#politicsandthepressSaturday, July 26, 2014
Main Scream Media
For The Herald
A few days after his State visit to Argentina, Russian President Vladimir Putin reconvened to his role of the villain of the world. But the shooting down of the MH17 Malaysia Airlines passenger plane in Eastern Ukraine also brought one of Putin’s mail communications weapons to the spotlight.
RT, formerly Russia TV, has been playing a tune differently from that of other international news networks when presenting the main theories behind the plane tragedy.
While most of the international community is pointing at Moscow for either direct or indirect responsibility in the crime, the Russian television has been questioning the allegations as groundless and coming up with his own disparate arguments.
Funded entirely by the Kremlin, RT’s mission is largely to contradict the Western media’s view of everything. À la 6,7,8, the Argentine government’s primetime mouthpiece, RT features segments denouncing “The Main Scream Media” slant against Russia. The trick works when stories are subject to interpretation. But when there is a crisis of this magnitude one that puts the very basis of international relations to the test the interpretation gap turns unbearable.
Unbearable is the line used this week by British journalist Sara Firth, who quit her job at RT correspondent in London. “I couldn’t do it any more. Every single day we’re lying and finding sexier ways to do it,” she said. “There are a million different ways to lie, and I really learned that at RT.”
RT was launched in 2005 and now reaches some 650 people in 100 countries. It is the second most watched foreign news service in the United States after the BBC. It is part of a league of networks reflecting this 21st century chaotic communications Westfalia. The clash of narratives also include CCTV and Xinhua news agency from China, Press TV from Iran, Telesur from the “Bolivarian” faction of Latin America and the pioneer of anti-Western TV news, Al Jazeera, among others.
This week Telesur presented its English version , oriented to the US and British markets. The president of Telesur, Patricia Villega, said the move was part of “a geopolitical and communication strategy in the field of global information.” The first piece of news on the English site is, predictably, an interview with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro who, also predictably, starts off by remembering his late predecessor Hugo Chávez.
The Spanish Telesur channel was also launched in 2005 and now reaches over 492 million viewers in 110 countries.
There is little doubt that the leaders of these emerging countries are keen on keeping the State’s grip on the information that is consumed about them, both at home and abroad. A cover story this week in Newsweek describes Putin as the world’s “pariah”and said that he is “obsessed with information,” in this order:
“His hands first open the Russian press digest. The most important papers come at the front: the obsequious national tabloids such as Komsomolskaya Pravda and Moskovsky Komsomolets. These matter most, with their millions of readers.”
“Then he moves onto Russia’s quality press: the lightly censored broadsheets, Vedomosti and Kommersant. These matter in the Kremlin court: this is their gossip, their columnists, their analysis.”
“Then the least important folders: his foreign press. The departments do not hide from him the bad news. They like to make a point: the president must know how far these foreigners demonize him.”
That is: 1. What his voters read, 2: What his country’s elite opinion-makers write, 3. What the “enemy” writes.
But the Ukraine crisis, started months ago with the collapse of the pro-Russia government and the subsequent annexation of Crimea by Moscow, has made politicians in Washington believe that the US is losing the “information war” to the likes of RT.
Bill in the US
That is why a bipartisan bill is rallying support in the US Congress to reform the rules guiding the flagship Voice of America (VoA) broadcaster and its role in the realms of international journalism and public diplomacy.
The US International Communications Reform Act is sponsored by representatives Ed Royce (Republican-California), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Eliot Engel (Democrat-New York).
Royce believes outlets like the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe “are competing against Russia, China, Iran and others with a hand tied behind their back” because of bureaucracy. “While our foes are working 24/7 to demonize the United States, the management of our international broadcasting meets once a month,” argues Royce.
But the Trojan horse of the reform is a line that inserts into VoA’s mission that of “promoting” the broad foreign policies of the United States. Critics argue that the reform would tilt VoA’s intrinsic tension between public diplomacy and journalism toward the former. Royce finds no danger in that, “We should be aligning our broadcasting efforts with our foreign policy objectives — the taxpayer-funded Voice of America is not just another news outlet.” No need to be too quick to blame the Russians for thinking very much the same.