'Russian Media Are Very Diverse' - a Veteran Russian Pundit Explains (Dmitry Babich)
A long, wide-ranging chinwag with a great Russian journalist who is never dull.
Russian opinion leaders, supportive of Vladimir Putin, are seldom seen in the Western media. Dmitry Babich, a self-declared 'conservative leftist', is one of them. Working as a political analyst for Sputnik International (previously known as the radio station Voice of Russia), he sometimes can be spotted on BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN, commenting on international affairs and history.
Babich says he never warns his bosses about his appearances on foreign TV and that the opinions he shares with foreign audiences do not differ from the ones he shares with domestic audiences.
Novini invited him to comment on several timely and semi-timely subjects concerning the Russian press, such as the fake news hysteria in the West; US measures against RT and Sputnik; the violence against Russian journalists; and the on-going low ranking of Russia in the press freedom indexes.
But before this reporter was able to ask him a single question, Babich makes it clear there is something else he urgently wants to talk about with his Dutch guest. It's the ideology of 'ultraliberalism', which he sees as the root cause of many political, ethical and economical problems in the world today.
What is ultraliberalism?
In the beginning of the twentieth century Christianity was challenged in Europe by three secular ideologies: Nationalism, Socialism and Liberalism. In small amounts each of these ideologies is acceptable. Who is against the rights of nations? Who is against the importance of community? And of course, no one is against real, classical liberalism with its freedom of enterprise, fair elections and the rights of the individual. But when each of these ideologies was in its time driven to extreme, each of them produced an ugly offspring.
German Nazism was a disastrous radical form of nationalism; the Soviet Union in its Stalinist period was a horrible radical form of socialism. What we see now in the EU and the US is an ugly, twisted, intolerant and aggressive radical form of liberalism. For lack of a better term, we can call it 'globalism' or 'neoliberalism'. But I prefer to call it 'ultraliberalism,' because the main thing about it is not that it is 'new', but rather that it is 'ultra'.
And so, what does this ultraliberalism mean for the subject I invited you to discuss, the media?
Like any radical ideology, ultraliberalism is afraid of alternative views, because such views may destroy the 'architecture' of its false narrative. The West is incapable of a civilized debate with the Russian media or its own dissenters. Anyone veering off the ultraliberal mainstream is declared an 'ultra-right populist' or 'Putin’s useful idiot'.
The false narrative of ultraliberalism justified the aggressions in Iraq and Libya, presenting a bloody foreign intervention and an ensuing civil war as a 'lesser evil' compared to the actions of some local 'evil dictator'. In the same way the Western mainstream media is now presenting the civil war in Ukraine as a result of Russia’s intervening, and not as a result of a Western-supported coup.
All other interpretations of events are simply declared 'pro-Saddam', or 'pro-Qaddafi' and of course paid by Putin. As if one has to love Saddam Hussein in order to oppose a disastrous British-American invasion of Iraq.
For the ultraliberal elites in the US and the EU, sidelining Russia and China is more of a priority than removing the terrorist threat from Europe and the US which is emanating from radical Islamist groups. You can measure it by the amounts of negative rhetoric poured by the West on Russia and on extremist Islamist groups in Syria.
Russia’s help for the Syrian army in Aleppo was blasted by the Western media in much more radical terms than even the terrorist explosions targeting government buildings in Damascus. And the presumed and never proven cruelties of the Russian expeditionary force in Syria are mentioned in the Western media more often than the atrocities of the Islamists against the pro-government Syrians, even though the Islamist cruelties are well filmed and documented, sometimes by ISIL itself.
Do you think that the Western media are warming their audiences up for a confrontation with Russia and China?
Media demonization has become a usual prelude to a war by the West.
See the media campaigns against Milosevic, Saddam and Qadaffi before the wars against Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya. Putin's image in the West has been distorted not even for years, but for decades. Any phrase that Putin utters is immediately interpreted in the most negative sense for Russia’s neighbors and the West itself. So, the current situation gives a lot of reason for concern.
You are on the payroll of Sputnik. Since Sputnik and RT are state-supported they are often referred to as 'propagandistic'.
