Screenshot of Ilya Ponomarev in his latest appearance on RT (April 16) to discuss Putin’s annual Q&A
Screenshot of Ilya Ponomarev in his latest appearance on RT (April 16) to discuss Putin’s annual Q&A

Ilya Ponomarev is the only Russian MP who voted against the annexation of Crimea last year. He now lives in the U.S. because he is under investigation for embezzlement from a government-financed research institute called Skolkovo in Russia, charges that Ponomarev denies.  He was invited to be interviewed twice on RT in the past month, in the role of the exiled Kremlin opponent, where his opinions about Russian politics, Ukraine, and RT were freely expressed and strongly challenged.

“You are just not a media, you are a lobbying tool of the Russian government in foreign nations,” Ponomarev told “Worlds Apart” host Oksana Boyko, for example.

Despite his views, Ponomarev doesn’t think RT should be banned, as some of its critics have suggested. “A ban would reinforce RT’s position and would just increase their position on Internet,” he said. Ponomarev has another idea: regulating RT as a lobbyist, rather than a media outlet.

RT doesn’t lack critics in the U.S., but even those who fiercely denounce it as a Kremlin propaganda tool do not agree on how to counter it. In late February, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called RT a “propaganda bullhorn” and requested a budget increase from Congress for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG,) which oversees U.S. state-funded media such as Voice of America.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also talked about expanding state-funded media in 2011, stating that the “U.S. is losing the information war” to channels like RT. And just last January, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland was directly asked by a journalist whether RT should be shut down. Nuland said no, citing freedom of the press – but adding that RT had only a “tiny, tiny audience.”

Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth

Under Ponomarev’s proposal, U.S. legislators would have to register RT as a lobbyist in the U.S. “I just want to give them a little bit of the taste of their own medicine,” he explained, referring to Russian regulations that have forced NGOs and some media outlets to declare themselves “foreign agents” in Russia.

According to Robert Orttung, assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, the eye for an eye approach is precisely what’s wrong with Ponomarev’s proposition.

“Symmetrical responses like that, do to them what they do to us, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, wouldn’t resolve the problem,” Orttung said. Any such action against RT’s freedom could be used as propaganda by RT in other parts of the world, he said.

Freedom of the press

Orttung explained that the U.S. is concerned about violating First Amendment free press principles. He cited the example of Dmitry Kiselev, a journalist named in 2013 to head the official Russian government-owned international news agency Rossiya Segodnya,  which oversees RT. In a controversial 2014 TV appearance, Kiselev said that Russia was “the only country that can turn the US into radioactive dust.” In March 2014, the European Union added Kiselev to its list of banned Russian officials – part of sanctions imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea and the crisis in eastern Ukraine.

But the U.S. did not put Kiselev on its sanctions list. Since people working as RT “are acting as journalists, it is really difficult for the U.S. to take legal actions,” said Orttung.

In an interview with RT Watch, Ponomarev said that some U.S. officials he talked with about his idea for lobbyist registration did raise questions about the First Amendment, but that he didn’t think it should be an obstacle to the status change. “If they disagree, they can challenge this in court!” he said, certain that the network would be too afraid to lose.

Expanding state-backed coverage

Ponomarev said that he wouldn’t be against a state-funded American channel in Russian language to counter RT, as John Kerry suggested, but whatever the U.S. created would have to be high quality.

“It would have to be a 24-hours Russian broadcast which is similar to the quality of RT, otherwise it doesn’t make much sense. And so far, Voice of America is pretty far from that level of proficiency,” he said.

But a U.S.-backed channel, even in Russian, probably wouldn’t find an audience in Russia, Orttung said. Russians who used to work inside of Russia as journalists have faced increasing risks for trying to report independently. Some have moved abroad, creating independent news sources like Meduza that send news back into Russia.

Backing those journalists and their channels could be an option for the U.S., Orttung said, but such support could also give the impression that those outlets aren’t independent anymore.

All of this said, Ponomarev said that a much more efficient way to foster change in Russia — change that could have a lasting impact — would be to organize the Russian diaspora. “Changes in Russian politics have to be in the hands of Russians, not in the hands of outside influences,” he said.

By Lou Marillier, RT Watch