Russia

Beware of RT's Charade of Independence From Putin

The channel is pushing to be treated as a news organization, not an arm of the Kremlin.

This just in.

Photographer: Dmitri Dukhanin/Kommersant via Getty Images

Today, my editor and I received a correction request from RT, the star of last week's declassified U.S. intelligence report about Russian interference in last year's presidential election. Normally, it wouldn't be a reason to write a column. In this case, however, both the demand and the underlying information aptly illustrate the operation of the Russian propaganda machine and, more generally, institutions in President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

A publicist for the TV channel wrote that RT was "not owned by the Russian government. RT is a publicly financed, autonomous non-profit organization." This is clearly an important point for RT management: Other journalists have received similar messages.

The correction request also arrives just a few days after RT was accused by the intelligence community of trying to "undermine faith in the U.S. government and fuel political protest" during the 2016 presidential election. The declassified report released last Friday references RT dozens of times, including a rather matter-of-fact header, "RT Leadership Closely Tied to, Controlled by Kremlin."   

One reason could be that the channel wants to be treated as a news organization, not an arm of the Kremlin. Last November, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters at a briefing that he wasn't going to put RT representatives "on the same level" as independent media because they were from "a state-owned outlet that’s not independent." This was a serious enough incident to Moscow that Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova threatened to respond by arranging a "special place" for U.S. reporters at briefings. 

RT's charade of independence, important so its workers can get the access normally afforded to journalists, takes the legal form of a non-profit organization. Non-profits don't have owners; nobody owns them. But I argued against correcting the wording in my column. RT is a very special non-profit.

Its record in the official Russian register of organizations says the sole founder of RT, officially known as ANO TV Novosti, is the Federal State Unitary Enterprise Russian Agency of International Information RIA Novosti -- a state-owned news agency. In 2015, the latest year for which RT's financial reports are available from Russia's Justice Ministry, the organization spent 17,049,607,000 rubles ($285 million) received from the state and another 47,608,000 rubles received from other sources. This means in 2015, 99.7 percent of RT's spending came from the Russian government. 

To sum it up, RT was set up by the state and it is pretty much fully funded by the state. So whatever quirky legal form it takes, I'm going to call it state-owned. 

This is in no way trivial. Russia is often described as a hybrid regime -- a political system that combines some features of democracy and some of authoritarianism. On the surface, it's closer to the former: It has separation of powers, an independent court system, lots of media outlets and parties, and regular elections. But all these institutions are, to a certain degree, imitative. 

The elections are rigged. The parliament formed by them is Putin's rubber stamp. The parties only get into it after the Kremlin vets them. Media, even if they are privately owned, are often held by businesspeople friendly to the Kremlin or frightened of it, so they toe the line -- not a clearly drawn one, as one recently appointed editor of a private media group explained to his staff. 

That doesn't mean the imitations are completely devoid of content. There are important and religiously followed rules and procedures, as well as human dramas and collisions, within each of the institutions. They match their labels, but imperfectly. Imagine a zoo that has a cat in a cage marked "lion" and a jackal in the one marked "wolf." There is some similarity between the animal that's supposed to be in there and the one substituting for it. 

So, within the Russian institutional system, RT looks like a non-profit organization: It is set up like one and it files reports to the Justice Ministry under the same rules as, say, human rights groups do. But it's not really the same. It only exists thanks to a government program called Information Society, which receives budget funding every year. In 2016, for example, it got 17.5 billion rubles, but this year it will get 18.74 billion rubles, the additional funds earmarked for setting up a French operation: France, with elections coming up and pro-Putin politicians running in them, is an important target for Russian propaganda efforts.

Within the Western institutional system, RT is supposed to look like a media outlet. It asks questions at press conferences, shoots all kinds of footage, produces TV shows in various languages, pays contributors. Many, like President-Elect Donald Trump's national security advisor-designate Michael Flynn, appear to be fooled: all the trappings are there, so what's the difference between RT, CNN, MSNBC and Al Jazeera? That's exactly what RT editor Margarita Simonyan wants. It's high-level trolling, as good as the almost-real institutions in Russia.

Last year, when the European Parliament passed a resolution on the need to counteract Russian propaganda, Putin, that king of trolls, remarked sarcastically: 

Not long ago -- and it's still continuing -- everybody tried to teach us democracy; they're still at it. And we always heard from these people that the worst thing to do is to ban something.

It was Putin's former press minister Mikhail Lesin who came up with the idea of RT. His brainchild has flowered into an intricate imitation of a media outlet that delights Putin and irritates U.S. intelligence -- sometimes, it must be said, by doing what real news organizations also do. That's because nothing Russian can be taken at face value these days; even a jackal can act like a wolf on occasion. 

Working out how to treat a hybrid institution can be complex and frustrating for people who are not used to them. It's easy to ignore the misleading labels on cages, but harder to place unlabeled animals. RT's subversion isn't so much in the content it produces but in making independent reporters who follow the same stories look like Russian spies to paranoid intelligence services. That's why it's especially important to understand what RT is -- and what those journalists aren't.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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