The reason people of influence in the West are so mad at RT and Sputnik is that these two media outlets expose the Western media, using mostly quotes from the Western media itself. In fact RT and Sputnik are observing the observer. And they expose the observer they are watching as biased and deceitful.
Since most of the traditionally respected media in both the US and the EU are already serving ultraliberal ideology, the interest of the thinking reader and the concern of the EU’s elites moved to the Russian media. Unlike the marginalized and underfinanced Western alternative sites, such as Moon of Alabama, the Russian media still has the financial capacity to challenge ultraliberalism’s false narrative.
Unlike Moon of Alabama, RT can afford sending a correspondent to Syria or organizing a live television debate. So, RT became a media space, where people from the US and the EU who have alternative views could 'meet', debate and exchange news freely.
Furthermore, those accusing us of propaganda still have to come up with examples of situations where we lied.
Maybe RT and Sputnik sometimes lie by omission? showing only one side of the story, leaving out the other?
Whenever we speak, we lie by omission, because it's impossible to present all the news and to reflect all the views that exist in reality. Everyone is selective to a certain degree, but RT is of course less selective than the Western media. Representatives of the pro-US Moscow Carnegie Center were given a word on RT, while it is impossible to imagine CNN giving a serious opportunity to the representatives of 'Russian sympathizers' in the US.
You've been on CNN.
I'm not a representative of 'Russian sympathisers' in the US. I'm from Russia, not the US. But yes, I've been on CNN. Only once. Four years ago. And as an expert on Eastern Europe. Not as someone representing the other point of view.
Anyway, It is impossible now to imagine people like Ray McGovern, John Kiriakou or Brian Becker being seriously interviewed on CNN now. They may only take small soundbites which would present these people as 'funny Putin's useful idiots'.
RT and Sputnik are often mentioned in the Western media in connection to the fake news stories about a Russian boy crucified in Ukraine and a Russian girl who said she was raped by refugees in Berlin.
Firstly, these stories were first presented by Russia’s main television outlet Channel One, and not by RT.
Secondly, Channel One didn't report these stories to mislead the public. They reported them because they thought they were true. The story of the boy was told to a journalist by a refugee woman, and the journalist believed the story without checking it.
Nevertheless, I agree that it was unprofessional of Channel One to broadcast an unverified story like the one about the crucified boy in Ukraine. It's a typical refugee story. But there are dozens of similar unverified refugee stories in the Western press. Like the story about Omran, the bloodstained boy from Aleppo.
RT found the boy who had been shown by all western TV channels to prove the barbarism of the Syrian and of the Russian aviation.
RT interviewed the boy and his father and it turned out the whole story was fake, produced by the West's favorite White Helmets which is a fake organization by itself.
Whereas Russia has Sputnik and RT targeting Western audiences, the US has the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
Tax payers’ money in the East and tax payers’ money in the West. A huge difference, right? When the so called private 'philanthropists' are involved, like George Soros, financing certain media, you can usually be certain that it's because they get tax breaks. In the end it's all tax payers’ money.
By the way, RT also makes some money of its own, because its popularity on YouTube is a magnet for advertisers. Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and its Russian subsidiary Radio Liberty have never made a penny on advertising.
The Russian Foreign Agent Law from 2012 was mainly copied from the American Foreign Agents Registration Act from 1938. It's currently used for political NGOs that receive foreign financing. It was not meant for the media and was never used against the media. The US now has decided it will use the 1938 law against RT and Sputnik, targeting the foreign media for the first time. As a result Russia now is mirroring this bill.
When the Russian law was introduced in the early 2010s, it was said in the West and in Russian liberal media that it would be the end of all pro-Western NGOs in Russia. But this never happened. Organizations like Memorial, Helsinki Group and Golos continue operating in Russia, and some of them avoided the registration of foreign agents or had it removed by court. In Russia, if you are declared a foreign agent it doesn't mean you are shut down. It means you have to put this name of foreign agent for the public to see.
For example, if you issue a report you have to put it in the upper right corner. In the US it means a lot more. For example, if you are RT it means you cannot interview government officials. Or if you interview them you have to send them your questions first. In general you have to show them all your material at any moment.
In the West there's a lot to do about fake news coming from Russia. Especially the so-called 'troll factory' in Saint Petersburg is often mentioned. How do you see this?
