Russia Watch: Russia searches for ‘foreign agents’ at home, disguises its information war abroad

Russia’s government is busy rooting out “foreign agents.”

So far police agents have “inspected” 700 non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, looking for traces of foreign funding. Police say there are 7,000 more to inspect this year.

At best, “inspections” mean demanding copies of cartons of files. At worst, it means carting off computers, and, in two cases, criminal charges.

In Germany, President Vladimir Putin told a TV interviewer last week that 654 Russian NGOs had received $1 billion over a recent four month period. NGO leaders described the figure as a wild exaggeration, unless the Russian leader was including such groups as the Catholic Church and Alliance Francaise, the French language teaching group – two organizations that were recently raided.

In the information sphere, Russia officials forced Radio Free Europe off the air in Russia last November. Now, police are pressuring provincial librarians to close their American Corners – sections dealing with U.S. books and periodicals.

In this environment, it is interesting to look at Russia’s overseas television broadcasting arm — RT.

Serving up a steady diet of attacks on the United States, on the West, and on democracy, RT takes pains to disguise from viewers the ultimate source of 100 percent of its financing: the Kremlin.

The Kremlin launched Russia Today in 2005. For three years, the channel languished as a little watched vehicle for promoting tourism and trade with Russia.

Then in August 2008, Russia won a brief war with Georgia. But it badly lost the information war. Western media played down the fact that Georgia apparently fired first. Instead, American and European TV and newspapers focused on the fact that Russia’s Army briefly cut Georgia in half, and then established permanent bases in two breakaway provinces.

In response, Russia Today’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, rebranded the channel as RT. Then she got the Kremlin to triple RT’s annual budget, to $380 million. With 2,000 employees, RT now has a staff close in size to that of Al Jazeera and broadcasts in English, Arabic and Spanish to over 100 countries.

To Russian audiences, Simonyan says that RT is Russia’s weapon in a world information war.

“Information weapons, of course, are used in critical moments, and war, that is always a critical moment,” she told Moscow’s Lenta.ru website recently. “This is a weapon like any other, you understand. And to say that it is not needed, is like saying: ‘Why have a Defense Ministry, if there is no war?’”

In a separate interview with Afisha magazine, Simonyan sketched out a “sleeper” approach to dealing with world audiences: “It is important to have a channel that people get used to. And then, when needed, you show them what you need to show.”

One key to winning credibility as an “alternative” news source is to camouflage Kremlin support. RT America is funded directly by a Moscow-based nongovernmental organization, a structure designed to avoid registration in the U.S. under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The ultimate source of funding is the Russian budget.

For Moscow, it’s an old technique.

In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, KGB documents came to light showing that the Soviet government heavily subsidized the Communist Party USA for decades. In the 1970s, Americans reading editorials extolling the Brezhnev foreign policy in the People’s Daily World did not know that, ultimately, Moscow paid the bills for the New York printer. For Vladimir Putin, who served in the KGB in East Germany in the 1980s, such overseas tactics were standard fare.

Today, many RT viewers are probably unaware that the Kremlin pays for the news programs that constantly highlight electoral fraud, street protests, and racial and class tensions in the United States. Ironically, these are largely taboo topics for RT in its coverage of Russia.

Occasionally, RT seems to cross the line between propagandizing and participating. The channel’s exhaustive coverage of the “Occupy Movement” led RT last year to create a Facebook app to help protesters connect through social media.

Before last November’s Presidential election in the United States, RT aired calls by American protesters urging viewers to boycott elections, rise up, and “take this government back.” Another pre-election documentary said that America could only be changed through “revolution.”

This is pretty strong stuff coming from channel owned by a government that wants to impose eight-year jail sentences on protesters charged with throwing rocks at policemen before Vladimir Putin’s inauguration one year ago.

Julian Assange, the cyber guerrilla of WikiLeaks fame, has his own show on RT.

In contrast, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s charismatic opposition leader, rarely appears on RT. Producers at the channel say he routinely turns down their interview requests. (Next week, Navalny goes on trial in a remote provincial court, far from the hundreds of thousands of people in Moscow and St. Petersburg who regularly read his anti-corruption blog).

RT pushes pet projects of the Kremlin, while masquerading to viewers as an “alternative” channel that thinks outside the box.

For example, RT repeatedly airs reports criticizing the fracking technology that is used to release underground natural gas. Left unsaid is the fact that the technology is a game changer for the world gas industry. It is cutting billions of dollars from the export earnings of Gazprom, Russia’s largest company.

And RT pays to play. About half of RT’s annual budget of $380 million goes to foreign cable and satellite television operators to win air time for RT. On its website, RT now claims it can reach 85 million Americans and 550 million people worldwide.

Actual American viewership is not made public. But in Britain, the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board, the U.K’s main measurement body, reported that in the third quarter of last year, 550,000 people watched the channel weekly. That would make RT the most watched international channel in Britain, surpassing Al Jazeera.

One can only wonder: how long would the Kremlin allow Russian cable TV operators to carry a foreign-funded Russian language channel that preaches that Russian elections are a sham, that Russia’s ethnic minorities are oppressed, and that the only paths forward are street protests and revolution?

(Margarita Simonyan shows then-President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev around the brand new Washington bureau of RT America on April 14, 2010. Reflecting the Kremlin’s desire to influence American public opinion, the RT’s Washington bureau has 70 staffers, making it RT’s largest bureau outside of Moscow. Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office)

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About the Author

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.