Russia Searches for ‘Foreign Agents’ at Home, Disguises its Information War Abroad

Posted April 17th, 2013 at 6:00 am (UTC+0)

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.

Policemen in Moscow detain two protesters on April 6. The man dressed as a cucumber carried a sign reading: “We are not vegetables.” Russian state TV blames “foreign-funded” nongovernmental groups for stirring up Russians with imported ideas about democracy and human rights. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

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.

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

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 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.

This German protested Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on nongovernmental organizations when the Russian President visited the Hanover trade fair on April 7. In recent weeks, police have raided the Moscow offices of such groups as Amnesty International and Transparency International. Photo: AFP/Odd Andersen

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 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?

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

7 responses to “Russia Searches for ‘Foreign Agents’ at Home, Disguises its Information War Abroad”

  1. Gennady says:

    1. All is weird in “RT” TV channel. To start with its name. How can it call itself “Russia Today” when it represents the country and society stuck in the middle of XX century with going on witch-hunt on the pattern of Stalin’s Great Purges of 1930-s. Proper name for the channel of “RT” would be “Russia stuck in Yesterday” (short RYE). None of Russian TV operators, particularly “RT”, in Putin’s Russia would be that crazy to report real truth about sham Russian “elections”, and God forbids, to regularly preaching that the only way to get rid of the tyranny would be street protests and revolution. In seconds they would be switched off the air and all responsible would be imprisoned for life.
    2. “RT” distinguishes what is for internal consumption (for zombifying its people) and what glossy picture for the rest of the world. “RT” exaggerates a speck in others eyes (the West) but absolutely fails/hasn’t got courage to notice the beam in its own eye while covering country of its residence. The latter suffers from inflation, stagnation and forthcoming recession, from backward healthcare, education and science, from unproductive agriculture and industry. “RT” doesn’t notice that the country of its residence for decade has been in undeclared state of emergency with Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen stipulated in articles 17.1, 22.1, 27, 29.1, 29.5,31, 56.1 of Russian Constitution permanently denied for Russian people.
    3. It’s a laughable claim from “RT” that it can reach 550,000 people (less than 1% of Britons) and God knows how many Americans. And what of it? People watch “RT” from mere curiosity and they aren’t that naïve and stupid to believe a word from backward KGB/FSB regime, that trustworthy tool of the grandiose repressive machine of demised USSR.
    4. It’s a gross waste of Russia’s national resources (~400 mln $) to finance “RT” at the moment when the largest country on the Earth has a falling apart transport infrastructure, no decent highways and speedy railways, but crumbling schools, hospitals and bridges.

  2. Keith says:

    I like your pieces they are well written and amusing. But the Czar Putin provides so much comedy material!

  3. Simple Russian guy says:

    You guys do not look at all the TV and just fly to Russia. And see for yourself how good here. And the fact that you are broadcasting it on the ruin, tyrants and other things is a lie. Sorry for my English.

  4. Gennady says:

    To Simple Russian guy

    1) You contradict yourself by asserting that “all is good in (present day) Russia”.
    If it is so, why your English, the language of globalization, is poor?
    It’s no secret that just in spy schools one can get perfect command of the language in nowadays Russia, but not in any of thousands state run schools all over Russia. The same is with other subjects in Russian schools’ curriculum and universities’ graduates. Schools’ pupils global rank is about 40-th in the world.
    Isn’t it really bad for a G8 country? It’s acknowledged by Russian experts.
    2) Is it good, when Russia suffers from hidden double digit inflation and stagnated economic growth?
    Haven’t you noticed feverish activity of the President, PM and the government by trying to stop sliding Russia into anticipated recession later this year? And the forthcoming recession isn’t connected with any outward cause but internal one as nobody wants to invest a rouble.
    3) Is it good with the state of healthcare in present day Russia when average life expectancy in men is about 60 years, when incidence of HIV/AIDS is sky-rocketing for any G8 country and Europe as in whole?
    4) And how about observance of law and order in Russia?
    What about activity of courts of law with 99% guilty verdicts?
    5) Isn’t it bad that for a decade all basic human rights actually are suspended all over Russia as if the country is in a permanent state of emergency?
    Who openly declared it?
    So, please, do try harder to convince the world that “all is good in (present day) Russia”, as you have put it.

    • Simple Russian guy says:

      Gennady, you do not accidentally from Russia? You have a very Russian name 🙂

      The answer is in order.
      1) In each of our school now, and before, to learn English. I studied French in school, it was still the Soviet Union. I never learned English. Once again I apologize.
      40th place certainly is bad, but we are working on it and making progress.
      Though if everyone would be so bad, our experts have not appreciated all over the world. Example 10.2012 – Zuckerberg participates in the work of Russian programmers.
      2) On our side, much like the president is trying to enforce its orders from the government that sabotages his assignments. Based on his pre-election program. Judging by the speeches in Davos. We are waiting for a repetition of 1998. But I think that it will be easy as in 2008.
      3) the health situation is improving. I live in the city of Yakutsk is 6,000 km from Moscow. At 450,000 residents two health centers and 10 hospitals. Which are very well equipped. Life expectancy – well what can I say, this is the legacy of the 90s when people did not know what tomorrow will bring. A lot of drinking, now the situation has changed. They drink less. Meet the drunk on the street is exotic. In our town of HIV \ AIDS 169 people. I do not know a lot or a little. This is a fact.
      4) At the expense of courts in Russia, I can say only one thing. Court sentences are too small. Example: The murderer is sitting in jail for 10-12 years. And after 3 years for good behavior, he is entitled to a settlement colony. (This is when the night in jail, and the day where you want to go for a walk). So I think they need to be tightened.
      5) What are the right person in the suspension of Russia? As far as I know only gay people can not organize parades =) Do not know what to say, but we have anyone who can do and say whatever he wants. We are not a police state as you think.

      I did not want to confuse me just say that if you want to know something about Russia. It is necessary to arrive. And do not listen to TV



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 in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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