Putin’s On-Air Army

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from TIME Magazine,

The global news network RT is the Russian government’s main weapon in an intensifying information war with the West—and its top editor has a direct phone line to the Kremlin.

It was just past midnight on Feb. 28 in the Moscow studios of RT, Russia’s state-funded international tele­vision news network, when word of the assassination reached the staff: Boris Nemtsov, a leading figure in the fractious opposition to President Vladimir Putin, had been shot dead a short walk from Red Square. Later that morning, Putin’s spokesman set the tone for RT’s coverage. “What goes without saying,” said Dmitri Peskov, “is that this is a 100% provocation.” His implication was clear: the Nemtsov shooting was staged by Russia’s enemies, not to silence the victim but to discredit the regime he opposed.

Thus began the latest marathon of spin from the Kremlin’s most sophisticated propaganda machine, beamed out in a variety of languages—including English, Spanish and Arabic—to the potential audience of 700 million people that RT (formerly Russia Today) claims to reach in more than 100 countries. In the hours after the shooting, RT anchors and pundits cast the killing variously as a “huge gift to Putin haters”; possibly the work of “foreign assassins” to provide a “beautiful propaganda shot” for Western officials and media; and, repeating Peskov’s line, “a provocation against the Russian government.”

With RT in particular, Putin has created an alternate reality on TV and online—RT generates more YouTube views than any other news channel in the world—that resolutely casts Russia as victim and the West as villain.

Putin founded RT in 2005 with a budget of about $30 million and gradually ramped it up to more than $300 million per year by 2010.

It has proved formidable enough to put the West on the defensive. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry denounced RT last April as a “propaganda bullhorn” for Putin, accusing it of “distorting what is happening, or not happening, in Ukraine.” Western policy­makers have increasingly debated the need for a more vigorous response, either with fresh funding for their own media outlets, such as Voice of America, or a new Russian-language channel to fight Putin on his own turf.

entral to the RT worldview is the conviction that Western plotting is behind most of the world’s political violence. The terrorist attacks of 9/11? “Probably an inside job,” ran the title of an RT series on the subject in 2009. The Boston Marathon bombing in 2013? “Preparation for new wars and martial law in America,” said British RT host Daniel Bushell on his now discontinued show The Truthseeker.

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