Russian and EU narratives seem to be on a collision course. A low-intensity information war between Moscow and Brussels is heating up and the main victims may be the citizens on both sides, deprived of reliable and credible information.
Propaganda, defined as the systematic, widespread distribution of specific ideas, doctrines, practises which can help one cause or be harmful to another cause, inevitably provokes counter-propaganda.
In Brussels some hard thinking is taking place to counter the Russian “information war”. The European Parliament urged the commission last week “to propose, within two months, a communication strategy to counter the Russian propaganda campaign directed at the EU, its eastern neighbours and Russia itself”.
The unease and anger in the EU about the Russian disinformation and propaganda war is growing.
The small Baltic state of Latvia, which holds the presidency of the EU’s Council of Ministers in the first half of 2015, has proposed, together with its neighbours Estonia and Lithuania, the UK and Denmark, to counter Russian propaganda with a European strategy that should include credible and competitive information alternatives to Russian-speaking populations and those using Russia’s state-controlled media.
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The Latvians are thinking specifically of a European-backed, Russian-language TV station.
According to Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, this channel, also geared towards the large group of Russian-speakers in the Baltics, will not be an alternative propaganda channel but will be an alternative normal European TV, with entertainment and news, but with very factually accurate news.
In a related development, the European Endowment for Democracy launched a feasibility study that should produce clear recommendations on the way forward for the development of different independent Russian-language media initiatives.
The study is funded by the Netherlands where irritation soared last year about the way Russian state media reported on the shooting of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, killing almost 200 Dutch nationals.
According to the official Russian version, the plane was downed by the Ukrainian air force. But most independent observers believe it was a Russian-supplied anti-aircraft rocket system, operated by pro-Russian rebels, that caused the aeroplane to crash.
Threat to freedom of speech
Russia reacted angrily to the European plans and proposals accusing Latvia and the EU of posing a threat to freedom of speech. This was in itself a remarkable accusation from a country that censors the internet, scores very low on the press freedom indexes (number 142 on the 2014 RSF index) and has an army of trolls influencing social media with loads of propaganda posts.
Or are the paid pro-Kremlin campaigns on Facebook and elsewhere and Russia’s criticism of global press freedom NGOs, the chimera of western paranoia? Is this in itself propaganda?
Russia reacted angrily to the European plans and proposals accusing Latvia and the EU of posing a threat to freedom of speech. This was in itself a remarkable accusation from a country that censors the internet, scores very low on the press freedom indexes …
The question is how effective European-sponsored Russian-language “counter-propaganda” will prove to be and if it will be able to change the Russian mind-set. Russian media accuse the US, the EU and NATO of being motivated by aggressive, anti-Russian intentions.
The new authorities in Kiev are framed as fascist usurpers and western media are accused of sowing aggressive propaganda discord and trampling on international law and common sense.
This framing has been challenged by Euronews in Russian and by alternative news websites. But in general, the worldview as presented by the Kremlin-supported media seems to appeal to millions of Russians and others who distrust the western narratives.
Even those in the West who are probably not persuaded by the Russian point of view, enjoy watching alternative opinions. Actually, the state-funded RT is one of the most popular and most watched news channels worldwide, including in the US, reaching around 700 million people in more than 100 countries.
A new Russian media organisation (radio, news website and news agency), Sputnik, was launched in November, for a world that is tired of a unipolar point of view. Sputnik intents to produce over 800 hours of broadcasting, in 30 languages, covering 34 countries.
Global media landscape
The US and Western Europe have long dominated the global media landscape. What is wrong if other players, like Russia, China or the Arab world, claim their rightful place? Though propaganda has a negative connotation, thanks to Goebbels, Stalin and Mussolini, there is nowadays hardly a government in the world not engaged in public relations, information campaigns, soft power and “public diplomacy”.
If governments are engaged in information wars, where sometimes all means are permitted, the task of independent journalists remains to scrutinise the facts. Journalists should counter all sorts of propaganda by investigating to what extent it relies on a verifiable truth.
It is our task as journalists to discover what is propagandistic (because often the best propaganda is hidden) and denounce propaganda if it relies on lies or half-truths.
In that sense, the best way to counter propaganda is not counter-propaganda, but just plain objective and accurate reporting.
Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. He taught journalism at Rijks Universiteit Groningen, and served as general director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.