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Behind Russia’s TV propaganda machine

Fascists in Ukraine, enemies in America: it’s staple fare on Russia’s state-controlled television. A study reveals the effectiveness of Putin’s propaganda machine.

When Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Petro Poroshenko met recently for talks in Berlin on the Ukraine's independence day, the "Rossija" (Russia) channel opened its news broadcast with a man shouting "Poroshenko is a fascist" in Russian. It wasn't clear who the man was, but this type of thing is common on Russian TV these days, with its daily discussions about the supposed Ukrainian fascists. The cynical, critical tone of the piece was also typical of reporting about the Ukrainian president. The broadcaster was at pains to present Poroshenko as a guest of little importance. At the same time, the report criticized the fact that Putin had not been invited to the meeting.

"According to the propaganda, the nationalists, ultranationalists and radicals are in power in Ukraine and are threatening the Russians in East Ukraine, that's why Russia is bound to defend them," said Russian public opinion researcher and sociologist Lev Gudkov in an interview with DW last year. But his statement is just as true today.

Russland Präsident Wladimir Putin aus Submarine

Putin in a submarine: staged for Russian media

Russia TV keeps showing the same types of images: brutal, dramatic war footage from the Donbass region that only shows Ukrainian soldiers shooting. You never see any separatists firing weapons, unless they are presented as protecting the local population.

Anti-Americanism is also widespread. The United States is blamed for all manner of evils. In terms of the sanctions against Russia, countries such as Germany and France are portrayed as loyal followers of the USA. Meanwhile, Russian soldiers and, above all, the Russian president are praised for their patriotism. Putin enjoys playing the hero, as could be seen in the recent coverage of his visit to Crimea, where he took a dive in a mini-submarine.

"Russia needs to be committed to the war"

The Russian propaganda machine appears to be fulfilling its purpose. According to a current survey by the independent Levada opinion research institute in Moscow, around half of Russians believe that they get "useful and objective information" from television. Every fifth Russian is of the opinion that they see a "complete, objective portrayal of events." The results of the survey, conducted in August, come as no surprise to Christian Mihr, head of Reporters Without Borders. "Russia needs to be committed to the war. The media play an important role," said Mihr. According to a June 2015 survey by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), television is the top source of information for almost 90 percent of the Russian population.

Recently, Russia state media successfully presented Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov as a terrorist. He was accused of setting fire to the office of the pro-Russian party in Crimea, and of planning to bomb a statue of Lenin in Simferopol. A court sentenced Sentsov to 20 years in prison. The verdict was criticized by international human rights organizations, for whom Sentsov is a political prisoner. He denies the charges against him and claims to have been tortured in prison. But none of this was included in the news report on "Rossija"; the channel merely told the story of how a terrorist was indicted.

Mihr says that Russian television often reports half-truths. "Now, though, we're seeing an increase in outright lying," said Mihr, who lived in Russia for some time. He relates his "favorite example" of how Russian TV interviewed a man named Andrei Petkov in April 2014. Three broadcasters showed similar images of a man in a hospital with a bandage on his nose. But each time, he told a different story. In a report on NTV, he was a German spy who was shot by Ukrainian extremists. On "Rossija 1", he was a Ukrainian citizen who was attacked by neo-Nazis while demonstrating against his government. And in a report broadcast in Crimea, he was a surgeon who was just trying to help when he was attacked by fascists. "Such examples are not unusual," said Mihr.

Creating confusion

A former Russia correspondent for German public broadcaster ARD, Ina Ruck, summarized the tactics used by Russian propagandists. "Russian state television openly speaks about an information war, and Russian propaganda plays a huge role by mixing up the truth. So many theories about flight MH17 were thrown into the mix, for example, that in the end, readers didn't believe anything anymore."

Galerie - Russisches Fernsehen

Russia Today in English, financed by Kremlin

The Malaysia Airlines plane was flying over East Ukraine in July 2014 when it was shot down, killing all 298 people on board. The circumstances surrounding the crash are still unclear. Russia spread the theory that the Ukrainian army fired at the plane, hoping to shoot down an aircraft carrying Putin. Broadcaster "Rossija" claimed that the people on board were no longer alive when the plane took off and that the separatists are to blame. There was also speculation about a bomb on board the plane.

In a report about how the Russian state controls television in the country, Reporters Without Borders talks of a "long-term, systematic enforced conformity of television." The report, published two years ago, is still relevant today.

"Since it was published, the propaganda on Russian television has gotten worse," said Mihr. The biggest national broadcasters are now in the hands of state media holdings, or corporations with close ties to the Kremlin. Then there's the Kremlin-financed foreign broadcaster RT, formerly Russia Today, which broadcasts in various languages and has a budget of around 15.4 billion rubles (ca. 263.2 million euros) for 2015, according to a statement by RT in January. Mihr says that except "Doschd" (Rain), there are practically no independent voices critical of the government in Russia. "Doschd" is only available via the Internet, after Russia's biggest cable provider removed it from its program in 2014.

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