War of Words
The European Union has leveled sanctions against Russia's chief propagandist. Is this the right way to fight back against Putin's information monopoly?
The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on dozens of high-ranking Russians in retaliation for Moscow’s seizure and annexation of Crimea. The idea, of course, is that imposing asset freezes and visa bans on these individuals will make them think twice when contemplating, say, further military moves against the rest of Ukraine. Both the Americans and the Europeans have chosen to target the same sorts of people: government officials, lawmakers, and prominent businesspeople with close associations to Vladimir Putin.
But there’s one man on the list announced by the European Union on March 21 who stands in a class of his own — and not necessarily in a good way. His name is Dmitri Kiselyov. He heads the state news agency Russia Today as well as serving as the deputy director of the national TV company. But he’s best known for his most public function as the host of News of the Week, a general current-affairs show broadcast each Sunday evening on the country’s most-widely watched TV channel.
So why has the EU decided to go after a man described by his Wikipedia page primarily as a "Russian journalist"? And is the decision really such a good idea?
Well, first off, calling him a journalist is like describing Kim Kardashian as an actress. Kiselyov is notorious for his incendiary TV appearances. In one broadcast, he infamously declared that gay people should be prohibited from "donating blood or sperm," and the hearts of gays who die in traffic accidents "should be buried or burned as unfit for extending anyone’s life." He’s compared Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to Adolf Hitler. He’s described the pro-European demonstrations in Kiev that led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych to his viewers as a "war against Russia," and accused Sweden and Poland of manipulating events there in order to avenge Moscow’s 1709 victory in the Battle of Poltava. Just a few weeks ago, after the U.S. government issued a statement condemning plans for the Crimean referendum, Kiselyov told his viewers that "Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the U.S. into radioactive ash." (The corresponding segment of his show is shown in the photo above.)
Some American commentators have tried to help their readers understand Kiselyov with comparisons to our world of tabloid TV, likening him to right-wing host Glenn Beck or his shows to segments on Fox News. That’s actually quite misleading. No news channel in the United States has anything like the reach or the unchallenged authority of Russia’s Channel One, which is accessible to over 90 percent of Russia’s 144 million people, most of whom get their news from just two or three of the big state-owned national broadcasters.
In stark contrast to the rabidly libertarian Beck, moreover, Kiselyov is directly employed by the Russian state. He’s a bureaucrat who wields all the power and pull that comes with being appointed to a job directly by Vladimir Putin. As a result, it’s really impossible to compare him with any journalist or media administrator in the United States, where the media belong to a fairly wide range of private players. In Russia, even the private media are in the hands are overwhelmingly owned by Putin-friendly oligarchs.
And there’s no question that Putin himself goes to great effort to ensure that all Russian media, public or private, convey precisely the messages he wants. For all of Glenn Beck’s baleful influence, the American media are filled with competitors who can challenge, mock, or correct him at their leisure. In Russia’s tame information universe, Kiselyov’s opponents have long since been banished to the margins.
That Kiselyov plays a central role in this carefully calibrated propaganda machine is beyond dispute — and it is a role has been on vivid display throughout the crisis in Ukraine. He has used his own shows, as well as the various media under his control (including the Voice of Russia radio station and the assets of the former RIA Novosti news agency), to hammer away at the same narratives persistently advanced by the Russian government: that the pro-Europe protesters in Kiev’s central square consisted above all of "fascists" and "Nazis" involved in an "illegal coup" to overthrow Yanukovych, thus legitimizing the desire of Crimeans to seek "protection" from Mother Russia. All this is why the European sanction list specifically describes Kiselyov as "a central figure of the government propaganda supporting the deployment of Russian forces in the Ukraine."
Sergei Parkhomenko fully agrees with that characterization. Parkhomenko, a journalist and opposition leader recently singled out by Kiselyov as a member of a traitorous "fifth column" inside Russia, put it to me this way: "The sanctions are targeting the organizers of propaganda in Russia, not journalists. I absolutely do not consider Kiselyov to be a journalist. He’s the director of a huge propaganda structure that has nothing in common with journalism. And I think it’s the activities of this propaganda machine that have enabled Russia’s aggression against Ukraine." Russians who see it the same way have posted an online petition [in Russian] demanding Kiselyov’s ouster.
Joel Simon, of the Committee to Project Journalists in New York City, agrees with the characterizaation. Kiselyov, he says, is a "noxious and destructive force in Russian society," especially in light of Putin’s continuing crackdown on the country’s few remaining independent media. Yet Simon says that the European decision to include Kiselyov in its sanctions list nonetheless sets an ominous precedent. "I’m not comfortable when governments weigh in and say ‘you’re a journalist’ and ‘you’re not.’ It’s a slippery slope. You don’t want governments involved in that discussion."
All governments, Simon says, can be tempted to classify foreign media that take critical positions as propaganda — and that can lead to dangerous consequences, especially when such classifications are used as the basis for military action. (For just these reasons, Simon notes, his organization — which routinely assails autocratic governments for their treatment of the press — has criticized NATO for targeting Qaddafi’s media during the Libyan revolution and Israel for its attacks on media organizations in the Gaza Strip.)
The sanctions imposed on Kiselyov hardly represent a comparable threat, of course: at the worst, as things stand now, he won’t be making any trips to his beloved Amsterdam anytime soon. But he hasn’t let that stop him from turning the whole affair into a propaganda coup on Russian TV. No sooner was the EU list published than he took to the airwaves for a bitter denunciation of what he called "an open attack on freedom of speech." The audience greeted his words with enthusiastic applause. True to form, Kiselyov then proceeded to accuse leaders of Russia’s domestic opposition of helping foreign embassies to draw up the lists of those who deserve to be sanctioned.
Meanwhile, Kiselyov supporters have drawn up a petition [in Rs.] defending him and accusing the Europeans of attempting to impose censorship on their political opponents. It’s only too easy for the authors of the text to make the EU look like a bunch of hypocrites: "Are certain topics now forbidden in Europe?" "Does the European Union have the right to punish any journalist for his professional work?" "Is a journalist’s personal opinion now punishable?"
One might respond that journalists who work solely for an authoritarian government (and who implicitly help that government marginalize dissenting views) aren’t exactly being targeted for their "personal opinions." All governments generally impose strict constraints on the private views expressed by their employees, and such constraints are hardly compatible with "journalism" in the modern sense of the word.
But here’s Simon again: "I’m comfortable with you and me making that distinction. I’m not comfortable with governments making that distinction." I think he’s on to something here. If the aim is to make Putin think twice about snatching Crimea, causing economic pain for the oligarchs and corrupt officials in his entourage seems like a logical strategy. Targeting Kiselyov, however, just gives him extra material, and the chance to pose as a martyr.
The best way to counter propaganda is by providing access to the truth. The West needs to dramatically boost its efforts to challenge Putin’s hegemony by providing alternate sources of information, whether by radio, TV, or internet. I suspect that there are plenty of Russians who are open to other messages — just take the big demonstration in Moscow last month, when tens of thousands protested the possibility of war in Ukraine. We in the West always say that we believe in the freedom of information. Let’s act like it.