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Russia? Again? Buying, controlling, manipulating, using media in other countries?by Peter Gross 17 October 2017
In a universe of fake news and other types of Kremlin-driven, hyperactive information warfare in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, a widely disseminated story in Tirana’s media about Russians seeking to purchase an unidentified Albanian newspaper and three online portals remains an enigma. It seems a bizarre, aimless bit of information that could well be fake news (?), a provocation (?), pre-emptive action (?), a prank gone wrong (?), or a bit of in-kind payback to Putin’s fiction peddlers (?). Perhaps the Russians’ supposed attempt, if not their success, to buy Albanian media will turn out to be true and just more of the same we’ve been hearing about for a few years now.
There is no clear indication as to who authored the story. The byline credits Mark Gjonj, an American of Albanian origin serving in the New York State Assembly. But he issued a categorical denial that he wrote “Why Russia Wants to Affect the Region by Buying Media” for Gazeta Dita. He repeated his refutation in an email to me on 2 October, adding that he enjoined “media that published or copied such articles, to immediately cease and desist publishing such flagrantly false material,” and “demanded that they publish a retraction forthwith of these patently false statements.”
The Russian embassy in Tirana was quick to characterize the story as being part of “anti-Russian fictions.” It singled out Gjonj for “demonizing” Russia, the “absurdity of [his] judgements,” and his “passion for conspiracy theories.” It remains to be seen whether in this case the embassy can really claim that, as the old Russian proverb goes, it is “better to be slapped with the truth then kissed by a lie.”
This particular “Russia buys Albanian media” story may be false, but it is no fiction that Russia has been acquiring Eastern European media to use it in its heated pursuit of destabilizing other nations, by creating distrust among citizens and between them and their governments, and diminishing NATO, the European Union, and democracy in general, among other tactics. This is no conspiracy “theory.” It is an ongoing, provable informational conspiracy that is part of Russia’s hybrid warfare.
Also on 2 October, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, speaking ahead of the opening of the Helsinki-based European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats – made up of Norway, the U.S., and 10 EU member states – reminded her audience that the EU’s East StratCom Task Force have discovered over 3,000 Russian disinformation cases in the last two years. The totality of disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda cases revealed by other European and American sources who keep track of Russia’s informational shenanigans make StratCom East’s discovery a mere drop in the bucket.
After specifically deploying the twin informational weapons of the Kremlin-controlled Sputnik news agency and RT television channel – along with trolls and bots, and the almost thoroughly controlled Russian media and its surrogates in Eastern Europe – Russia “has been investing in a slew of other local operations” in the region, according to a South East European Network for Professionalization of Media (SEENPM) report. And it is surely no stretch to say that the array of Russian “investments” are made strictly for geopolitical reasons and not financial gain, as the next four examples illustrate.
Baltnews is a string of Russian-language news sites serving as propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation dumpsters. In Estonia, for instance, the local site is “trying to unite critics of the Estonian state and translates domestic news into Russian in a tone that befits them … creating an image of Estonia as a failed state with no perspective, and undermining EU and NATO unity,” the daily Postimees writes.
At first glance, Baltnews appears to be owned by the Netherland’s Media Capital Holding B.V. It turns out, however, that this company is held by the Russian Media-Kapital, which in turn is owned by Moskovskiye Novosti, belonging to the government’s Novosty Rossiya Segodnya news agency.
Along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia wants to join NATO and is, therefore, a Kremlin target. No surprise then that, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Russia is attempting to “influence and offer funds” to media outlets, “including those aimed at the country’s Albanian minority, in order to spread, ‘information and disinformation’ in support of Russian policy goals.”
In Serbia, a country that often appears on the fence over its desires to join the East or the West, the Kremlin funds a monthly magazine, R Magazine, a supplement inserted in the Serbian newspaper Nedeljnik. The magazine’s content is produced by Russia Beyond the Headlines, a news source that has been accused of being a Russian propaganda tool. R Magazine itself is described in a Committee to Protect Journalists article as a “multilingual resource on Russian politics and culture sponsored by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russia's state newspaper.”
In August 2017, RTR Moldova – which belongs to state-owned Russia-RTR that broadcasts Russian TV channels Rossiyia 1, as well as Rossiyia Kul'tura and Rossiyia24 – asked permission from Romania’s National Audiovisual Council to establish itself in the country. According to Moldova’s Independent Media Association, RTR’s programs make use of a “number of manipulation and propaganda procedures.”
Back in Tirana, whether the Russians are playing their usual roles of initiators of a konspiratsiya to spread dezinformatsiya – and trying to gobble up media with which to do so – or are, for once, its target, is not yet clear. For now, what happens in Albania, stays in Albania.
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