Russia’s War on Ukraine Has Thrown Putin’s Favourite Mouthpiece Into Chaos

“The Russian state narrative is absent from the global press now.”

When the Russian government-funded cable network RT launched in 2005, Moscow wanted the English-language outlet to counter what it perceived as anti-Russian bias in Western media. Armed with a big budget, it hired over 1,000 international journalists and set up offices in 16 countries, trying to build a reputation as a serious journalistic outfit while battling claims that it was little more than a weapon in the Kremlin’s information war against the West.

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But whatever propaganda purposes Russia had wanted RT to serve have been undercut by the Western response to its invasion of Ukraine, with much of Europe and the U.S. banning the network and keeping its key audiences away from the messages the Kremlin has spent years and billions of dollars for them to hear. 

Adding to its woes, the U.S. arm of the outlet, RT America, abruptly shut down on March 3 and laid off more than 100 employees in offices across the country from Los Angeles and Miami to New York and Washington. In other bureaus that continue to operate, a number of employees have quit the network in protest of Russian aggression.

This mounting pressure has thrown into doubt the future of the network, and along with it Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ability to convince the world that its military offensives against Ukraine are a legitimate “special military operation.”

“The bans affect Putin’s ability to spread his narrative to the world,” Jill Goldenziel, an expert on information warfare who teaches mid-career U.S. and foreign military officers at Marine Corps University, told VICE World News. “Whether anybody believed his narrative or not is questionable, but the Russian state narrative is absent from the global press now.” 

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Before the Western world turned against RT (formerly Russia Today), Western critics had been skeptical of its intentions but not always dismissive of its journalism.

“While Russia Today toes the Kremlin’s line on foreign policy, it also provides an outlet to marginalized issues and voices stateside,” American media analyst Adam Johnson wrote in the Nation in 2016.

Indeed, several years after it launched, RT was nominated twice for Emmy Awards for its coverage of Occupy Wall Street and hunger strikes in Guantanamo Bay.

Ian Garner, an academic with expertise in Russian war propaganda, told VICE World News that RT came at a time when Russia wanted to be a key player, if not a power, in the West. “Having a state-associated television network is a great way of getting that power,” he said. “Within Russia, too, there was a genuine sentiment that the country wasn’t given a fair hearing abroad.”

But Garner believes by 2010, RT had started to become a part of government social media efforts to sow misinformation.

In a telling 2013 interview with RT itself, Putin spoke about using RT to “break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams” and how it was succeeding. In the same interview, Putin said that RT was never intended to be the Kremlin’s mouthpiece, but that since it’s funded by the Russian government, “it cannot help but reflect the Russian government’s official position.”

RT news presenter Kevin Owen during a broadcast in December 2019 in Moscow. Before the Western world turned against RT during its invasion of Ukraine, Western critics had been sceptical of its intentions but not always dismissive of its journalism. Photo: Misha Friedman/Getty Images

Liz Wahl, a former RT America presenter, who resigned on air in 2014, is among many critics calling out RT for creating “false equivalence” of events, peddling conspiracy theories to the “frustrated and disaffected” and “weakening” societies through disinformation. Most recently, during the pandemic, RT was part of Russia’s active campaign to push scepticism against American and international COVID-19 vaccines. 

“It wasn’t about improving Russia’s reputation anymore,” said Garner. “It was about tearing other countries apart with misinformation.” 

In 2017, a declassified U.S. intelligence report detailed RT’s involvement in the American presidential elections, by playing a role in tipping the election result in favour of Donald Trump along with the Russian government. The report stated that RT used its extensive online and social media campaigns to push “strategic messaging for the Russian government” during the elections. 

But many of RT’s Western journalists seemed oblivious to those changes until Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. 

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Until the invasion, Jonny Tickle, a former RT reporter, had been able to overlook the outlet’s chequered reputation.

The 27-year-old from the UK worked with RT as an English-language correspondent in Russia’s capital Moscow. Despite the outlet’s reputation as a propaganda tool, he was pleased with the “balanced” reporting he was allowed to do.

But that was before Russia started bombing Ukraine. Tickle is one of several western journalists who quit RT within hours of the invasion. Some of them tweeted their decision to quit, citing “recent events” or “moral reasons.”  

An error occurred while retrieving the Tweet. It might have been deleted.

“I didn’t agree with the Russian government many times before, while I was working with RT. But I was always allowed to write both versions of the story,” Tickle, who moved to Istanbul right after his resignation, told VICE World News. “But this is the line for me. This situation in Ukraine is an invasion.”

RT’s Ukraine coverage is completely in line with Russia’s official narrative, starting with consistently calling the invasion a “special operation.” On Twitter, where it continues to post stories, RT’s latest coverage shows Ukrainians receiving Russian aid or shows the impact of Ukrainian missiles on civilians. 

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The resignations at RT coincided with the Kremlin’s intensifying clampdown on independent journalism. Since the invasion started, at least 10 journalists covering anti-invasion rallies have been arrested. Russia blocked access to five international news outlets including U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the British broadcaster BBC, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle and Latvia-based website Meduza.

At the same time, Russia threatened to block websites if they called the Russian action an “invasion,” “attack” or a “declaration of war.” Russians who post any information that goes against the government narrative could be imprisoned for up to 15 years. These measures have prompted independent media outlets in Russia to shut down or remove content from their sites. At least 150 journalists have left the country in the wake of the suppression.

As Russia tightens its information flow, political analysts see the country losing the information war against Ukraine. 

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Goldenziel, the information warfare expert, said the crackdown on independent journalists hurts Russia’s ability to spread propaganda because it means that the only news coming out of Russia is state-controlled. “The state is inhibiting getting the Russian people’s side of the story as well,” she said.

Tickle, who grew up in the UK and moved to Russia specifically to work for RT two years ago, said he joined RT because he wanted to show the “real Russia” from the inside. “RT had quite a poor international reputation, and I was sold on the idea of improving that,” he said. But the last three weeks have felt like a betrayal. “We suddenly feel that all the effort we put in all these years is now gone. No one’s going to listen to us anymore,” he said. 

RT jobs were attractive for journalists for other reasons. “The media job market has collapsed in the last few years and RT offered good salaries and experience,” said Garner, the expert in Russian war propaganda. “With the exception of those who were in it for the money, foreign RT reporters would be naive or foolish if they didn’t understand what they were doing, or the control the Russian government exerted over RT and its editorial stance.”

“With the exception of those who were in it for the money, foreign RT reporters would be naive or foolish if they didn’t understand what they were doing, or the control the Russian government exerted over RT and its editorial stance.”

The invasion, it appears, has broken the illusion – in whatever little measure it existed – about RT’s “balanced” news. 

Even before RT America shut down, many employees there were looking for the exit, according to a staff member at RT America.

Garner called Russia’s disinformation campaign a “lacklustre job”. “They didn’t seem to have prepared anything new or persuasive at the start of the war, as opposed to Ukrainians who appear to have been preparing for this propaganda war all these years, along with their military strengths,” he said. “And it’s working. Russia is on the back foot.”

Additional reporting from Paul Blest

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.

Tagged:

Propagandă, ukraine invasion, RT, Disinformation, worldnews, world conflict

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