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A revanchist Kremlin exports its own toxic brand of media management.by Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung 19 June 2014
As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s governance system mutates from a venal, kleptocratic regime into a belligerent, revanchist power, what the Russian authorities do at home has important effects on the media environment in countries on Russia’s borders, and beyond.
Putin’s revanchism brings with it some distressing byproducts, one of which is the projection of illiberal Kremlin media values beyond Russia’s borders. Crimea is a case in point. In the short period since its annexation, the peninsula’s media have been subdued and integrated into the repressive Russian information space. The relative media pluralism Crimeans had enjoyed until recently is gone, replaced by a Russian standard that effectively limits alternative viewpoints.
The same type of propaganda invasion that coincided with the physical invasion of Crimea has been on view in eastern Ukraine. As pro-Russian forces extend their hold, Kremlin media values take root there, too, with coercive tactics used on independent journalists and dissidents in ways that are common in Russia, but had been rare in Ukraine. In recent weeks, separatists in several eastern cities have disrupted local rebroadcasts of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in some cases replacing them with Russian or pro-Russian content. Reporters from various outlets have been threatened, attacked, or arbitrarily detained.
In addition to Ukraine, Russia’s state television influences other neighboring states with significant Russian-speaking populations. As the Kremlin’s ability to project media power has strengthened over time, the authorities in countries on Russia’s periphery have been forced to contend with increasingly provocative and destabilizing messaging. Moscow’s well-funded media complex simply outguns local Russophone alternatives in places like Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and the Baltic states. The threat is so acute that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are preparing to set up a joint Russian-language channel to provide an alternative to the illiberal messages transmitted from Moscow to Russian speakers in the Baltics.
Moscow’s propaganda effort in these countries is nothing new; it has been a staple of Putin’s rule, calibrated to suit Russian authorities’ needs at any given time. What is different now is its intensity, the sheer brazenness of the falsehoods disseminated by Kremlin-controlled media, and the fact that its disruptive and provocative elements are being escalated as part of Russia’s new revanchist push. The Kremlin’s claims that it wants stability on its borders ring hollow in the face of its own utterly destabilizing propaganda.
CENSORSHIP AND PROPAGANDA
The authorities in Moscow understand very well that propaganda is most effective when accompanied by stringent censorship, so that half-truths and outright lies cannot be challenged by independent voices. This explains a good part of Putin’s rationale for seizing firm control of television in Russia. With this objective achieved, the coupling of propaganda with censorship is increasingly visible online as well.
Even as the Kremlin and its surrogates saturate social networks and the internet in general with comments from Kremlin-friendly trolls and provocateurs, more elaborate measures to censor online expression are being put in place. A new “bloggers law,” for instance, requires bloggers with significant audiences to register with the authorities and obliges both domestic and international hosting services to record and turn over user data. Additional evidence that the walls are closing in on Russia’s online world is abundant. Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s largest social-networking website, fled Russia on 22 April, a day after he said he was forced out as the company’s chief executive for refusing to share users’ personal data with Russian law enforcement agencies. At a forum in St. Petersburg on 24 April, Putin called the internet a “CIA project” that needed to be controlled, giving a strong signal that further restrictions are in the offing.
VENOM AND FEAR