Jun 1, 2011

Radley Balko and Russia Today

Chances are, you've seen activist Adam Kokesh and his buddies get arrested with unnecessary brutality at the Jefferson Memorial. If not, here's the video:

What you may not know is which channel this show runs on: Russia Today, nowadays known as RT. Described by the Guardian as "the latest step in an ambitious attempt to create a new post-Soviet global propaganda empire", RT is a TV channel funded almost entirely by the Russian government. In that same Guardian story, their then-editor-in-chief explains:

"I don't believe in unbiased views. Of course we take a pro-Russian position."

And they do. Here's the Independent on the topic:

Russia Today, an English language service, was set up in 2005 to present a perspective from Vladimir Putin’s government as a counterbalance to Western global news organisations such as CNN and the BBC. Its editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan claims that the Russian state “doesn’t at all” interfere with the output of the network’s journalists.

But Shaun Walker, The Independent’s Moscow correspondent, disputes this. “It is untrue that the channel’s journalists are able to report on what they want to without editorial influence; while as time has gone on there have been more features on “negative” aspects of Russia, there is still a total absence of any voices criticising Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev,” he says. “The channel’s coverage of Russia’s war with Georgia was particularly obscene. With Western TV networks hooked on a “New Cold War” headline and often not too well versed in the nuances of the region, there was a gap in the market for a balanced view of the conflict that explained Russia’s position. Instead, RT blasted “GENOCIDE” across its screens for most of the war’s duration, produced a number of extraordinarily biased packages, and instructed reporters not to report from Georgian villages within South Ossetia that had been ethnically cleansed.”

Indeed, one of their reporters resigned during the war in Georgia. Here's the Guardian:

Russians appear to be getting only one side of the story of the conflict in Georgia. According to a Moscow Times article, Russian television is showing the misery left by the Georgian assault in South Ossetia, but few, if any, reports mention Russia's bombing of Georgia.

After William Dunbar, a correspondent for the English-language state channel Russia Today, mentioned the bombing in a report on Saturday, his scheduled reports later that day were cancelled by the station. He said: "I felt that I had no choice but to resign."

He added: "I had a series of live, video satellite links scheduled for later that day, and they were cancelled. The real news, the real facts of the matter, didn't conform to what they were trying to report, and therefore, they wouldn't let me report it."

Of course, everyone knows how committed Russia is to the freedom of the press. The first Guardian article I quoted? Its author has since been expelled from Russia for no stated reason.

The idea for founding the channel seems to have come from former minister and Putin aide Mikhail Lesin, who wanted the channel to "polish Russia's international image". And they do, but not only by presenting Russian propaganda: part of their agenda is also to criticize Western countries.

For example, here's an RT reporter waxing lyrical over protests at the 2009 G20 summit in Pittsburgh:

RT: Who does this government consider an enemy?

The students were cornered, beaten, tear gassed, thrown to the floor and arrested – all for gathering inside a public park to express their political opinions.

This scene did not happen in a Third World country in the midst of a revolution. It occurred in Pittsburgh during the G20 Summit.

Of course, that very same year, a Gay Pride rally was held in Moscow. The rally was banned, and Moscow police had threatened the activists with "tough measures". When it went on anyway, police immediately arrested everyone present with "needless violence". Of course, that was better than some previous years when the police stood aside and let skinheads beat up the protesters.

You won't find any of this on RT: no reporters bemoaning the plight of the gay rights activists, let alone getting in amongst the demonstrators and writing harrowing first-person exposes of their arrest. No, on RT "Police disperse gay pride parade", without a hint of violence or impropriety. The channel unquestioningly accepts the official explanation for banning the marches, and under the sub-heading "A fight for gay rights or a farce?", goes on to lambast one of the organizers as a bully and a propagandist. Russia's embattled opposition gets similarly short shrift from RT, with no horror stories of police brutality.

Another topic that drew RT's ire is America's prison system. By contrast, read this Wikileaks cable or Amnesty International's report on Russia for some idea of what goes on over there; a topic you won't find any RT coverage on.

Finnish readers may be amused by the fact that notorious Finnish lunatic Johan Backman is a respected source for RT, quoted in stories like this one, which makes some hilariously over-the-top claims, including that in Finland, it's a crime to "criticize a legally operating organization". Their paraphrasing of what both Molari and Backman have said is also somewhat tenuously connected to reality. Molari and Backman are both rather well-known in Finland as extremists, and especially Backman is given fairly wide publicity in Russia because of his willingness to distort and exaggerate events in Finland in accordance with the Kremlin's propaganda line that Finland mistreats its Russian minority. That his views should be uncritically repeated by Russia Today speaks to the channel's ideology.


