April 4, 2014 6:44 pm

Russian media stir memories of Soviet era in propaganda war

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, on March 27, 2014.Putin said today Russia should create its own national payment settlement system, in a bid to reduce economic dependence on the West amid the controversy over Moscow's seizure of Crimea. AFP PHOTO / RIA-NOVOSTI / POOL/ ALEXEI NIKOLSKY (Photo credit should read ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP

Vladimir Putin

Donetsk is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. The new Ukrainian regime, backed by nationalist extremists, is withholding funds from the country’s Russian-speaking east, leaving coal miners with nothing to feed their children.

That, at least, is what the Russian public was told about Ukraine earlier this week when they tuned into the main evening news broadcast on Russia’s state-run Channel One. They were also treated to other reports about Ukrainian nationalists desecrating monuments to Soviet war heroes, forced conscription of hungry men into the Ukrainian army, and residents of Sevastopol rushing to apply for Russian passports.

Since the Ukraine crisis emerged in November, with demonstrators in Kiev rising up against their government’s abrupt abandonment of an association pact with the EU, Russia has resorted to propaganda to shape the narrative and influence events to a degree critics say has not been seen since Soviet days.

“We never thought things could come this far,” says Sergei Buntman, deputy editor of liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy, one of the few media outlets that have managed to retain editorial independence under the government of President Vladimir Putin.

Liberal observers say that, by giving ample airtime to figures such as the rightwing propagandist Alexander Prokhanov and denouncing government critics with terms such as “fifth column” and “national traitors”, Russia’s official media has borrowed from the tactics of totalitarian regimes. “It now resembles Goebbels; and even comrade Zhdanov would never have dreamt of this,” says Mr Buntman, referring to the man in charge of cultural policy and censorship under Stalin.

A handful of young people are trying to counter that. Organised by Maxim Katz, a deputy in a Moscow district assembly for the liberal Yabloko party, they began analysing TV news programmes and rating them for propaganda three weeks ago.

Their verdict on Wednesday’s Channel One broadcast: 50 per cent propaganda. The volunteer propaganda-busters point to the practice of “labelling” when, for example, a Ukrainian local government leader is introduced as “governor-oligarch, protégé of Kiev”. They also criticise the “replacement of facts with opinion”, with the correspondent saying: “the acts of the new regime in Kiev risk robbing people of their jobs”.

But while media veterans such as Mr Buntman are encouraged by their efforts, they harbour little hope for change. Several opinion polls have shown that a majority of Russians believe the state has the right to censor the news and shape a national ideological narrative.

This situation, say analysts, is the result of a consistent push by Mr Putin to consolidate his control over the media, school curriculum and culture policy since taking power in early 2000.

“A monopoly on information has been established,” says Igor Yakovenko, former head of Russia’s Journalists’ Association. “It was not absolute, and is not absolute now, but over all the 14 years of Putin’s regime, he has strengthened the information vertical, step by step.”

Mr Putin gained his own appreciation for the power of television when – as a little-known politician in 2000 – it helped him win a resounding presidential election victory. He then moved quickly to discipline private channels.

When Vladimir Gusinsky, one of the oligarchs who made their fortune under Mr Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, resisted pressure to put his NTV network in the Kremlin’s service, he was forced to hand over control at the threat of imprisonment.

That appeared enough to ensure that other tycoon media bosses did not rock the boat. Apart from the directly state-owned TV channels, the government holds sway over another large chunk of media outlets through an affiliate of Gazprom, the state-owned gas company, and subsidiaries of Bank Rossiya, the lender sanctioned by the US last month as a crony bank for Mr Putin’s inner circle.

In depth

Crisis in Ukraine

In depth: pro-EU Ukrain rallies

Russia has annexed the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, raising fears of a return to the politics of the cold war

Journalists deemed too daring in covering large-scale negative news events, such as the war in Chechnya and the hostage crisis in a school in the Caucasus town of Beslan 10 years ago, have lost their jobs – or even their lives.

In their place, the anchor and editorial management posts have been filled with Mr Putin’s loyalists, such as Dmitry Kiselyov, the state television anchor put on an EU sanctions list last month for his slanted coverage of the Ukraine crisis.

Mr Yakovenko is deeply dismissive of western government’s handling of the crisis and argues that Europe and America should have sanctioned all those he calls “Putin’s television warriors”.

But inside Russia, such a step could easily backfire. Mr Kiselyov, alongside fellow state media anchors Vladimir Solovyov and Alexander Mamontov – who are famous for similar nationalist, anti-Western and anti-liberal propaganda – tops the rankings of the country’s most popular and most trusted journalists.

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