Russia’s international media ‘weaponized’ to poison minds


russia todayAt a time when Russia’s image in Europe and the U.S. has sunk to extreme lows, the Kremlin has announced dramatic new plans to increase spending on foreign propaganda, according to George Washington University’s Robert Orttung and the National Endowment for Democracy’s Christopher Walker. The Russian state budget includes a 41 percent increase for RT, the state-backed television network that broadcasts around the world in a number of languages. Rossiya Segodnya, the successor to the now defunct global news agency RIA Novosti, is set to see a tripling of its budget, they write for the Moscow Times:

The Kremlin is focused on poisoning minds through an insidious mix of information designed to muddy the media waters and disorient international audiences. ….It is telling that the growth in resources devoted to media beyond Russia’s borders is now outstripping those within them. At home, the Kremlin’s censorship and mass media control prevent alternative ideas from entering mainstream discussion and enable the government to dominate crucial narratives.

The Kremlin’s international propaganda applies a similarly cynical and manipulative approach, where it insinuates, for instance, that all societies are thoroughly corrupt and craven, suggesting moral equivalence between autocracies and democracies. RT unloads an endless stream of material seeking to portray the West, especially the U.S., in the most decadent of ways…..

As media analyst Peter Pomerantsev observed, debunking false information is time-consuming and expensive; the Kremlin’s fabrication of information is easy and relatively cheap. While the Kremlin tightens restrictions on the Internet at home, state media takes advantage of opportunities to make deeper inroads online beyond Russia’s borders. RT’s YouTube channel has garnered more than 1.3 billion views. Even accounting for clicks from phony accounts, this is a staggering number. 

Russia and authoritarian regimes claim that their media outlets are just like Deutsche Welle, BBC or Agence France-Presse, Orttung and Walker observe:

But RT operates under the direction of unchecked authoritarian political power and is therefore an entirely different enterprise. Accordingly, it should not be understood as a news outlet, but instead seen for what it is: a weaponized media instrument.

While it denies any meaningful space at home for independent voices, beyond its borders the Kremlin is flooding the media space with half-truths and outright lies with the aim of polluting audiences’ understanding of the world.

Given the serious stakes involved, the democracies must devise a far more thoughtful response  to meet the dual challenge of Russia’s intensifying censorship and modern propaganda, they conclude.  

Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.



Russia’s media imperialism

putinrussiaThe repressive “bloggers law” signed by President Vladimir V. Putin on May 6 says a good deal about the troubling decline of free expression in Russia, according to two leading analysts. This measure comes on the heels of a series of other laws recently put in place to restrict television, books, films, and certain public performances, further curtailing Russia’s already besieged media space, Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung write for Freedom House’s Freedom At Issue blog…..

During the decade and a half of Putin’s rule, media freedom in Russia has gradually eroded. As we write in a recent issue of the Journal of Democracy, the Kremlin is finding alarmingly effective ways to manipulate and control media, despite the proliferation of new communication technologies and methods of news distribution…..

Diffusion of Kremlin Media Values

Putin’s revanchism brings with it some distressing byproducts, one of which is the projection of illiberal Kremlin media values beyond Russia’s borders. …..The first order of business for Russian-backed forces in Crimea was to cut off sources of information beyond the control of the Kremlin. The crackdown on mass media was accompanied by fierce repression of local activists, bloggers, and others who voiced opinions contrary to the Kremlin line, according to a report written by Ivan Šimonović, the UN assistant secretary general for human rights. ….

The same type of propaganda invasion that coincided with the physical invasion of Crimea has been on view in eastern Ukraine. As pro-Russian forces extend their hold, Kremlin media values take root there, too, with coercive tactics used on independent journalists and dissidents in ways that are common in Russia, but had been rare in Ukraine….

As the Kremlin’s ability to project media power has strengthened over time, the authorities in countries on Russia’s periphery have been forced to contend with increasingly provocative and destabilizing messaging. Moscow’s well-funded media complex simply outguns local Russophone alternatives in places like Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and the Baltic states.

Moscow’s propaganda effort in these countries is nothing new; it has been a staple of Putin’s rule, calibrated to suit Russian authorities’ needs at any given time. What is different now is its intensity, the sheer brazenness of the falsehoods disseminated by Kremlin-controlled media, and the fact that its disruptive and provocative elements are being escalated as part of Russia’s new revanchist push. The Kremlin’s claims that it wants stability on its borders ring hollow in the face of its own utterly destabilizing propaganda.

Censorship and Propaganda: Two Sides of a Coin

Even as the Kremlin and its surrogates saturate social networks and the internet in general with comments from Kremlin-friendly trolls and provocateurs, more elaborate measures to censor online expression are being put in place. The “bloggers law,” for instance, requires bloggers with significant audiences to register with the authorities and obliges both domestic and international hosting services to record and turn over user data. Additional evidence that the walls are closing in on Russia’s online world is abundant. Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s largest social-networking website, fled Russia on April 22, a day after he said he was forced out as the company’s chief executive for refusing to share users’ personal data with Russian law enforcement agencies. At a forum in St. Petersburg on April 24, Putin called the internet a “CIA project” that needed to be controlled, giving a strong signal that further restrictions are in the offing…………


Christopher Walker is executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy and can be followed on Twitter @Walker_CT. Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs. He can be followed @RobertOrttung.

Buying Compliance: Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico

buyingcomplianceA virtually unregulated system of government advertising has distorted Mexico’s media landscape and corrupted the country’s media profession, according to a new report, Buying Compliance: Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico.

