VOA Serves New Russian-Language Fare to Counter Putin Info Diet
For audiences steeped in government-controlled news offerings in and around Russia, the recent threat of “fake news” is as worrisome as in the United States.
That’s one reason U.S. broadcasters at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty launched Current Time TV, a new 24/7 digital Russian-language network that as of last week was going full steam following a “soft launch” in early October to allow time to polish the product.
The fraudulent tales debunked on the new network include American as well as Russian-generated stories, said Andrey Cherkasov, host of Current Time’s daily fact-checking show “See Both Sides.” For example, the network has unraveled stories suggesting “refugees are responsible for everything” and reports on the alleged discovery of a cache of fake ballots for Hillary Clinton during last election season, he said during a tour of the studio.
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Cherkasov’s team for the TV show (some translate the title as “Footage vs. Footage”) also discredited broadcast reports that used an artificial document presented as proof of similarities between Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis during World War II and today’s resistance to Russian border crossings,
“It’s difficult to tell what’s real,” said RFE/RL’s Daisy Sindelar, the director of Current Time who came in from Prague. “Current Time is an alternative to the Kremlin-controlled media, a reality check with no fake news or spin.”
The new network offers six hours of original Russian-language programming composed of basic news and information roundups, a political talk show, and a weekly review for a potential audience of 240 million inside Russia and in the Balkans and former Soviet republics, as well as certain Asian nations.
“Russians don’t feel they’re getting the whole story,” said RFE/RL’s president Tom Kent, calling Current Time a first alternative to the Russian government’s RT. “It’s news and information not appearing on existing Russian TV. It’s not propaganda, but we do stand for values, we think are universal—free expression, tolerance,” he added.
A key goal is encouraging “the growth of independent TV journalism in the Russian sphere of influence,” Kent said. Some 100 reporters or stringers are now collaborating on Current Time—some of them onetime competitors. Distribution goes through 32 affiliates in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, plus 7.3 million subscribers on satellite, cable and IPTV services in nine countries. Ukraine’s largest cable subscription service Volia, brings Current Time into 1.2 million households.
Because available news outlets in recent years have been curtailed by the government, reaching viewers inside Vladimir Putin’s Russia is best accomplished through social media, VOA staff said. So far, Current Time has generated 160 million social media views of items linking to its programs, a quarter of them inside Russia. Some 200 million views of the network using Facebook have been tabulated.
“We went from zero a year ago to 200 million,” said Glenn Kates, managing editor for RFE/RL’s digital media. And even though storytelling space is narrower on Facebook and Twitter, “we keep their attention rather than just driving them to a website—that is content that is getting inside Russia,” he said.
Russians are “very interested in what Americans are saying about events in Russia,” said Alen Mlatisuma, managing editor for Internet in the Eurasia Division.
One example is a clandestine video of political activists in a park being arbitrarily arrested by police and then jailed. Current Time staff worked with a local partner to verify the video’s accuracy, which even the police did not deny.
Such collaborators—some of whom in the past were competitors—are part of the business model and include about 100 reporters on the ground in various countries. “People are demanding more live coverage,” especially when violence breaks out, said Irina Van Dusen, chief of the VOA’s Russian Service. She noted that her team went live on the night of the U.S. election. “The market is shrinking, so it is timely to produce a reasonable sane voice.”
Director Sindelar said she focuses on Russians’ “daily economic issues, whether they have food, money in the bank account, whether their parents’ pensions” are coming through. Producers also search for rare stories from Russia’s remotest parts, a segment called “Unknown Russia,” she said. The network is also hoping to become world’s largest Russian documentary film producer.
Not all of the programming is political, said Kent, citing “honey” fare such as a feature on farmers who rent out cows to city dwellers.
Current Time TV’s budget includes a $10 million appropriation, plus another $12 million or so “found in couch cushions of BBG,” Kent said. “By Washington standards, that is pocket lint.”
This month’s launch “has nothing to do with the change in administrations,” said VOA Director Amanda Bennett, but the project does fit with the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ five-area mission of telling America’s story to the outside world. “The United States is the biggest and most exciting beat,” she said. “But if we try to send a [propaganda] message, it comes across as fake and unconvincing.” Citing an unpredicted surprise reaction abroad to the absence of violence at the Republican National Convention, Bennett said, “We are exporting things that we don’t always understand we are exporting.”
Though it’s too early for solid audience numbers, “we are seeing a big uptick in consumption and engagement in this new world,” Mlatisuma said. “The sharing is a sign of credibility.”
Unlike American broadcasters such as Ed Schultz, whose show on the Moscow-based RT America “preaches the mantra that there is no truth in journalism, we believe there is truth in journalism,” Mlatisuma added. “People are not happy with what they’re seeing on Russian media. The average Russian story has some truth, something believable, and something they can blame Americans for.”
CORRECTION: This article has been corrected with the right attribution for a quote on Russian interest in what Americans are saying about events in Russia.