- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, where she produces breaking news and original reports with a particular focus on immigration, counterterrorism, and border security policy. Previously, Kavitha worked at New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery blog, CNNMoney, The Associated Press in Italy, and Fareed Zakaria GPS and has freelanced from Italy and Germany for publications like Quartz, Al Jazeera America, OZY, and GlobalPost/PRI. In 2015, she was awarded a Fulbright trip to Germany, as well as a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation to report on migration and integration. She also reported from Senegal with a grant from the Bureau for International Reporting in 2014. Kavitha studied European history at Columbia University and holds a master’s degree in journalism and European studies from New York University. She has studied in Italy and Peru and speaks Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French., Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
Outlets that don’t toe the Kremlin line have long had trouble gaining a foothold in the Russian media market. As a result, the expertly-produced state media enjoys a virtual monopoly in the Russian-speaking world, stifling independent voices and stories critical of official Russia.
Now, a new network for Russian speakers has entered the market and it hopes to break through the drumbeat of Kremlin narratives by focusing on local issues and people’s daily lives.
Current Time, backed by U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Free Liberty and partnered with Voice of America, launched its 24/7 Russian language television channel on Tuesday. It had already started a website last year. With about 100 staff members in Prague and correspondents stationed throughout the region, the network will broadcast in 11 countries across the former Soviet Union, including Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, and the Baltic countries.
“Our focus is on real human beings, bread and butter issues,” Daisy Sindelar, the director of Current Time, told Foreign Policy during an interview. “The videos really tap into day-to-day but universal issues, like corruption and poverty and health care.”
The move comes as European Union officials have stepped up criticism of Kremlin-controlled media. Moscow-funded outlets like RT and Sputnik often set the tone on stories like the Ukraine conflict, NATO, and domestic issues inside some countries with large Russian-speaking populations, sometimes sparking controversy with false information.
“Russia tries to challenge the stability and the minds of Western societies,” said Anna Fotyga, a Polish member of the European Council who sponsored an EU report on Russian disinformation last year. “I consider a Russian-language satellite and digital network an excellent response to this threat.”
Current Time may have trouble drawing eyeballs away from well-funded state media pumped up with drama and glitz. The new outlet will have to make do with a much smaller budget than established Russian networks enjoy. Meanwhile, local affiliate stations that Current Time relies on to distribute their content in Russia are often hesitant to pick up foreign programming for fear that they could lose advertising revenue by going against the official line.
“In the short term, we don’t anticipate that our TV penetration will be significant in Russia,” said Sindelar.
Current Time’s founders think they’ll have better luck reaching the millions-strong Russian language audience across the region on their smartphones, using video to tell personal narratives and highlight local issues. The digital division has already garnered more than 200 million views on sites like YouTube, Facebook, and the Russian social media site VKontakte since January 2016.
Glenn Kates, the managing editor of Current Time’s digital department, said the team was inspired by the growing popularity of short subtitled videos on Facebook from outlets like Al Jazeera +, Buzzfeed, and others news sites that managed to excel in accessing audiences on social media platforms.
“I had seen how those videos were capable of engaging with people and I realized that there is no reason that something that works there shouldn’t work [for Current Time],” he said.
Current Time, which is affiliated with the Broadcasting Board of Governors and funded by the U.S. government, will also need to shed criticism it has its own state-funded editorial viewpoint.
Sindelar counters that the Russian government pours millions into their glossy media industry, blocking independent channels from offering different points of views. She said Current Time doesn’t push a political viewpoint besides highlighting human rights and rule of law issues.
“We present one of the few alternatives that Russian speakers have to this state-orchestrated media,” Sindelar said. “I think in the end we will have an audience that knows they can come to us with zero spin and good factual reporting about things that are important to them.”
Focusing on personal storytelling, instead of politics, will allow their content to spread in Russia, Sindelar and Kates argued. Some shows, like “Unknown Russia,” gives viewers a glimpse of life across Russia and tells personal stories from the far-flung regions that many Russians themselves have never visited. Others focus on how-to advice, such as “Business Plan,” a show about creating start ups in Ukraine.
But it won’t be all lighter fare. For example, one recent story used smartphone video footage and audio recordings to expose a harrowing episode of police brutality — and its coverup — in Russia.
Other digital offerings use animation to explain murky topics, like a complex new surveillance law in Russia.
“Where it becomes powerful is where we are able to show Russians all over Russia that a problem that may seem very local or particular to one city is actually of interest to everybody,” said Sindelar.
Photo Credit: DMITRY SEREBRYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images