Russian and Ukrainian viewers react differently to Russian TV coverage. In Russia, where broadcasting is tightly controlled by the state and mainstream media is not allowed to criticize government policy, television shapes the thinking of many viewers. Vladimir Putin, by all accounts, presently enjoys high approval ratings. In Ukraine, viewers have access to more varied sources of information and a wider range of opinions. As a result, they respond negatively to Russian broadcasts. It is of crucial importance that Ukrainian viewers can compare the distorted images of their country presented on Russian TV with the reality that they know well.
One journalist and founder of the information agency Novyi Region (New Region), recently decided to renounce Russian citizenship after watching Russian broadcasting. Aleksandr Shchetinin told Novoe Vremia (New Time), a Russian-language Kyiv daily, on 14 June 2014 how he came to the decision (http://rufabula.com/news/2014/06/14/refuse-of-citizenship).
I have lived for ten years in Ukraine, where people continually asked me whether I planned to take out a Ukrainian passport. My answer was always a firm ‘no’. What changed? After all, only two months ago I last uttered that resolute ‘no’ in the heat of the Maidan, which I strongly supported.
Shchetinin points out that Russians who do not wish to live in Russia can settle in many places. Most Russian expats are not political émigrés, but simply people who choose a more comfortable environment. He says that his friends who have taken out foreign passports did so to enjoy the rights and privileges of other citizens in their chosen countries. He insists that he has been an opponent of ‘the present fascist dictatorship in Russia’ for a long time and considers Putin his personal enemy.
He draws clear distinctions between the concepts of ‘dictatorship,’ ‘state’ and ‘Russian.’ He has always believed that the dictatorship could be defeated and Russia would be free: ‘When exactly this would come about was not something I especially considered. I stuck with the principle ‘do the right thing, and whatever happens, happens.’ That is until I recently watched Russian TV.’
In this regard he says he is unique:
I have not watched television for 30 years. I do not watch it as a source of information. I have not watched a single soap opera, even though I have worked in various mass media for almost 25 years, head a media firm, love and create the media.
On the island of Phuket in Thailand, where he was hospitalized with the ‘Beijing flu’ he picked up on a trip to China, Shchetinin decided to watch channel Russia-24 — not as a producer but as a consumer of news. He told himself that as a critic of the ‘zombie box’ who had only seen fragments of Russia-24 programs on YouTube, he had a responsibility to view the channel. In the time available between treatments he tuned into broadcasts in the hospital.
The result was a shock:
What I saw on screen was not simply a twisting of facts, but a new parallel virtual reality, which we had already seen in fantasy films of the late 80s.
His first desire was a professional one, to expose the scoundrels at their game and set the record straight:
What kind of idiots, I thought in disbelief, does this story target? It affirms that foreign mercenaries are fighting on the side of Ukrainian troops. The only evidence provided is (here I cite the channel): ‘a package of cigarettes bought in a Western duty-free shop was found in the location where peaceful citizens of Melitopol were shot.’ A close-up of the package appeared on screen. As an experienced smoker and traveler, I know which duty-free shops sell which cigarettes. Those on the screen were purchased in a Moscow airport. You could never confuse them with any others. The TV journalist from Moscow had simply bought them himself and then constructed the entire story.
But the more I watched the news, the more I became convinced that change was no longer possible. Incongruencies, falsifications, deceit, slander, incongruencies, lies, lies, lies, and deceit. The ‘acid’ has been burning out the brains of Russian citizens for a decade and a half. I was suddenly struck by the thought that a people subjected to such a refined working over cannot be resurrected. It will take generations to clean their spirits from the effects of teleradiation. That same evening I informed on Facebook about my renunciation of Russian citizenship.
Then came the long trip across all Russia and back to Kyiv. The route was Phuket-Seoul-Vladivostok-Moscow-Kyiv. I travelled across the Russian Federation with a heavy spirit. ‘Am I deserting my country?’ I asked myself. The inner answer was: ‘That country ceased to exist a long time ago, but no one has noticed.’ Better to change citizenship and retain one’s convictions. Russia and Rus will remain in my heart forever. Only now they will be in Kyiv.
Shchetinin’s perceptions are backed up by a recent media study from the independent Levada Centre, which finds that despite increasing use of the Internet, for Russians Moscow television enjoys ‘a practically unlimited monopoly on the formation of the social-political agenda’ (http://levada.ru/17-06-2014/rossiiskii-media-landshaft-televidenie-pressa-internet). The study reports that even in the Russian capital, where Internet use is the highest, 90 percent of Russians rely on television for news, with only 24 percent using the Internet, and 19 percent relying on newspapers. Russian viewers turn overwhelmingly to the First Channel (8 percent), Russia-1 (71 percent), and NTV (48 percent). The independent Dozhd has been denied access to cable customers and is watched by only 2 percent of all citizens and only 3 percent of Muscovites.
The study also shows that despite having access via the Internet to multiple sources of news, few Russians make comparisons. Half rely exclusively on one source, a fifth on two, 17 percent on three, and only 12 percent use three or more at any one time. With reference to the current crisis in Ukraine, 70 percent of Russians feel that their television is treating events objectively. The Levada experts suggest that one reason for such a perception is that television works like propaganda: the longer people are exposed to it, the more likely they are to accept it as true
If you think that Putin’s propaganda only affects Russian-language TV, think again. RT (Russia Today, the Kremlin-operated English-language media) is now available to over 86 million cable subscribers in the United States. It has more YouTube videos than any new agency on the planet, and more than a million YouTube subscribers (http://www.interpretermag.com/throwing-a-wrench-in-russias-propaganda-machine). Moscow is using this media giant to influence voting publics around the globe. So far, however, Putin’s propaganda machine has only been effective in Russia, where state-sponsored TV has a near monopoly of influence. Whenever it has to compete with other narratives and other news sources it has proven far less convincing, and, frequently, as in Ukraine, has been counterproductive.
If you have the time, patience and stomach for it, you might wish to listen to an interview with Evgenii Fedotov, a Russian member of parliament (the State Duma). The interview is a good example of the kind of brainwashing that is being offered up on Russian TV as political commentary. It can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0zRD-Ulv2s.
Fedotov is a member of the Central Political Council of the United Russia party. His rant is in Russian, but can be followed by reading the English subtitles. He is convinced that the US has invaded Ukraine, that the US military is directing operations there, that the Kyiv government is a US colonial administration, that tens of thousands are being massacred in the cellars of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities as we speak (and the media refuses to report this), that the European Union is doing the bidding of Washington, that the US is planning to attack Russia in 2015, and that Russian blood will be shed in the streets of Moscow if the government in Ukraine is not crushed. Although we might treat it as comic relief, it is sobering to consider that millions of people are absorbing this diet of lies on a daily basis and that according to surveys four out of five Russians believe it.