By Nina Ognianova/Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator
In Russia, the population-at-large receives its news from state-controlled TV that has long been churning propaganda. But since November, television, Kremlin's crude weapon of mass distraction, has ever more shrilly been agitating hostility toward opposition protesters in Ukraine--and their presumed masterminds in the West.
In Ukraine, former President Viktor Yanukovych said in a press conference last week, power was taken over by fascists and he was forced to flee amid threats to his life. From Russia, where he has taken refuge after being ousted, Yanukovych declared himself the country's legitimate president. He denied reports that he had ordered snipers to target protesters in Kiev (dozens were killed last month) and said law enforcement had the right to defend themselves against armed provocateurs. The events were orchestrated by outside forces--as in, the West--who were intent on creating a crisis in Ukraine, he concluded. A coup d'etat had taken place in the country, he said.
Yanukovych's message parroted that of Vladimir Putin's government and its justification of a military invasion of Crimea, the Russian-speaking autonomous republic in southern Ukraine. That message has been amplified and propagated by the state-controlled Russian media and, most significantly, national television.
That the Kremlin effectively controls the media outlets with most impact on public opinion is nothing new. This has been the case since Putin's first term in office. But the message streaming from Russia's blue screens has grown more fear-inducing in recent months. The tone has been personified by the likes of anchormen such as Dmitry Kiselyov, TV host on one of Russia's main television channels. Kiselyov--who has editorialized to paint Maidan-goers as radicals with a taste for blood--did not cover the many cases of police violence against journalists and demonstrators. Instead, he focused on things like the "barbarically dismembered" Christmas trees protesters had used in barricades and the types of food they were consuming.
Apparently, Kiselyov's bosses at Rossiya 1 channel were pleased. Amid his Ukraine coverage, Kiselyov was named the head of the newly shaped state news agency Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) after authorities dismantled RIA Novosti--a 72-year-old news agency that had kept a moderate tone under its previous management.
RIA Novosti's closure and Kiselyov's promotion are symbolic of a Russia that no longer cares about keeping up appearances. Propagandists are rewarded in today's media scene, and independent coverage is seen as unpatriotic. Having taken over the most influential media, Russian authorities have moved to cleanse the landscape of the smaller--yet notable--outlets. The last remaining independent television station, the private three-year-old Dozhd TV, is on the brink of closure after authorities blew out of proportion a controversial poll run by the station and pressured cable providers to drop the channel from their packages.
The poll, which questioned a historic moment in World War II, was turned into an almost criminal undertaking when the presidential spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it "erode[s] the genetic memory of our people" and urged Dozhd's viewers not to tolerate the incident.
The message was received. Within days, cable and satellite providers severed their contracts with the station. Predictably, the state media regulator Roskomnadzor found no violation of consumer rights in the operators' actions.
Dozhd TV--whose reach subsequently dropped from nearly 18 million homes to 2 million homes--was the only station of growing popularity that carried alternative coverage of the events in Ukraine. In its absence, the media space has turned into an echo chamber where the likes of Kiselyov outshout each other.
A drastic example of the distorted version of events in Ukraine, which helped to create the appearance of a humanitarian crisis that legitimized Russian intervention, was state TV Channel One's assertion that more than 100,000 Russian-speaking Ukrainians tried to cross the border into Russia, allegedly seeking refuge from radical elements. TV viewers noticed that the channel backed up its assertion with images that instead showed a column of cars lining up to cross the Ukrainian border into Poland, the Russian news website Yezhednevny Zhurnal (Daily Journal) reported. Yet discrepancies between what state media report and what actually happens on the ground do not seem to matter for the majority of the Russian population.
In an open letter this week, heads of the main Ukrainian broadcasters addressed their Russian counterparts with a call to be responsible and objective when reporting the facts on the ground in Ukraine. "We have no rights to stir up enmity between the fraternal Russian and Ukrainian people, to broadcast unverified information or distort the reality," the letter said. (In response, the Russian state broadcasters wished the Ukrainian media to do the same.)
An independent poll in late February found that most Russians side with Putin's view that the interim government in Ukraine is illegitimate--43 percent of those polled called the political events in Kiev a "violent coup;" 23 percent characterized them as a civil war. The poll also showed that 45 percent of respondents supported the government's view that the events in Ukraine were instigated by the West, the U.K.'s Guardian reported.
Russian authorities have been working for years to achieve this effect, but now that they have, their ability to form educated assessments of the political reality is threatened. Kremlin insiders used to admit that they would regularly tune in to hear the opposition's views. But now that critical media are effectively neutralized, the powers-that-be could lose even that remote connection to their opponents. Without a challenger to its message, the Russian government becomes vulnerable to the very propaganda machine it created.
The Russian offensive in Crimea has been painted by national television as a campaign to defend ethnic Russians, particularly in southern and eastern Ukraine, from the threat of radicals, nationalists, and anti-Semites, who, in the words of Putin, still roam Ukrainian streets, sowing violence and terror. We have seen those pictures, Putin said at a press conference on Tuesday streamed live by Russia Today. And he once again blamed the West.
"I am getting the feeling that there, over the big pond, somewhere in America, there are lab workers who carry out experiments--as if working on rats--without understanding the consequences of their actions," Putin said. He appeared genuinely convinced he was right.
Nina Ognianova is coordinator of CPJ's Europe and Central Asia Program. A native of Bulgaria, Ognianova has led CPJ advocacy missions to Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.
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