivity and the truth, consider this. The network has amassed some 1.2 billion hits on YouTube, making it the most popular international news network on the internet; more popular than the BBC, al-Jazeera, or CNN. It is available to some 500 million people in over 100 countries. Clearly, RT is reaching an audience.
It recently hired Larry King, the famous American interviewer. Upon joining the network, King said, “I would rather ask questions to people in positions of power, instead of speaking on their behalf,” which is strange coming from a man who was notorious in the world of journalism for asking softball questions of his guests, whether they be celebrities emerging from drug rehab, or President Putin himself, whom, according to King, has a charisma that can “change a room” and “a certain magnetism.”
If the Kremlin’s hard power can be measured by its nuclear arsenal, the scope of its arms sales to dictatorships, and the ruthlessness of its intelligence service, the FSB, then RT is one of Russia’s greatest instruments of soft power. The best way to combat its sinister influence is to confront it with facts.
Last summer, I was invited on RT to talk about Bradley, now Chelsea Manning, the former Army private, convicted of leaking hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. But, rather than play the assigned role of the outraged American in RT’s theatre of the absurd, I decided to take a different tack.
* Start of Video Clip *
RT Reporter: “Yes, James, and let me ask you the same position-establishing question.”
James Kirchick: “Yeah, well, Harvey Fierstein is a very famous American playwright and actor, he said that being silent in the face of evil is something that we can’t do. And so, being here on a Kremlin-funded propaganda network, I’m going to wear my Gay Pride suspenders, I’m going to speak out against the horrific anti-gay legislation that Vladimir Putin assigned into law that was passed unanimously by the Russian Duma, that criminalizes homosexual propaganda, and effectively makes it illegal to talk about homosexuality in public. You see the state of violent attacks on gay people in Russia -”
RT Reporter: *cuts Kirchick off* “yes, yes, we’ll discuss it later,”
James Kirchick: “we’ve seen a spate of violent -”
RT Reporter: *cuts Kirchick off again* “But what about Bradley Manning?”
James Kirchick: “I’m not really interested in talking about Bradley Manning, I’m just interested in talking about the horrific environment of homophobia in Russia right now, and
and to let the Russian gay people know that they have they have friends and allies and solidarity from people all over the world, and that we’re not going to be silent in the face of this horrific repression that is perpetrated by the payment, by your paymasters, by Vladimir Putin. That’s what I’m here to talk about.
RT Reporter: “alright.”
James Kirchick: “Yes, that’s what I’m here to talk about. And I don’t know how, as a journalist, how you can go to sleep at night. Seeing what happens to journalists in Russia, who are routinely harassed, tortured and, in some cases, killed by the Russian government –”
RT Reporter: *cuts Kirchick off again* “James, you have to come over here and –”
James Kirchick: “and how you can call yourself a journalist, and how you can go to sleep at
night. I find that abominable – you should be ashamed of yourself.”
RT Reporter: “You’ll have to come over here and see for yourself”
James Kirchick: “Everyone who works at this network should be ashamed of yourselves. You should cover what’s happening in Russia, you should cover the horrific abuse –”
RT Reporter: “We invited you over to talk about Bradley Manning and the verdict -– we’re waiting for for the verdict –”
* End of Video Clip *
James Kirchick: The Russian government created RT because it believed that the Western media was portraying Russia in a negative light. But the reason why much of the news about Russia is negative is because, well, so much of the news about Russia is negative.
From massive corruption, to threatening, and in the case of Georgia, occupying its neighbours militarily. From state-sponsored homophobia, to blackmailing Eastern Europe with oil pipeline politics and propping-up dictatorships around the world, the Russian government is a threat to its own people, and people, frankly, everywhere.
If Moscow genuinely wants to ensure better coverage of Russia, it does not have to pour hundreds of millions of dollars every year into a slick international cable news station, it only
has to show respect for international human rights norms and the will of its own citizens.