I don’t believe in troll factories in Russia, simply because no troll factory would be able to produce millions of critical readers’ comments in dozens of languages, which you see under the anti-Russian articles in American, French, Polish and other foreign mainstream media sites.
I work next to my colleagues from Sputnik’s Polish departments, and I know how difficult it is in Russia to find a person who would be able to decently speak and write Polish. But there are hundreds, thousands of indignant Polish readers’ reactions under the articles about 'the threat of Russian aggression' and fake stories like the one about Russians deliberately having created the fog around the airfield in Smolensk, where the Polish presidential plane crashed in 2010.
The narrative of the Western mainstream media is so clearly biased, contradictory, often simply fake, that you don’t need trolls to expose it. The foreign readers themselves do it for us.
Opposition-leaning journalist Oleg Kashin recently wrote in The Moscow Times that the Western media is no longer a role model to independent Russian journalists because of the distorted image Western journalists have painted of Russia in the last 18 months or so.
This is certainly true, but the disillusionment with Western media started much earlier. Only in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Russian journalists respected the Western press, emulating its methods of work. Already the Western coverage of the Chechen war in Russia and of series of Yugoslav wars was so obviously biased and one-sided, that journalists and people able to read Western publications and watch Western television started to get disappointed.
In the 2000s Internet allowed everyone to see the Western bias by making just one click on a computer. Open support by the Western media of the armed insurgency in Syria and of the new crudely nationalist regime in Ukraine made the 'objectivity' of Western press clear to just about every Russian family having access to the worldwide web.
According to organizations that measure the amount of freedom of press all over the world, the Russian media are 'not free'. What do you think about this qualification?
I think it is impossible to measure the freedom of press. When someone says he has a 'scientific measurement' for freedom, this person is propagating fake science.
In fact, journalists face the same challenges all over the world. As a well known Russian-American journalist Vladimir Pozner once said: "A journalist never has an open field before him. There's always a corridor, a wide one or a narrow one." And Pozner, who worked on both Russian and American television stations, knows what he is talking about.
Some of these limitations for the media are due to human nature, not to government control. Even if you post something on the wall at high school, you keep in mind what your teacher will think and what your classmates will think. There is no such thing as a completely independent media where you just blurt out whatever comes to your mind.
So, bearing in mind that there's always a corridor, I think in Russia this corridor is comparatively wide, especially in comparison to the media in the countries now controlled by ultra-liberals. The Russian media is very diverse.
The West, on the contrary, is fully captivated by ultra-liberalism. It hinders critical thinking. This is different in Russia. We have been bad students of ultra-liberal ideology, because in many ways it's so similar to communism. As an ideology communism was defeated many years ago, even before Gorbachev came to power. I grew up in the 1970s as a child, and to my family members and their friends communist ideology meant nothing, it was an object of jokes. Communism was not defeated by president Reagan, it was defeated in the hearts of people inside Russia. They simply stopped believing.
In Russia people are willing to listen to different views and have the possibility to express them, almost no views are tabooed. For example, we have newspapers which support the Western intervention in Syria and which deeply oppose the Russian aid for the government of Syria.
In a country like France of the UK, show me a mainstream paper or magazine that says "We should have left Assad alone. We were wrong to interfere and by our interference we ruined a lot of lives in Syria." In Russia you can read such things every day in big newspapers: Vedomosti, Kommersant, Nezavisimaya, the biggest Russian dailies.
In the same way there are Russian newspapers that are completely supportive of the regime of Poroshenko in Ukraine. For example the weekly newspaper Sobesednik calls the Maidan coup of 2014 'a revolution of dignity' and it calls the Donbass militias 'criminals'. And this is no marginal publication: it exists since 1984, and it is a big newspaper. You can go to every newsstand here in Moscow and buy it.
The image of Russian media being 'not free' seems to be very much influenced by reports in the Western press about violence against journalists.
Most journalists killings in Russia had to do with the Russian media exposing powerful local oligarchs, who got very powerful under Yeltsin. Under Putin, the regional governors got much more disciplined and controlled by a number of bodies, both government and non-government ones.