Mexico’s media today face great difficulties. Physical attacks are all-too common, the shadow of state control has not fully faded, market concentration is extreme, and most media outlets have advanced little towards a democratic model to serve as an impartial watchdog on actions of government and other societal actors.

Any discussion of Mexico’s media situation must begin by explicitly recognizing—and condemning—ongoing assaults on journalists. Mexico is among the world’s most dangerous countries to practice journalism. Since 2000, over 77 journalists have been murdered. Another 17 have disappeared. This terrible violence is widely documented by Mexican and international press freedom groups.

The impact of these attacks is very powerful and very clearly leads to widespread self-censorship. But more subtle means also and perhaps more widely constrain media freedom in Mexico. “Soft censorship,” or indirect government censorship, includes a variety of actions intended to influence media—short of closures, imprisonments, direct censorship of specific content, or physical attacks on journalists or media facilities.

This report focuses primarily on financial aspects of official soft censorship: pressures to influence news coverage and shape the broad media landscape or the output of specific media outlets or individual journalists through biased, and/or nontransparent allocation or withholding of state/government media subsidies, advertising, and similar financial instruments.

In Mexico, the allocation of Government advertising is the more common tool to exert soft censorship and is an integral part of the country’s complicated media landscape. Absent precise and clear rules, it is a means to influence or even a tool to blackmail media owners and journalists. Federal and local governments use official advertising to shape media outlets’ editorial line and push partisan agendas. Opaque and arbitraryallocation of official advertising constrains pluralism and a diversity of voices by selectively funding media outlets that support officials and their policies.

Some media owners actively partner with politicians in a corrupt symbiosis that earns both power and profit. Many Mexican media outlets have become addicted to public money, corrupting basic journalistic ethics. Articles praising or criticizing specific politicians are often offered primarily as leverage to negotiate more lucrative government advertising contracts.

Mexico’s very high level of ownership concentration in the television industry (largely dominated by only two players) is an important aspect of the soft censorship landscape. The growing economic clout of these two media businesses has magnified their influence on the country’s political life. These dominant companies often skew nominally democratic debates towards their self-interest.

Buying Compliance: Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico offers an overview and detailed examples of how a virtually unregulated system of government advertising has distorted Mexico’s media landscape and corrupted the country’s media profession. Refusal to license community radio stations as a constraint on media freedom is also addressed. The report does find some reasons for hope in efforts in a few states and by some media outlets to instill new integrity in both official and journalistic practice—and in pledges, as yet unfulfilled, by Mexico’s president and legislators to enact genuine change.

Another cause for guarded optimism is the 2013 Constitutional Reform on Telecommunications, which has the potential to make a profound change in Mexico´s media landscape and generate greater pluralism and competitiveness. This report’s key recommendations are a launching point for wider reforms urgently needed to help Mexico’s media fulfill its proper role in promoting democracy, pluralism, and accountability—rather than serving as an empty vessel to be filled with and driven by government advertising.

The findings of this paper, Buying Compliance: Governmental Advertising and Soft Censorship in Mexico, are based  on  the results of the three-year (2010-2012) Official Publicity Project led by Fundar and the ARTICLE 19 Office for Mexico and Central America, with the support of the Open Society Foundations.  

It follows two reports published in January: Soft Censorship: Strangling Serbia’s Media and Capturing Them Softly: Soft Censorship and State Capture in the Hungarian Media 

For more information on the Center for International Media Assistance, please explore our website or contact

Ecuador’s Communications Law: When Censoring a Cartoon Becomes a Presidential Priority


Since his reelection, President Rafael Correa has used a series of laws and decrees to constrain criticism and dissent. In June 2013, the National Assembly passed a restrictive communications law that designates the media as a public service subject to government regulation.

 Political cartoonist Xavier Bonilla was the first victim of this law following the publication of a cartoon that depicted the house raid of journalist Fernando Villavicencio. President Correa called Bonilla, among other things, “an assassin with ink.” Bonilla was forced to publish a correction, and El Universo paid a large fine.

Join the National Endowment for Democracy’s Center for International Media Assistance, Latin America & Caribbean Program and  Freedom House for a discussion on the restrictive nature of the communications law in Ecuador.


Xavier Bonilla

Political Cartoonist at El Universo

Martha Roldós

 Fundación Mil Hojas

Carlos Lauría      

Committee to Protect Journalists

 Wednesday, March 5

12:00-2:00 p.m.

Lunch will be served from 12:00-12:30

1025 F Street, N.W., Suite 800

Washington, DC 20004


How the Kremlin shapes media beyond Russia’s borders

satterrfeTwo new reports highlight how Russia has managed to curb independent media not only domestically, but also in former Soviet states, Linda Kinstler writes for the New Republic:

“The majority of news outlets, particularly those controlled directly by the state, prefer to cover Sochi the way they would cover a deceased man: in a positive light or not at all,” a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists explains. Another recent report, issued by Center for International Media Assistance [an initiative of the National Endowment for Democracy] and authored by journalist David Satter (left, whom the Kremlin expelled from Russia five days after the report was published), meticulously documents the extent to which Putin has successfully disseminated pro-Russia propaganda in the former Soviet sphere.

Some examples of the ways in which the Kremlin influences media in former Soviet states include:

  • Three major TV networks dominate Belarus, and all three are Russian state channels. This has led to a majority of the population having a negative view of the protests in Ukraine. As Belarusian politician Sergey Kalyakin put it, Russian state media reports have emphasized that “all sorts of nationalists and criminals are taking part in the protests.”
  • This summer, after Lithuanian news site ran an article alleging Russian officials had rigged a Eurovision contest, the site received threats from Russia and was hit with a cyberattack ….

Read the rest.