Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks transparency advocate and leaker of about 115,000 confidential U.S. government emails, has found a new home: a talk show on RT, or Russia Today, the English language TV channel funded by the Kremlin.
Shortly after WikiLeaks released the American classified documents in 2010, Assange announced his next step: publishing confidential Russian government documents.
Odd how that just never happened.
In the old Soviet days, a Russian who got caught facilitating the overseas publication of secret files would have been walked down a corridor of the basement of Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB in central Moscow. At a certain point, an accompanying officer would have pulled out a pistol and dispatched the traitor with a neat shot to the back of the head. Nowadays, Article 275 of the Criminal Code of Russia stipulates 12 to 20 years in jail for disclosure of state secrets to a foreign organization.
Alexander Lebedev knows Lubyanka, which he visited in the 1980s, as a KGB officer. He knows Britain, where Assange is now confined to house arrest as he battles extradition to Sweden on sex charges. Lebedev, a Russian, also knows press freedom – he owns the Independent and London Evening Standard newspapers.
“Shame on you, Mr. Assange!” Lebedev wrote in his Twitter and Facebook accounts last week. “Hard to imagine more miserable final for ‘world order challenger’ than employee of state-controlled ‘Russia Today’.”
WikiLeaks said in a press release that Assange will host 10 half-hour interviews with “key political players, thinkers and revolutionaries from around the world.”
Lots of revolutionaries right here in Russia these days. I wonder if any will get air time with Assange?
RT is run by Margarita Simonyan, a former member of the Kremlin press pool. Since taking over in 2005, Simonyan has expanded RT into Arabic and Spanish and has taken on the title of editor-in-chief.
She knows what the Kremlin wants — and likes.
When the clean government protests erupted in Moscow and other cities after the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, Simonyan tweeted that adults encouraging young people to take part should “burn in hell.”
Last year, RT’s effusively covered the Occupy Wall Street movement as it spread around the globe. But the cheerleading stopped at Russia’s border. Here, RT told viewers, protests are foreign funded and several protest leaders are racists.
Strangely at odds with the official “reset” policy of smoother relations with Washington, RT constantly hammers on the United States. When it gets the chance, as in last August’s riots in London, RT expands to include the rest of the West.
In a recent Al Jazeera report on RT, the announcer described it as “a channel more interested in reviving the Cold War, than reporting what’s really happening in Russia today.”
And that is the paradox of RT.
In countries, like China, Japan, and South Korea, where difficult languages confound western visitors, English language broadcasting serves to promote the host nation. When I worked in Northeast Asia, Japan’s NHK English and South Korea’s Arirang were useful windows on their country’s tourist sites, cuisine, economy and foreign policy. Informative, if a bit bland.
These state-owned channels are not used for dissing China, Australia, or the United States. Not only would that violate ingrained Asian courtesy, but it would be seen as a counterproductive use of a tool for national promotion.
So, I was not surprised last week when, over lunch with an Asian diplomat in Moscow, he eyed me closely and asked: “What do you think of Russia Today?”
I responded that I know Americans who have watched it, and, as a result, have decided not to visit Russia.
The diplomat, a veteran Russia hand, sighed at the paradox.
But the Kremlin depends on about 15 major energy companies for over half of government tax revenues. It is not going to fret about stagnant hotel room tax revenue.
RT is seen as useful for scoring points, and asserting a Russian voice in a multi-polar world.
And, after seven years at the top, Simonyan’s instincts for Kremlin politics have yet to fail her.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly called Assange’s detention in London undemocratic. At that time, in December 2010, The Guardian newspaper quoted a source close to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposing that Assange be nominated for a Nobel Prize.