In the parallel universe of Russian propaganda, Ukraine is overrun by fascists, the Central Intelligence Agency shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Donbass and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) dictates who serves as Ukraine’s minister of agriculture. Well-financed pro-Kremlin media regularly feed gross distortions and downright fabrications to the Russian public, Russian speakers in neighboring countries and people around the world. This propaganda is a direct assault on democratic values and deeply harms U.S. interests. It merits a strong and effective response.
The self-serving narratives on Russian broadcasting crowd out factual reporting and challenge the very idea of balanced, impartial news coverage. They build support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in eastern Ukraine and fuel hostility toward the United States and European Union.
The United States, along with its European allies, needs to respond to Russia’s “information war” less with a focus on countering Russian propaganda than on building attractive alternatives. The U.S. and EU member governments should be cautious about blocking Russian broadcasts. And while they step up their own broadcasting — for instance, by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) — their main challenge is to compete more effectively for audiences.
Reform of U.S. government-backed broadcasting, as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) have proposed, is greatly needed and long overdue. But it is not enough.
The United States should emphasize new initiatives to bolster demand among Russian speakers for impartial, accurate news and to expose corruption and abuses of power in Russia, thereby shifting media narratives away from the Kremlin line.First, RFE/RL should offer entertainment in addition to news and engage viewers with a mix of programming. They would attract more viewers to their news coverage if they also showed popular TV series, like “Game of Thrones,” that many more people want to watch.
Second, the U.S. government should fund indigenous independent media in Russia and elsewhere in Eurasia, finding ways around the restrictions imposed by the Russian government and others in the region. Indigenous media have credibility, audiences and local knowledge that U.S. broadcasters are unlikely to match.
Third, the U.S. government should support locally produced satire to expose — and mock — the arrogance of Russian politicians and their abuses of power. The satirical puppet show “Kukly” was highly popular in Russia before it was taken off the air. The political satire on Voice of America’s Persian service show “Parazit” similarly drew large audiences.
Fourth, RFE/RL and local independent media should provide more news that Russian viewers can use. Such news is in short supply. A recent study found that the main news bulletin of state television channel Rossiya 1 devoted more than a third of its airtime to Ukraine, but just 1.3 percent to Russian social issues and healthcare. Channel One’s bulletins similarly gave short shrift to news affecting Russians’ daily lives. RFE/RL and local independent media can fill the gap in this kind of news and further engage audiences with call-in shows.
Fifth, the U.S. government should promote investigative reporting into corruption and other issues of public interest, perhaps by funding a Russian version of ProPublica. Just as stories of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s corruption fascinated people in his country, exposing the corruption of Russia’s elite would both grab the attention of ordinary Russians and give them insight into how their country is really run.
The Russian government relies on propaganda to justify its repressive policies at home, destabilize Ukraine and other neighbors, and challenge U.S. and EU influence. U.S. broadcasting and support for local independent media can shift media narratives away from the disinformation and cynicism peddled by Russian propaganda and advance democratic values and stability in Eurasia.
By Daniel Calingaert, The Hill
Calingaert is executive vice president of Freedom House.