Funders queue up to take on Russian propagandists

The European Endowment for Democracy, founded to support pro-democracy activists in Eastern Europe – but not in Russia – wants to challenge ‘Kremlin Dominance’ of Russian language media on its own patch.The strategy is old school Cold War – ‘counter narratives’ and 1980s US-funded Radio Free Europe style voices from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

“Russian speakers need to have access to a diversity and plurality of voices in the media space,” says EED executive director Jerzy Pomianowski. The EED will bring direct funding to independent Russian language media, but not in Russia itself, where government opposition to national media taking foreign funds will be insurmountable.

Outlining the plans – the detail has yet to be approved by the EED board – Pomianowski suggests a “pan-regional news hub” to exchange news material between leading Russian language media, and to produce its own content.The service would be funded by a multi-donor basket fund, providing “long-term demand-driven support to Russian language media initiatives”.

The focus, says Pomianowski, is on greater coordination, coherent funding and the production of quality content trusted by audiences. The result may yet end up as a pale copy of America’s Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty network, independently funded by donations, free of the diplomatic constraints that come with overt connections with governments and foreign policy.

Though Pomianowski says “short-term counter-propaganda policies and measures will not bring plurality and high quality journalism to Russian language media,” the implication is that he thinks that a ‘long-term’ strategy might.

There’s further contradiction in the EED’s vow that none of these initiatives would require the creation of new institutions. Yet it plans a “coordination mechanism” that again implies some kind of central editorial and publication authority – if only to “avoid duplication of initiatives and to fill existing gaps.

“In time, these initiatives could naturally evolve into a pan-regional multimedia distribution platform,” adds the outline. Yet almost in the same breath the EED confesses that “past experience in the region suggests that large scale investments in standalone platforms pose significant risks in light of market constraints and political instability.”

What drives the EED project, as unnecessary and propagandist as it sounds, is the huge success of the Kremlin’s own propagandists. Former Russian TV executive Peter Pomerantsev outlined for The Atlantic how the notion of ‘journalism,’ in the sense of reporting ‘facts’ or ‘truth,’ has been wiped out.

Last year Alexei Volin, Russia’s deputy minister of communications said the state should give journalism students a clear understanding: “Uncle will tell them what to write, what not to write, and how this or that thing should be written,” he said. “And Uncle has the right to do it, because he pays them.”

It’s not just the EED that wants to take the Kremlin propagandists on. US Congressman Ed Royce of California is introducing bipartisan legislation to strengthen US counter-propaganda and overhaul the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) that runs it on an annual $730 million budget.

In Brussels, the EU’s ruling European Council has asked EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to prepare a campaign plan to resist the Kremlin’s media advance. “We need a western group of nations or an alliance to engage in this informational war” says NATO’s supreme commander Gen. Philip Breedlove.

All of this is the flipside of another obsession, what critics call the magic bullet theory of counter-narrative, hitherto aimed at challenging Islamists’ much vaunted ability to win friends and influence people via the Internet.It’s the unlearnt lesson of the failure of counter-narrative strategies in the war on home grown and regional jihadis.

“There are no messages, however perfectly crafted, that can, by themselves alone, neutralise violent extremism,” writes academic Christina Archetti.In any case, as Pomerantsev says, the point of Russian propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted—to disrupt Western narratives rather than provide a counter-narrative.

As James Sherr argued in his study of Russia’s influence in its near abroad, Hard Diplomacy and Soft Power, those interventions sometimes have been as much about punishing or neutralising a perceived opponent as the pursuit of a particular realisable goal. The result, he says, is a policy of “soft coercion” and a broad range of methods to keep Moscow’s neighbours in check.

Propaganda is just part of a soft power strategy of exploiting informal networks, business links, state-corporate relations, cultural affinities, and linguistic ties. Archetti argues that “close attention to the consistency between our narrative (words) and our policies (deeds) are in the end the most effective tools.”

The EED’s partners in the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) launched in 2009 with similar empty rhetoric about soft power and a widening gap between words and deeds. Says analyst Paweł Dariusz Wiśniewski, the EaP’s soft power was undermined by ‘hard’ policies that disappointed the citizens whose hearts and minds it aimed to win.

Amidst prejudice and an exaggerated fear of illegal immigration, “the EU’s soft power project seems to have stalled,” he says, adding with understatement, “with developments in the region being less than favourable.”

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