Before Putin the governors ruled their regions like a sort of local kings. Unlimited power caused them to 'order' contract murders or become victims of such murders themselves. There were three governors shot by killers under Yeltsin. The governors, as well as mayors of big and small cities, now understand that even a hint of suspicion of being involved in a violent crime would mean the end of their careers. So, there are fewer murders now.
There were two killings this year. In 2016 zero. However you're right. It struck me to find that under Jeltsin two times more journalists were killed than under Putin. In the West almost everybody seems to believe Putin's rise to power in 1999 somehow triggered an avalanche of assassinations.
The frequent murders of journalists started under Gorbachev. In the last years of the Soviet Union, private business was allowed, and this created a 'market' for murders. Powerful clans got into various rivalries for control over companies, pieces of property or even the media outlets themselves. Hence, murders became much more frequent.
Why do you think so little cases have been solved?
Many cases have been solved. The problem is that the Western media do not report the news about sentences and solved murders, because such news would contradict their narrative of a 'lawless Russia'. The ultra-liberal media inside Russia is doing everything to undermine the trust in the trials that take place. For example, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya was solved, the people who committed the murder were convicted and got long sentences after an initial acquittal, but no one in the West was particularly interested.
But the majority of the cases haven't been solved.
I don’t know the precise statistics for this. In general, solving contract killings is difficult. The killers themselves are frequently found or destroyed by the criminals themselves, but It is very difficult to find out who ordered the murder. And even if you find this person, it is very difficult to prove his or her guilt.
Radio-presenter and columnist Yulia Latynina, who recently fled Russia because of several attacks, accuses the government of not protecting her. She says: "It’s not that Putin or the Kremlin are directly instigating these kinds of attacks. They are winking at those who want to organize them."
Yulia Latynina had a problem with certain criminal individuals, who left shit in her car or threw shit at her, saying that they imitated her style of writing about Russia which many people find insulting. This is disgusting and I cannot approve of such tactics. But there are many cases when individuals who performed a similar kind of actions against well known opposition figures went to jail.
For example, a member of the National-Bolshevik party, previously anti-Putin and supported by Western media, spoilt the air by a mace at a concert of a famous rock singer Andrei Makarevich, who advocates the reunification of Crimea with Ukraine. This individual went to jail for several years. So, I wouldn’t say that the state does not protect opposition activists at all.
What is the motivation of civilians to attack liberal, opposition-leaning journalists? What are they so angry about? Yulia Latynina says she thinks these people are not really angry. "Their motivation is to become great in the eyes of Putin."
I can’t agree with Latynina on her opinion about the origin of a 'shit storm' against her. This anger of many people against the ultra-liberal media is sincere. it is not prompted by the desire to please the authorities. If you switch on Echo of Moscow, an ultra-liberal radio station, where Latynina continues her weekly show, you will hear on FM waves that the Soviet Union was worse than Hitler’s Germany, that Russians are genetically inclined to have dictatorial governments, that Russia’s president is an ally of murderers.
Such statements arouse anger, because they are unjust and untrue. But I confine my anger to my oral opinions and writings. I concede that there may be some people in Russia who can’t limit their anger to the civilized ways of expressing it. I disapprove of these people, I think that violent actions, including those directed against ultra-liberals, should be punished by prison or big fines.
Those angry at liberal politicians and journalists in Russia often refer to them as 'quislings'. Why is that?
Modern Russian liberals often speak out in favor of making the West's actions against Russia even tougher, because, as liberals say, "Putin's regime does not understand another kind of language." For example, Vladimir Kara-Murza, who used to be one of the key figures in the liberal party Union of Right Forces, has been touring Europe and the US this year calling for tougher economic pressure on Putin's regime: new sanctions, prohibition on travel by Russian officials, etcetera.
In the same way, many liberals in Russia, for example the Sobesednik daily, justified Ukrainian army's onslaught on Donetsk and Lugansk regions in 2014. Some of these liberals openly rejoiced about the Ukrainian army's initial successes and about the fact that many soldiers from Donbass were killed in this war. Members of Yabloko party tried to uncover cases when these soldiers were buried in Russia, saying that these burials exposed these soldiers as 'mercenaries'. So, plenty of reasons for the quisling analogy.
You recognize there is a lot of hate speech from both sides, conservative and liberal, and it concerns you that the gap between both sides has widened. What should be done?
