The troubled U.S. agency responsible for delivering news around the world is being outgunned in Eastern Europe by Russian outlets unrestrained by notions of fact-based journalism.
The unequal competition raises fears among U.S. officials that Moscow is winning the information war about events in Ukraine, even as the Russian economy staggers under economic sanctions imposed after the takeover of Crimea.
“Russia has engaged in a rather remarkable period of the most overt and extensive propaganda exercise that I’ve seen since the very height of the Cold War,” Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate subcommittee in late February. It’s “spending hugely on this vast propaganda machine,” he told another panel the same day, and it’s succeeding “because there’s nothing countering it.”
Not literally nothing. Up against Russia 24, Rossiya 1, Russia K, First Channel, Sputnik and other around-the-clock operations, are new U.S.-sponsored Russian-language offerings including “Current Time,” a newscast of just 30 minutes beamed into Eastern Europe on weekdays. The Voice of America show, co-hosted from Washington by Natasha Mozgovaya, is part of $23.2 million in programming aimed at Russian speakers. That comparatively small sum is up 49 percent from last year, according to Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.
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How much Russia spends on its information programs is difficult to pin down, but in the face of sanctions forcing cuts elsewhere, President Vladimir Putin pledged to increase budgets for state-run outlets and cultural outreach. He said outlays for Rossotrudnichestvo, an organization devoted to spreading knowledge of Russia and its values abroad will rise from $60 million to $300 million by 2020.
The differences in approach between what Kerry describes as Russian propaganda and U.S.-supported outlets were on display last month, on the first anniversary of the Crimean annexation.
State-owned RT quoted Putin recalling that Crimeans had voted to return to the Motherland in the face of Ukrainian nationalism. The headline: “Coming Home.” VOA reported details RT omitted from the same interview: Putin’s acknowledgment that Moscow had planned the annexation and sent in troops weeks before the referendum. That headline: “Putin’s Latest Crimea Spin Attempts New Narrative.”
Given the David-and-Goliath challenge “Current Time” faces, preparation and fact-checking are among the program’s best assets, says Mozgovaya, 35, a Russian-born, Israeli-raised former war correspondent. “We need to double and triple-check everything because the only thing basically that we have here is credibility,” she said. “It’s a very big responsibility because broadcasting one fake from our side will cost us the reputation.”
Budgeted at about $2 million a year, the program airs in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Lithuania and Latvia. It’s available free to networks and on Google Inc.’s YouTube. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, the parent agency of VOA and other government-backed outlets, doesn’t know yet how many people watch “Current Time,” which began in October, but social media feedback shows it’s striking a chord, said Arkady Cherepansky, assistant managing editor of VOA’s Russian Service.
Beyond the Russian-speaking region, RT, with an annual budget of at least $241 million, sends Moscow’s version of events to the world in English, French, German, Spanish and Arabic.
The network is seen by more than 600 million people worldwide, said Peter Pomerantsev, who described Russia’s “weaponization of information” in his book, “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.” U.S. and European officials and analysts say one of its aims is to undermine Western unity over economic sanctions.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius has called RT “no less destructive than military marching in Crimea.” Its editorial stance is that there is no objective truth, said Pomerantsev. The point isn’t persuasion, says Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, but to muddy the waters. “You have your truth, I have mine, there is no truth.”
The network’s slogan is “Question More.”
That editorial approach means RT gives air time to people who blame the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and entertains multiple theories about who shot Malaysian Airline System Bhd.’s Flight 17 out of the skies over eastern Ukraine.
RT is amplified by social media disguised to look like ordinary people’s accounts, said Angela Stent, director of Russian studies at Georgetown University in Washington. Its social media use is “very sophisticated,” she said, and includes “people who troll and immediately bite back” at critics.
Requests for comment from the Russian Embassy and RT weren’t answered.
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Facing off against the Russian juggernaut is a U.S. agency that lawmakers have called “broken” and “dysfunctional.” Last year, the State Department’s inspector general found that the BBG, with a budget of more than $720 million for its worldwide activities, had wasted almost $5 million on unapproved purchases, couldn’t properly record budget transactions, had inadequate IT security, and wasn’t able to keep track of physical property.
In another blow, Andrew Lack, the former chairman of the Bloomberg Media Group who was sworn in as the BBG’s chief executive officer and director on Jan. 20, left just six weeks later to run NBC News.
Still, the U.S. is boosting the BBG’s budget, saying that the Russian narrative in Eastern Europe must be countered. Baltic states are so “flooded with propaganda,” Kerry told lawmakers, that people there aren’t aware Russian soldiers have crossed the border into Ukraine or died there. Many think “we’re the problem,” Kerry said.
For fiscal year 2016, the Obama administration is requesting $38.6 million for Russian-language programming, a 66 percent increase, plus more than $20 million to train Russian-speaking journalists, support independent media and other programs.
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Much of the effort to counter Russia’s narrative unfolds in a ground floor studio at VOA headquarters on Washington’s National Mall. In a darkened control room nearby, a producer scans dozens of wall-mounted screens as his team prepares to tape “Current Time.”
The name, a pun in Russian, carries the connotation of “the real deal.”
Some screens feature the show’s Uzbek co-anchor preparing in Prague, others have camera angles at the United Nations. Several screens show Mozgovaya, blond head lowered over a laptop as she prepares for the show.
The BBG has hired more part-time correspondents who speak Ukrainian, Tatar and Russian. It set up news websites such as “Donbass Realities” focused on places under siege. There are plans for a central Asian version of the show and another focused on the Caucasus and for new mobile platforms, said Jeffrey Trimble, deputy director of the BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau. A 24-hour global Russian-language TV station, perhaps with European partners, is a longer-term possibility.
The target audience – Russian speakers inside and outside the country – is 260 million people worldwide. Stent, of Georgetown University, said Western democracy is one complicating factor in trying to reach them. “The problem is in the West we don’t have one message and we’re up against a very coordinated information war,” Stent said.
Cameron Johnston, an analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris, said the Kremlin’s media strategy “rests on three key propositions: there is no such thing as objectivity; journalists are not critics but servants of the state and, in wartime, they are ‘soldiers of the ideological front.’”
Reaching those inside Russia, where Putin has steadily tightened controls on media, is increasingly difficult. In 2005, VOA was carried on almost 100 Russian outlets. Now it’s on just one, and that may be eliminated by proposed Russian legislation that would ban “undesirable foreign organizations.”
Alexander Tarnavsky, a supporter of the measure, said in the lower house of Russia’s parliament on Jan. 20 that he hopes the law will “put the brakes on some of the foreign companies that joined the fight against Russia.”
At the “Current Time” studios, staffers like Cherepansky say Russia’s closed media market gives their job added urgency, particularly in spreading U.S. views on events. “Unless we go out, talk about it, it’s as if it never happened,” he said.
(Stepan Kravchenko in Moscow contributed to this report.)
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