Monday, December 9, 2013

Putin Overhauls Russia's International Broadcasting: Back to Propaganda 1.0?

Today, Russia-watchers woke up to the news that Putin has issued a decree ordering the dissolution of RIA Novosti and Voice of Russia, and establishing - instead - a new media giant to be called "Russia Today" [Rossiya Segodnya] (and this one is different and altogether separate from RT - the TV network - which initially started as "Russia Today" but later formally changed its name to "RT"). The overhaul was not only aimed at these two agencies, which have been there since the early Soviet years. It also affected several other publishing houses and news/wire organizations, and was supposedly aimed at "improving cost-effectiveness and efficiency ahead of budget reductions in 2014 for state-run information resources." This new Russia Today's task will be to improve Russia's image abroad (again?!).

Image from: RIA Novosti

This was not the only shocker, though. Perhaps in an even more controversial - yet unsurprising - move, Putin appointed Dmitry Kiselev [Kisilyov] to head this new agency. Kiselev, who is a prominent Russian reporter and TV anchor, and has - in the past several years - served as Deputy General of the state-owned All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company [Rossiya], certainly has the prominence and the approval that have put him there. Apparently, Kiselev can also claim international broadcasting experience, having worked at the Norwegian and Polish Bureaus of the Foreign Broadcasting Center of USSR State Committee for Television and Radio Broadcasting [I know, it's a mouthful].

There are several major issues with this emerging picture:

The first issue is the new structure. Russia's independent TV channel "Dozhd'" painted a grim picture, providing a quick intro to how various state-owned and state-affiliated media are being consolidated and brought ever so closer to the few key power-holders in the current Kremlin. The reporter appropriately characterized the new behemoth as a "new monster of state propaganda." This means further centralization and an even tighter control of the media, both domestically, and more importantly -- internationally. After all, the main job of the new "monster" will be international broadcasting.

Secondly, it's about the dissolution of RIA Novosti itself. Although it had existed in multiple shapes and forms since the early 1940s, in the recent years it had gained prominence not only for providing wonderful multi-media content across multiple platforms on "everything Russia" in as many as 14 languages, but also for maintaining a respectable level of independence and professionalism despite the circumstances. Many international news organizations would rely on information and other content provided by RIA Novosti when compiling stories on Russia-related matters, precisely because RIA Novosti had earned the reputation of cutting the fluff and trying to get to the heart of the story (and, of course, making it available to others in their own language!). Again, everything is relative within such a context, but that is also why this work needs to be recognized and appreciated. [Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about Voice of Russia, which kept to its spirit of (Soviet?) propaganda even 20 year after the demise of the USSR.]

Its relative independence is perhaps the very reason for RIA's sudden and unexpected dissolution. According to the following footage from a staff meeting held in RIA earlier today, the announcement was a surprise for its Editor-in-Chief Svetlana Mironyuk, as well. She says she, too, found out about it just today morning and does not know what the future holds for her, or her employees.

So, essentially, the implication is that the more balanced and even slightly independent voices will not be tolerated by the Kremlin -- particularly, in foreign broadcasting. This is mere speculation, but perhaps it's not a complete surprise that this announcement came at a time when Russia finds itself entangled in a new "information battle" with the West for the hearts and minds of the publics not only in its near abroad, but also internationally: think Customs Union, Vilnius Summit, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and most importantly, Ukraine. This also comes about two months before Russia's much-anticipated Sochi Winter Olympics, which are bound to be marred with further controversy and whose coverage will most certainly require much closer management, particularly abroad. After all, Russia sees this as its first major public diplomacy event of the decade and having invested more than $50 billion in the Olympics already, will absolutely need to make sure that they get the attention and coverage that Kremlin thinks they deserve.

And this is where Kiselev takes on the key role, which is the third issue with these developments. The Russian (and FSU) audience have come to know him for his "patriotic" (read: unquestioning nationalist) views, regurgitation of the Kremlin line, and the contempt for the West. Among the international public, Kiselev gained notoriety after his egregious remarks on homosexuality.

Shortly after the news of his appointment broke, Kiselev gave an interview, where he shared his interpretation of the task that awaits him [my translation]:
"Restoration of a just attitude towards Russia as an important nation in the world, that has good intentions -- this is the mission of the new organization, which I will be heading."
This is very much in line with Russia's primary public diplomacy objective: gaining true recognition and acceptance among the big power players of the world. Given his stance and dedication to the cause, Kiselev, therefore, seems to be the right person at the right time -- at least, in Putin's (and his entourage's) mind.

Yet, I really don't know what they are thinking. Seems like despite all the years and money spent on various public diplomacy and propaganda (and I won't shy away from using this term here) campaigns with little to no results, Kremlin still stubbornly believes that its approach is the right approach. And the approach is very similar to the Russian (military?) saying:
Не знаешь — научим, не хочешь — заставим!
If you don't know [something] -- we'll teach you. If you don't want to -- we'll force you to.
In short, we'll keep projecting something, hoping to change the perceived image without ever changing the 'self' or even the mode of the projection. If anything, we'll distort the projection further, pump it up with further nationalist, anti-Western, and anti-Liberal rhetoric in the hope that somehow we'll manage to force you to see the world as we would like you to see it. Yet, this approach is only bound to make things worse: after all, truly successful public diplomacy is based on listening, while Russia insists on yelling into the loudspeaker.

Interestingly enough, there have been no further details on the actual operations that the new media organization will undertake: will it be yet another foreign-oriented Television operation? Radio? Internet? All of the above? Will it focus primarily on news, or will there be other content as well? How different will it be from RT or Russia Beyond the Headlines? Won't their work overlap and simply duplicate efforts? This was supposed to be about optimization and efficiency -- financial, as well -- so what is really going on?

Since RT - the foreign-language TV network - remained untouched so far, there has been speculation that the new Russia Today will focus primarily on the "near abroad" (that is, the FSU and other states Russia has or would like to have within its sphere of influence). If this is more or less true, seems like Russia Today is set to become the media arm of Putin's steadily growing "Custom's Union". After all, any major international/regional project -- particularly of the nature that he has in mind -- will require strong ideological support. And as Kevork Oskanian rightly pointed out, "homophobia, racism, and empire" will serve as the foundation for the not-so-new ideology of this new Eurasian Union.

An op-ed on summed it all up pretty well [my translation]:
The neo-imperial and anti-Western pathos - which, since the fall of the USSR, have recently reached a record high in Russia - will apparently become the core of this new agency.
And this is simply disheartening. Seemed like Russia - at least some among those in power - had finally recognized the importance of "soft power", cultural diplomacy, mutuality, and trust. And here I was, hoping that the country could finally make a successful transition forward: from Public Diplomacy 1.0 to Public Diplomacy 2.0, and achieve its much-desired goal of joining the group of respected world powers. Unfortunately, the current movement is in the opposite direction: going back to the good-old Soviet tactics of plain, unsophisticated propaganda...

I'll leave you with this gem [sorry, in Russian only]:

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