So a TV channel funded by the Russian government isn't exactly delivering objective journalism. Big surprise. It does raise some interesting questions, though, and to introduce them I'll promote a blog called The Agitator, by Radley Balko, a journalist and libertarian. I have great respect for the man as a chronicler of what I consider America's gradual evolution into a police state. His paper, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, is pretty much required reading for anyone interested in the topic. I read his blog regularly.

This May, Radley went on vacation and left us with a collection of guest bloggers. Most of them did well, even if it was a little odd when one of them felt that if we only divided ourselves into competing factions that identify themselves by differently colored uniforms, the world would be a better place. I thought we were already doing that. Another guest gleefully insulted a 17-year-old boy and expressed the fond hope that he would be assaulted in prison. These are just a couple of things that rankled me, though, and overall it was fine.

One of his guest bloggers, however, was RT's own Alyona Minkovski. Here's a clip from her show, which runs on RT:

As it happens, Radley's appeared on RT himself. As he explained, he went on RT "because they asked".

Now, I have a problem with this.


First of all, let me make absolutely clear that police brutality and the wholesale trampling of civil rights in America is reaching scary levels. Things like this, this and this are appalling, and so is the fact that the police will arrest you for dancing at the Jefferson Memorial. The fact that police brutality and abuse is much worse in Russia is no excuse for the Americans or anyone else.

My problem is RT and the nature of their coverage. It's pretty obvious that they use a whole different yardstick for events in the US and in Russia, and much of their reporting consists of regurgitated Kremlin propaganda. They do go to some lengths to disguise this as critical journalism, but it's fairly obvious that when it comes to Russian interests, propaganda takes over. So when someone like Radley Balko attaches themselves to a channel like this, by appearing on it and hosting one of its reporters on his blog, I have a real problem with it, because he's lending his credibility to a Russian state propaganda operation.

I fully understand that there are economic incentives, direct or indirect, as well as the obvious political ones, for publicizing one's cause as widely as possible. In this particular case, though, that publicity comes with giving good press to the Russian state's propaganda machine; in other words, helping the Kremlin project a totally false image of Russia to the world. It also raises troubling questions about Mr. Balko's ethics as a journalist, in that he's willing to attach himself and his name to a government propaganda operation, seemingly without second thoughts.

In my view, working with Russia Today, and even more so in letting Russia Today's employees broadcast themselves through his blog, Radley Balko has put a big question mark next to his name and his integrity as a journalist. To me, it's profoundly unethical to blithely co-operate with the propaganda organs of one of the most repressive states in the world and simultaneously cultivate an image of oneself as a libertarian human rights advocate.

To take just one example, Radley linked to the same Huffington Post piece I did above, on their questionable way of reporting an incident of police brutality in Washington, D.C. He doesn't seem to have a problem with it when RT glosses over Russian police brutality, though. In my books, that's hypocrisy.

Furthermore, I don't believe the people making shows for or otherwise directly working with Russia Today are exactly pursuing an agenda of human rights. Surely if they were concerned with police brutality and human rights, they wouldn't be working for the Russian government. So either they have a very limited definition of human rights that excludes, say, the Russian opposition parties and sexual minorities in Russia, or then they have a different agenda. What's certain is that the channel they're working for is pushing the Russian government's agenda, not a human rights one. And by letting its employees promote themselves and their channel on his blog, Mr. Balko is also taking part in the Russian government's information warfare, to the direct detriment of human rights in Russia.

It's a funny sort of libertarianism where you co-operate with one of the most repressive regimes in the world. I don't much care for it.


Last year, the Economist ran a piece on police brutality in Russia.

Cops for hire: Reforming Russia’s violent and corrupt police will not be easy

THEY shoot, beat and torture civilians, confiscate businesses and take hostages. They are feared and distrusted by two-thirds of the country. But they are not foreign occupiers, mercenaries or mafia; they are Russia’s police officers. The few decent cops among them are seen as mould-breaking heroes and dissidents.

Daily reports of police violence read like wartime bulletins. Recent cases include a random shooting by a police officer in a Moscow supermarket (seven wounded, two dead), the gruesome torture and killing of a journalist in Tomsk, and the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a young lawyer for an American investment fund. He was denied medical treatment and died in pre-trial detention in Moscow having accused several police officers of fraud.

American police brutality is alarming enough that I can't say it's nothing compared to what they do in Russia. Both countries' police forces at times terrorize their inhabitants like an occupying army. But having been to both countries, I'd still rather get arrested by American cops than Russian ones. Hell, I'd rather be raided by the Pima county SWAT team than by OMON. If American SWAT teams sometimes remind us of storm troopers, their Russian counterparts pretty much are the SS.

And one of the foremost critics of police brutality in America co-operates with their PR department.

1 comment:

Michael Halila said...

I recently brought my feelings on RT, and this post, to Radley Balko's attention on his blog. The only response to the former was a snarky comment that seems to imply that he either believes journalistic bias doesn't exist, or that he and the people he co-operates with are immune to it. The latter has gone uncommented.