An Encounter with Putin’s Propaganda Machine

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A few years ago, a Putin-aligned television station asked a Freedom House colleague if he would agree to an interview to discuss our assessment of Russian press freedom. We had recently released our annual findings on global press freedom, and Russia had been ranked among the world’s Not Free countries.

My colleague was happy to oblige, though he was surprised that a major Kremlin-dominated television network would want to give Freedom House an opportunity to explain the reasoning behind our increasingly critical analysis of the Russian press. The usual practice was for Russian officials, loyal journalists, or Putin’s “political technologists” to ignore the analysis and either attack Freedom House as an instrument of nefarious Washington interests or, as was increasingly the case, use some weakness in the U.S. system to argue that Americans were in no position to judge Russia.

The three-person television crew arrived. Interestingly, the crew chief said that she and her colleagues had been sent from Moscow for the interview with Freedom House. It soon became clear why the station executives had spent the resources to deploy Russia-based journalists for a story that could just as easily have been covered by correspondents based in the United States.

The first part of the interview was devoted to a few routine questions about press freedom in Russia. My colleague explained the reasons for our findings. He referred to specific beatings and murders of journalists, and went into detail about the loss of editorial independence at various television stations and newspapers.

Given the official Russian media’s usual combativeness when dealing with Putin’s critics, we were surprised that there were no attempts to challenge my colleague’s assertions or even ask probing follow-up questions.

At a certain point, the discussion lurched in a much different direction. Having warmed up with anodyne questions about Freedom House’s views on the state of the Russian press, the correspondent suddenly asked whether it was true that Freedom House had played a major role in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004–05, in which popular protests thwarted an attempt at election fraud and brought opposition forces to power. I say “asked,” but “asserted” would be the more accurate word. As in, “Isn’t it true that Freedom House helped bring about the Orange Revolution?”

In fact, Freedom House had welcomed the eventual victory of Viktor Yushchenko, the opposition presidential candidate, as a step forward for Ukrainian democracy, and three or four Freedom House staffers had served as election monitors during the rerun vote made necessary by blatant fraud in the first attempt. That was pretty much the extent of our involvement.

But this explanation did not conform to the official Russian narrative, according to which the U.S. government, working through American NGOs, was the driving force behind the defeat of the Kremlin’s favorite, the very same Viktor Yanukovych who was driven from power in February after a disastrous stint as president. Thus it became obvious that the sole purpose of the interview was to get one quote—a phrase, a sound bite, a simple “Yes”—from a Freedom House staff member to reinforce the Kremlin account. For the next half-hour, the correspondent asked basically the same question—from the left, from the right, from on high, from down low. And each time, she got the same answer: The Orange Revolution had been an achievement of the Ukrainian people.

The correspondent began to audibly sigh. Shortly thereafter the interview ended, and the TV crew departed, their mission unfulfilled. Almost certainly, Freedom House’s analysis of Russia’s media freedom deficits never made it to the Russian airwaves. Likewise, it’s a near certainty that, having failed to get the right quote from Freedom House, the Russian journalists found other sources in the United States who were willing, even eager, to blame American imperialism for developments in Ukraine.

I recount this episode as an illustration of the Russian leadership’s attitude toward control of the political message. Putin’s worldview may have been formed during the Cold War, but he clearly understands that name-calling with a stilted Marxist vocabulary was ineffective and a source of ridicule. Over the years, he has used control of the principal media in his country, especially the national television stations, to build up a massive and thoroughly modern propaganda machine. The key messages—American hostility, NATO encirclement, Ukrainian fascists, persecuted ethnic Russians—are stated and restated through newscasts, documentaries, interviews, and sober-sounding but essentially scripted “expert” commentaries.

The world reacted with astonishment at the propaganda barrage that accompanied the recent invasion of Crimea. In fact, this operation was the culmination of a process that has been in the works for over a decade.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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