(Dis)information wants to be free
How Russian propaganda gets around sanctions - and why it is sometimes worth watching.
Politico has an interesting piece about how the European Union tried to ban the French-language edition of Russia’s faux news channel, RT, but their message is still getting out there:
A year ago, on March 2, the EU banned Russian government-funded media like Sputnik and RT, formerly known as Russia Today, from broadcasting in Europe. Watching or reading RT online in the EU now requires a VPN, a tool that allows users to circumvent geolocation limitations.
Even as fighting rages in Ukraine, the media company’s staff has continued to produce content from the western Paris suburbs — aiming it not just at Europeans willing to seek it out, but also at francophone countries in Africa, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, where Russia has sought to shore up support for its Ukraine war.
“The sanctions did not achieve their goals, to say the least,” said a former RT France employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We banned broadcasting, but not production. The company is still standing, and continued to hire as if nothing had happened.”
For this story, POLITICO talked to current and former RT France employees, current and former officials in Brussels and Paris, and tech executives to get a sense of how the Russian media company has adapted to the EU’s sanctions. Most of them were granted anonymity to speak because they are not allowed to talk publicly or because they fear repercussions from RT.
They described how the ban on the network has stemmed the flow of Kremlin talking points that once ran untrammeled on European airwaves, but that left the company’s French subsidiary free to keep producing propaganda.
“The intensity of the brainwashing of Europeans has decreased,” European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová said in an interview on her way to visit exiled Russian journalists in Amsterdam.
The company has only begun to feel the pressure in recent months, after the French government blocked its bank accounts following an asset freeze decided by the EU in December. RT France is now facing bankruptcy; it was placed in receivership at the end of February and a hearing is scheduled in April to decide on the way forward.
So France has banned the channel from broadcasting within its borders - even online - but didn’t actually deport any “reporters” nor shut down its Paris-based studio.
Which seems kind of bass-ackwards, at least to me. Banning a foreign propaganda outlet from carrying out physical activities within your borders would bother me far less than blocking content - even garbage content - from being accessible on the internet. That’s a power I wouldn’t entrust to myself, much less some bureaucrats in Brussels.
Admittedly I’ve long had a strange fascination with authoritarian governments’ media directed at North America and Western Europe, and the kind of people who would voluntarily participate. The Internet Archive has a sizable collection of Radio Moscow World Service broadcasts from the Cold War, and Nazi propagandist William “Lord Haw Haw” Joyce is still babbling away on YouTube.
Hearing such broadcasts live, on shortwave radio, must have been creepy and disturbing at the time. But you can experience that feeling yourself, at least if you’re outside of the EU, by tuning in to RT and Radio Sputnik through their websites and marveling at the rogue’s gallery of far-right, far-left, “libertarian” and mercenary “journalists” who work there.
Just yesterday I listened to a Sputnik broadcast featuring some guy talking about “the Kiev regime” recruiting neo-Nazis to carry out terror attacks in Russia and how it might result in Putin formally declaring war, even though Russia is winning anyway.
In the book The Last Jews in Berlin, there’s a passage where some Jewish people living underground in Nazi Germany read the Völkischer Beobachter and are able to discern how badly the war has turned against Germany by the subtle shifts in tone and coverage.
That’s the same kind of feeling I had listening to Sputnik: when Russian propaganda accuses Ukraine - sorry, the “Kiev regime” of carrying out atrocities, you can make an educated guess about what Putin will do next.
As for RT, it’s gradually pivoting away from Europe and toward non-Western countries, particularly in Africa:
Over the past year, content produced by RT France from Paris contributed to the company’s pivot to Africa. In July, Sputnik France’s website reappeared, rebranded as Sputnik Africa.
“Since Russia was ousted from Europe, it’s reinvesting the informational field in Africa, and we must adapt to the consequences,” said a senior French diplomat.
In September 2021, RT France launched a talk show called “Africonnect,” which claims to tell stories about African countries from their citizens’ perspectives. After the EU sanctions in March, the show stopped broadcasting for a few months but resumed in June, according to the show’s webpage.
A partnership with Afrique Média — a Cameroon-based pan-African web TV — was announced last year with the slogan: “The end of Western propaganda lies.”
One episode posted online this week — and also livestreamed on Afrique Média — was titled, “Media in Africa: the end of the Western monopoly?” For about 30 minutes, the host and guests lambasted Western outlets — including France’s state-owned France 24 and Radio France Internationale — arguing that propaganda accusations against RT are unfounded.
According to Maxime Audinet, a research fellow at the French Ministry of Armed Forces’ Institute for Strategic Research, RT France will at some point be operated from Russia.
“The French-speaking site will continue to exist, powered from Moscow, and will try to develop in the Maghreb and francophone sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.
China’s CGTN features a lot of African-based content, too, especially when there’s a Beijing-backed infrastructure project to promote:
This strikes me as a smart move which American and European broadcasters should try to counteract. Public opinion in this part of the world, outside of a few fringe characters at both ends of the political horseshoe, has hardened against Russia. In places that maintain a healthy distrust of Western powers because of that whole “colonization” thing, it remains very much up for grabs.
The Austrian National Library has many issues of the Nazi paper available for online viewing. It’s actually the ones from before the war that I find most fascinating, because these issues are the most like a “normal” newspaper. It’s surreal seeing genocidal nationalist propaganda combined with a sports section and ads for Gillette razor blades.