Most of the hate speech comes from the ultra-liberals or from the former ultra-liberals who simply defected to the patriotic side, sincerely or insincerely, I don’t know. Like Vladimir Solovyov. He worked for a long time for the ultra-liberal NTV television station under pro-Western oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky in the 1990s and early 2000s. There he learnt that in some media outlets you can insult people with impunity. He's now the rudest representative of Echo of Moscow’s opponents,
The last few years the Russian government has taken a lot of measures to restrict the media. We have already discussed the foreign agents law. There's also this law limiting the foreign ownership of Russian media. What's your opinion on this?
This law can easily be bypassed, and it is being bypassed already. A lot of foreign owners are using a Russian front now. If you are a rich organization you can agree with some Russian businessman: "You pose as an owner, and we give you the money." For example, the daily paper Vedomosti in Moscow was started as a joint project of The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times. After the law was adopted, I did not notice any change in their editorial policy. It is still crudely pro-Western, and whoever the formal owner is, you can see the ultra-liberal influence on their pages every day.
The same goes for the Undesirable Organizations Act. It can easily be bypassed. For instance, Russia drove US Aid out of Russia, but US Said said: "We continue to finance our projects in Russia." US Aid doesn't need an office in Russia to get its money transferred to Russia. It just needs individuals who open up their bank accounts to money coming from the US.
Why is it the Russian government is so keen on restricting the foreign ownership of the Russian media?
The government became concerned because the global media is so anti-Putin and anti-Russian. When you see the need to 'counteract Russian propaganda' discussed at several summit meetings of the EU, you are a fool if you don’t get worried.
It is not Russia that is creating hysteria about foreign media, it is the EU with its hysteric fear of 'Russian influence on the elections', with a special EU-financed body created to counteract the Russian media. There are no such bodies against Western media or pro-Western media in Russia, even though the EU’s media presence in Russia is much greater than the Russian presence in the EU.
What does the Russia government have to fear from foreign media owners? Do they really pose a threat, even if they owned 100 per cent?
It depends. Now they don't. But in a certain crisis situation they may. Even now 80 per cent of the Russian quality broadsheet press is against Putin: Vedomosti, Kommersant, RBC, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Novaya Gazeta, MK, Sobesednik, etcetera.
In Ukraine when president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted, 90 per cent of the media in that country was against him, openly and legally. The problem was that Yanukovych didn't care about what the press wrote, he thought economy and diplomacy were more important. It was a huge mistake.
Nevertheless most Russians get their news from state controlled and state owned TV channels. So what is there to fear from anti-government newspapers?
First, there are many programs and voices on TV which are very critical of the government and Putin personally. The pro-Western leader of the ultra-liberal Yabloko party Grigory Yavlinsky yesterday spoke for 30 minutes on Channel One explaining his program and his dislike for Putin’s foreign policy.
So, in a way, these so called federal channels are even more diverse than the ultra-liberal press, where the anti-Putin opinions are dominant. And these publications do influence the elite, since the elite is interested in business news. So, the elite gets most of its information from anti-Putin sources.
There are also opposition television channels; not only Dozhd TV, which you get by cable, but also RBC-TV, which you get on any television set.
Do you think the Russian government suspects foreign NGO's and media-owners of regime change activities?
If you look at the wars that were started in the last twenty years, most of them started as civil wars, unleashed under foreign influence. In Syria and Libya the war started as an internal insurgency. But this insurgency by Sunni radicals was triggered by the reporting of Al Jazeera and supported by massive media machine of the US and the EU.
In Syria, the EU and the US have not yet given up on regime change, even after the Assad regime became the main obstacle to the expansion of the hideous so-called Islamic State. Having such examples before your eyes, you must be an idiot not to see the same tactic of regime change being tested on Russia too.
Do you see any proof The West is driving towards a regime change in Russia?
US vice-president Joe Biden openly said during his visit to Moscow in 2010 that the US did not want the then president Dmitry Medvedev to be replaced by Putin again. This was an open 'declaration of intentions' on regime change. The rhetoric of the media which the US and the EU control in Russia, this rhetoric is completely indicative of the 'regime change' intentions.
