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An extraordinary event unfolded on Russian television late Monday: Mid-newscast on main state TV outlet Channel One, a woman rushed in behind the anchor and unfurled a handwritten poster.
“No War,” read the sign. “Don’t believe propaganda. They’re lying to you here.”
The cameras quickly cut away, and the protester – Channel One employee Marina Ovsyannikova – was later detained.
Amid the Kremlin’s campaign to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine, the scene was a rare off-message moment in an otherwise heavily scripted effort to shape Russians’ perceptions of events on the ground.
For years, state TV has remained Russians’ top source of news, balanced only by a handful of independent and often digital outlets. But now, a range of Kremlin-backed media – including Channel One, Rossiya 1, energy giant Gazprom’s NTV and cable news channel Rossiya 24 – is increasingly the only word of record, as critical media shutter en masse thanks to a new law that criminalizes the very term “war” itself.
Considering global reporting has largely focused on the suffering of Ukrainian civilians, Russians are offered a starkly different story at home. Their screens present accounts of a humanitarian Kremlin mission – one in which “surgical” airstrikes target Ukrainian nationalists and spare civilians, where American agents seek to deploy anti-Russian bioweapons and where Ukraine’s leaders are hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons to attack the Russian homeland.
New Russian laws muzzle journalists
The shaping of the Russian narrative begins with words – both chosen and left unsaid.
The new law, passed this month, forbids journalists who are covering Ukraine from using the words “war” or “invasion,” in favor of “special military operation” – the term used by President Vladimir Putin when he announced Russian forces would enter Ukraine to protect Russian-speakers in Donbas “republics” recognized by Moscow just hours prior.
An additional law penalizes any coverage of the military that contradicts the government’s accounts or is deemed as denigrating the armed forces. This has led to an exodus of journalists, foreign and domestic, over threats of 15 years’ imprisonment for sharing what the state deems “fake news.”
The venerable Echo of Moscow radio station – a symbol of press freedoms that emerged in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union – was unceremoniously taken off the airwaves and replaced by government programming.
“It’s Orwell 1984“said Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats, who hosted a political talk show on Echo of Moscow for nearly two decades before its closure.” In this world … lies are truth and war is peace. “
The independent Dozhd TV also suspended its operations amid government pressure. The station went off air with an eerie vintage Soviet broadcast of Swan Lake – the classic Tchaikovsky ballet that Russians have come to view as a broadcast harbinger of repression and political turmoil.
Platforms for free expression were winnowed further still with Russia’s blockage of social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter. Nearly all of Russia’s independent journalism has now retreated into the Telegram messaging app – a lifeline for news, but also for rumor and disinformation.
Meanwhile, state media propagandists – many under sanctions by the West – have rushed in to fill the information void.
Denis Kaminev / AP
State media stoke fears
The worldview painted by Russian state outlets is a Kremlin alternative to Western narratives. In it, virtually all global events are framed through Russian interests: Putin is a political heavyweight unmatched in the global arena. And the world’s nations routinely look to Moscow for solutions to the most protracted international crises.
Here, unconfirmed guesswork is equal to facts, while facts are inherently subjective.
Across all networks, Ukraine’s fighters are “terrorists” and “rebels,” NATO is Ukraine’s “overseas master” and Russian rockets strike only military targets, while Ukrainian troops use hospitals and residential buildings for cover.
“All the experts say we’re using our aircraft with great accuracy and our artillery with precision,” said pro-Kremlin pundit Vladimir Solovyov on one of his recent talk shows. He saturates the radio and TV airwaves so thoroughly that he once broke the world record for most live hours broadcast in a week.
Vesti Nedeli – the flagship Week’s News Sunday program hosted by Dmitry Kiselyov on Rossiya 1 – led this week’s broadcast by repeating Putin’s debunked claims of Ukrainian “Nazis” conducting a campaign of “genocide” in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
“It’s clear by now,” began Kiselyov, “that if our troops hadn’t gone in, the Donbas would have been wiped from the face of the Earth.”
Kiselyov claimed a journalistic scoop: documents that he said showed the West sought NATO membership for Ukraine in a bid to place nuclear weapons on its soil. A nuclear-empowered regime in Kyiv, Kiselyov warned, would try to retake the Crimean Peninsula, sparking a massive war.
Another key daily talk show, 60 Minutes, hosted by Olga Skabeyeva, also recently honed in on Donetsk, showing repeated footage of a missile that Russian authorities claim was launched by Ukrainian forces and killed two dozen people. Over and over, the program alerted viewers to breaking news of a rising death toll from this incident, punctuated by shouting, outraged studio guests.
President Biden, too, looms large in Russia’s state media coverage. Talk show hosts air anti-Biden remarks by former President Donald Trump and Fox News host Tucker Carlson. They cite Biden’s “plunging” ratings, impending US “gas riots” and “increasing calls” for Biden’s impeachment, saying he blames Russia for his domestic troubles.
Truth-seeking is fraught
While state media audiences skew older, surveys have shown that 64% of Russians still get their news from TV. State-run polls show that a majority of Russians – over 70% – support the Kremlin’s “special military operation.”
It’s a reflection, analysts say, of the broader public’s inability to parse the barrage of propaganda.
“Most people are not truth-seekers. … They will not go in pursuit of facts or truth. They will go on about their daily life,” says Sergey Radchenko, a Cold War historian at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “So they are subconsciously looking for some kind of excuses, and they buy into this narrative that is on offer for them.”
Fear, too, is widely believed to skew polling numbers. Over 15,000 protesters have been detained in anti-war protests since the Russian campaign began in Ukraine.
Ovsyannikova, the Channel One employee who charged onto the set Monday with her anti-war message, published a video in advance expressing “shame” for taking part in the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Her mother is Russian but her father is Ukrainian, Ovsyannikova explained.
“Go out and protest,” she said in the recording. “Don’t be afraid. They can’t imprison us all.”