When independent Russian-language news organisation Meduza launched its English version on Monday, journalists, Russianists and others weary of a media landscape dominated by a pro-Kremlin voice took to social media in celebration. A young news organisation born from the ashes of Lenta’s former editorial team, Meduza quickly became a symbol of resistance, and one which is expanding to join other Russian news outlets with a foot on the international media ladder. But while the launch of a trusted English-language news source about Russia adds healthy diversity to the media landscape, Meduza’s existence points to a newly prominent feature of Russia-west relations: the proliferation of foreign-language news organisations on both sides of the divide.
It wasn’t long after Vladimir Putin announced that state-backed English-language RT (formerly Russia Today) would receive around 13.9 billion roubles (£135 million in the current exchange rate) from the Russian government this year — up nearly 30% from its funding in 2014 — that RT launched its dedicated UK channel: RT UK, a channel to focus on UK stories and issues pertinent to UK viewers. Around the same time, Sputnik News, a new Kremlin-owned website and radio service headed by controversial state TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov, was unveiled to reach foreign audiences from its hubs in 130 cities in 34 countries around the world.
Last autumn, with diplomatic ties between Russia and the west showing no sign of détente months after the start of the Ukraine crisis, western hysteria over the reach and resources of Russia’s state-backed media organisations began to reach unprecedented heights. This mood was encapsulated by John Whittingdale MP, the chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee, who said in December that it was “frightening the extent to which we are losing the information war”. The EU has discussed the idea of launching a Russian-language TV station to combat what it calls “aggressive” Russian propaganda; the Latvian government has decided to allocate funds to a new Russian-language service; and Germany’s state-run broadcaster Deutsche Welle also plans to launch a new service designed “to defy Putin’s propaganda”.
Russia’s state-backed news organisations have also described the situation in terms of conflict. Following the public resignation last year of RT America anchor Liz Wahl, who slammed RT for “whitewashing the actions of Putin”, RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan wrote in an op-ed: “now we’ve got a genuine war going on — no, thank God, it’s not in Crimea. It’s a media war.”
But this return to Cold War rhetoric, taken up with zeal in many governments and media bureaux from London to Moscow, has been derided by some working in the media as inaccurate and unhelpful. Rita Rudusa, the commissioning editor for news, current affairs and documentaries at Latvian Television, the country’s national public broadcaster, told The Calvert Journal that the term “information war” misdirects debate and obfuscates the real dynamics of the media landscape.
“There is no information war. In a war, you have to have comparable sides fighting. Independent media in Russia had been squeezed out long before events in Ukraine"
“There is no [information] war,” Rudusa said. “In a war, you have to have comparable sides fighting. Independent media [in Russia] had been squeezed out long before events in Ukraine … It’s been a gradual process and we’re only just noticing the results but it didn’t happen last year, it’s been happening over the course of the last decade.”
Acknowledging the existence of propaganda, false information and “projects that are dedicated to disclosing falseness and the outright lies that are sometimes broadcast on Russian channels”, Rudusa stressed the need to focus efforts “not on fighting back but on providing viable, quality alternatives”.
She added: “We will never be able to compete with the amount of money being poured into production compared to RT or all the big Russian channels. They spend on one show the same amount of money that we spend on the entire Russian-language content in a year.”
But RT, often lambasted as a propaganda mouthpiece for the Kremlin, considers itself a necessary addition to a media landscape dominated by a western perspective. RT’s London office told The Calvert Journal that the tendency of western mainstream media to “cover the same news, from the same angles, with the same commentators…leads to a very homogeneous view of current affairs, including about Russia — a pre-established narrative about the country that simply gets repeated over and over”.
The swift narrowing of perspectives in the Russian media has caused concern that the cumulative effect of such a crackdown is the gradual decline in the level of critical assessment among audiences
According to RT, part of the problem is the mainstream media’s dislike of being challenged. “Alternative perspectives should be encouraged. That is the only way to create a comprehensive, balanced picture of what is going on in the world. Yet the mainstream establishment does not like to be challenged. It is disappointing that instead of welcoming a diversity of voices they often try to shout them down.”
But inside Russia, such plurality in the media landscape is vehemently discouraged. Prior to the start of the Ukraine crisis last year, a slew of laws introduced by the Russian government set about gradually impinging on the free distribution of information in the country. The result — a swift narrowing of perspectives in the Russian media — has caused concern that the cumulative effect of such a crackdown is the gradual decline in the level of critical assessment among audiences. In this denuded landscape, new Russian-language media outlets from abroad offer some welcome alternative opinions.
“I wouldn’t want to frame it in terms of a media war, but rather an effort to increase the space and create opportunities for alternative voices available to people within Russia,” Dr Natalia Rulyova, Russian media expert at the University of Birmingham, told The Calvert Journal.
Although polarised political positions in both western and Russian state-backed news organisations are nothing new, according to Rulyova, “[RT’s] desire to have a footprint in the international media has become more pronounced.” Anti-American elements in the Russian media and anti-Russian elements in the US media have, Rulyova said, been present in the last few years, but it took the Ukraine crisis to act as a magnifying glass on “how different the voice they project is from what the western media is saying”.
“As public service providers, we are not interested in counter propaganda: we are interested in public service content. We just need to do our job: it’s not a war, it’s our mission to the public”
It’s with the need for diversity in mind that Meduza launched its English-language version, says Konstantin Benyumov, editor of Meduza English. The launch of Meduza English was the result of “a mix of ideological and economic reasons. Whatever money we’re making now is in roubles … and in this economy this isn’t the best way to stay afloat. With an English version we could get into the non-Russian market, direct some traffic, sell some ads, which may be helpful. It’s not like we think that Meduza or Meduza English is a part of any [information] war, it’s just we feel that we are an independent voice that needs to be heard. If there is such a war, I think it’s really one-sided.”
As foreign-language news outlets increasingly become used as vehicles for pushing political agendas, the essence of public service broadcasting is at risk of being forgotten. Its basic principles — “to inform, to educate and to entertain”, says Rudusa, quoting Lord Reith’s famous dictum about the BBC — should be at the heart of the debate about the media, rather than talk of an “information war”. “As public service providers, we are not interested in counter propaganda: we are interested in public service content,” Rudusa said. “We just need to do our job: it’s not a war, it’s our mission to the public.”