This year the Russian revolution of 1917 is remembered more often than usual because of its centenary. Now it is becoming apparent that the liberal influence on the Russian media was crucial for the destruction of the Russian Empire and the ensuing tragic revolution of the 1917. By January 1917, about 90 per cent of the Russians living in Moscow and revolutionary Petrograd thought Rasputin was a German agent and that he slept with the empress and that emperor Nicolas was unable to run the state. It was all fake.
The first thing the new liberal prime minister Aleksandr Kerenski did when he came to power was to follow on the reports about connections between the empress and the German General Staff. The investigation didn't find anything. It was all rumors. But it was in all the papers, and leaflets depicting the inappropriate relations between Rasputin and the empress were spread all over the country by the liberal oligarchs, the people like Tereshchenko and Guchkov. Millions of Russians believed it. Even the relatives of emperor Nicholas, the Romanov family, believed these rumors, because the empress was an ethnic German and because the information about her 'treason' was so ubiquitous. We don’t want the same story to repeat itself, especially with help from the ultraliberal regimes in the EU and the US.
In 1996 Boris Yeltsin was re-elected with the help of an American campaign team. Does this experience play a role in the way Russians now are looking at foreign influences in their country?
The Russians didn’t forget it, but the main role was played then by corrupt Russians, oligarchs, who basically owned all the media. In January 1996 Yeltsin had a rating of 5 per cent. He was very unpopular. So the oligarchs met and decided to pool their resources and got the journalists working for them to get Yeltsin re-elected. And they succeeded, also helped by the foreign media. Like a French journalist told me at the time: "In The West we only have one candidate running for the Russian presidency: Yeltsin."
In an interview I did with her, chief editor Eva Hartog of The Moscow Times said as a paper you enter the danger-zone once you start writing about Big Money in connection to Putin's inner circle. When RBC linked the Panama Papers to a friend of Putin the chief editor was fired and offices of RBC's owner Mikhail Prokhorov were raided by security service people and tax inspectors.
There was a business dispute around RBC, but it hasn't stopped RBC from writing against Putin. If you look at RBC, Kommersant, Novaya Gazeta or Nezavisimaya Gazeta you'll see 50 per cent of what they write is about the connection between Big Money and Putin or other government officials. So, of course, it's possible to write about it.
And of course, the attitude depends on what the owner of a news outlet thinks about it. The owner may have his own interests. RBC was owned by Mikhail Prokhorov. He is a billionaire who ran against Putin in the presidential elections. Still the Western press kept stressing RBC was one of the last Russian bastions of independent press in Russia.
I think he is a cynical and bad man. You remember he was arrested in France for proxenetism, while in the company of sixteen girls? The police suspected him of providing these girls to his friends. He was let out in three days, and because he was against Putin, the French government shut down his case, and he was bestowed with the French Legion of Honor. He must be the only person in France who was arrested on suspicion of being a pimp, who was honored this way.
In the same way, if you look at the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In the West he was seen as a nasty oligarch, a former Komsomol-leader, cynical, cruel. Then suddenly in 2003 when Khodorkovsky fell out with Putin he became the conscience of Russia, a political prisoner, and a great man. One liberal commentator, Konstantin Eggert, even called him a 'Russian Nelson Mandela'. But Mandela did not evade billions in taxes and would not become the richest person in the Russia of the 1990s. Khodorkovsky did.
So you don't think the RBC's publication about the Panama Papers led to the raid and journalists being sacked? That it was merely a coincidence?
Putin's name was not mentioned in The Panama Papers. One of Putin's friends, the cello player, had his money there. But he is just a friend of Putin. He's not Putin, nor is he one of Putin's relatives.
The scandal of the Panama Papers was not so much about Putin than about the Ukrainian president Poroshenko. Because Poroshenko had his money on these accounts. But somehow in the Western press Poroshenko is clean, and no one asks him what he's dong to the Ukrainian press, which changed drastically under Poroshenko. It's not possible anymore to say anything positive about Russia in Ukraine. And since Poroshenko took power journalism has become a dangerous profession.
Still the Western media keep being focused on the position of journalists in Russia.
The fact that since Poroshenko took power journalists are getting killed on a yearly basis doesn't seem to be a topic to them.
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