A recent story posted by the international TV network RT constitutes a clear example of the strategic approach taken by Russian propaganda: to take as much advantage as possible from the constraints democracy imposes on freedom of information. To include the internal criticism expressed by western watchdogs protecting freedom of information.
RT (formerly named “Russia Today”) is a Russian state-funded cable and satellite television channel directed to audiences outside of the Russian Federation. Its is therefore a major tool to influence the global audience.
In their story, titled: Mass surveillance breeds self-censorship in democracies they highlight passages from an International Survey titled Global Chilling, The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers, conducted by PEN American Center, which is the largest branch of PEN International, the world’s leading literary and human rights organization.
RT highlights that the study found that an increasing number of writers in democratic countries are censoring themselves due to fears about government surveillance.
“Writers are concerned that expressing certain views even privately or researching certain topics may lead to negative consequences”
This is certainly true, as censorship is taking new shapes and pressure by the fear of surveillance is definitely having an impact.
What RT is failing to report is that the survey, while highlighting the problems posed by surveillance in the free countries, clearly shows that the situation is much worse in ‘partially’ or ‘not free’ countries. The survey groups countries according to the status defined by Freedom House in their Freedom of the World report. No surprise that Russia is listed among the ‘not free’ countries…
While self-censorship is definitely a major problem in Russia, it just complements major efforts to impose active censorship. Another report on this matter was published very recently by the Columbia Journalism Review: 21st-century censorship. Again, this report makes no discount to any nation, no matter their political alignment. But we doubt RT will ever publish the passage related to Russia’s war on the press:
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin is remaking the media landscape in the government’s image. In 2014, multiple media outlets were blocked, shuttered, or saw their editorial line change overnight in response to government pressure. While launching its own media operations, the government approved legislation limiting foreign investment in Russian media. The measure took aim at publications like Vedomosti, a daily newspaper respected for its standards and independence and owned by three foreign media groups: Dow Jones, the Financial Times Group and Finland’s Sanoma.
Russia’s war on information does not end at Russia’s borders. Russia Today—now simply called RT—is radically expanding operations into 45 languages with a 40 percent increase in funding. RT’s marketing line is “Question More.” But the aim isn’t dialogue and debate, it’s to white wash the actions of Putin as former RT anchor Liz Wahl bravely reported as she resigned on air. Russia also has launched Sputnik – not the satellite, but a global news agency operating in 34 languages, with a robust online presence and the purported aim of providing “an alternative viewpoint on world events.”
To achieve these aims, RT is adopting the style and the language of the free press. It also usually avoids to make its propaganda aims clearly visible. Actually, many of its reports are quite factual and may compete with those posted by major western news media organizations. As a result, stories appearing in RT are often referred to by western journalists and in social media channels. A cheap way to recruit the western information world to serve their purposes.
The RT account on Twitter has today 841,000 followers. The RT page on Facebook has 2,327,348 likes. One can assume that many of them know what RT is about and are able to assess the bias. Nevertheless, yesterday’s RT tweet about ‘Mass surveillance’ was re-tweeted more than 70 times, as of now. Scrolling the list of those who re-tweeted it, it is easy to assess that it includes potential RT supporters, and also people who have no real interest in the story, But it also includes western people that are difficult to ascribe to any category. In turn, they may have reached many more, with a domino effect.
One more thing is missing in the RT report: the survey by PEN is by itself a demonstration that in the free world there are instruments to contain and fight any abuse made by governments towards freedom of information. When shall we see a similar report published in Russia by a Russian independent study center like PEN?
Meanwhile, in addition to taking active measures to counter Russian propaganda, it is better to spread the word about what RT is about.