Saturday

23rd Sep 2017

Opinion

Russian speakers deserve good journalism

  • RT’s English-language channel airs 24/7 from the network’s Moscow offices and is available to more than 700 million viewers worldwide (Photo: EUobserver)

A while ago, I asked a young activist from Russia what TV channels his family watched.

“I have a grandmother in Yekaterinburg and a grandmother in Houston, Texas. The one in the US supports Putin as she watches nothing but Russian state-owned RTR Planeta. The one in Russia watches independent TV Dozhd, and is very critical of the Kremlin,” he said.

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This tale of two women across the planet is a sober reminder how, in the 21st century, television remains such a powerful media, that reaches people with one influential message across the borders.

The message of Kremlin-controlled media is centered on Russkiy Mir (‘Russian world’), a transnational community, the members of which are united by ‘spiritual ties’ (dukhovnye skrepy) that allegedly make them superior to the rest of the world.

The Russkiy Mir ideologists use Soviet nostalgia and distrust of the West to attract millions of Russian speakers around the world.

Not all Russian speakers support the single narrative of Kremlin propaganda. There are people who demand alternative reporting and actively seek fair and balanced news. But the number of such news outlets is shrinking. Many independent media have to survive on scarce funds, making it difficult to produce high-quality content.

Kremlin-controlled media use strong emotional triggers to persuade their audiences that Ukrainians are Western-steered ‘Nazis’.

History is re-written showing that Russia, being the main successor of Soviet state, was the only winner of World War II.

In reality, for almost two years, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact aligned that very state with the Nazi government and thus established cooperation between the Gestapo and the infamous Soviet law enforcement agency, the NKVD.

This shameful episode was deleted from the Soviet Union history textbooks after 1945, as even for Soviet propaganda it was difficult to reconcile the leadership’s fight against Nazism with the Stalin-Hitler alliance.

Putin’s current day narrative sees no contradiction here. In its parallel reality, enforced by his propaganda, everything is possible, and the truth is subject to political preference.

This media strategy, if unchallenged, may lead to grave consequences in the coming decades. In the worst-case scenario, we will have a generation of people - living both on the borders of and within the EU - who grow up believing that their enemy is “the West”.

Ukraine - the tipping point

For the past 15 years Western politicians chose not to see such trends in Russian media.

The conflict in Ukraine was the tipping point that made Europe recognise the degrading effect of Russian state propaganda.

The sense of urgency for an ‘adequate response’ – among others, in the form of counter-propaganda – has entered the political discourse.

We are, however, approaching a slippery slope.

If we decide to engage in counter-propaganda at the cost of high-quality journalism, the number of people who do not trust any media will only increase.

Confused and distrusting citizens will not be able to make informed choices. Lack of media literacy will delay the democratic transition of the countries in the Eastern Partnership and beyond.

We should also be wary of a short-term approach to the situation.

When or if one of the many fragile truces are actually implemented in Ukraine, many will be tempted to say that “the West’s” political goal has been achieved. The attention will likely switch to other regions of the world.

Investing in Russian language media

Let’s ask ourselves frankly: “Are we able to understand the gravity of media manipulations and social engineering only when we are faced with the threat of military conflict?”

If we allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring these processes, once again, we will give Kremlin-controlled media many more years of leeway until the next threat knocks at our door.

I believe that the only effective way to address the region’s challenges is to invest in balanced, trustworthy, independent and diverse media, working for Russian-language audiences.

If we commit to this “investment”, Russian will no longer divide people along their values and political views.

The Russian language media space will provide opportunities for an inclusive dialogue, informed debate and freedom of expression. That’s the future we all deserve - in the Eastern Partnership and beyond.

Jerzy Pomianowski, Executive Director of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED) and former Deputy Foreign Minister of Poland. Initial findings of a feasibility study on “Russian Language Media Initiatives in Eastern Partnership and Beyond” by EDD will be presented at the margins of the First Eastern Partnership Media Conference in Riga on 19 May 2015.

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