by Akhmet Makhmoudov (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 49, No. 4, Shawwal, 1441)
Media outlets are propaganda machines, especially the large and well-financed ones. They propagate, directly or indirectly, the ideas and worldviews of people in-charge of media organizations.
They project the perspectives of those who facilitate the media’s work, be it a political party, a government, powerful politicians, businesses or certain state institutions and policies. This is not a problem in and of itself. It becomes problematic when media outlets begin implying that their position and perspective are not shaped by the underlying worldview of their sponsors. That is why Crescent International identifies itself as the ‘newsmagazine of the Islamic movement’. We are not in the business of deception; our perspectives are shaped by our Islamic worldview; unlike our wealthy secular counterparts, we do not conceal our core underpinnings and values.
Powerful media outlets are either directly connected to state entities or their connection is indirect, through wealthy corporations or hedge-funds, whose management often spends a lot of time with government officials. One cannot sustain a solid media organization of an army of reporters and multiple offices purely on donations of conscientious citizens. It is possible to maintain a small sized media operation that has some impact, based on donations and volunteer work, but not a full-fledged news organization.
Before moving to the key point of this article, which deals with the relative independence of Russian media, we want to offer a clarification. It is not our position that the Russian media landscape is not influenced by the government. However, this is the case in all modern nation states. The strategy is the same, it is the methodology that varies, based on the issue, locality and political necessity. It is no coincidence that media is referred to as the ‘fourth estate’ and is often studied together with the executive, legislative and judicial branches of governance.
In May 2020, the Middle East Eye published a report about how “the UK’s covert propaganda programmes in war-torn Syria were poorly planned, probably illegal and cost lives, according to a scathing internal review of the initiative… Using news agencies, social media, poster campaigns and even children’s comics, communications companies working under contract to the British government attempted to undermine both the Assad government and the Islamic State group and bolster elements within the Syrian opposition. The UK embarked on its propaganda efforts in the country in 2012 and stepped them up dramatically the following year as the government sought to maintain a strategic foothold after parliament had voted against any British military intervention in the conflict.”
Western regimes and their corporate media outlets paint an unrealistic picture of Russia claiming no plurality of perspectives is allowed. While this narrative assists in pushing anti-Russian policies and presents Russia as a bogeyman, it does more harm to Western regimes than good, as their approaches are based on mistaken assumptions and false paradigms. Sometimes these false paradigms are pushed deliberately, as was the case of Sunni-Shia conflict narrative after the US invaded Iraq in 2003.
On May 9, the US website, the Daily Beast, published an article asserting that Russia was seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. The entire narrative was based on the fact that several Russian media outlets published a few articles highlighting corruption in Syria and the need for economic and administrative reforms. The assumption that Moscow is about to turn against one of its key allies, after investing so much in saving Asad’s rule is derived from a simplistic understanding of Russia and its media landscape.
The Daily Beast and most other Western media outlets deliberately present a picture of the Russian media landscape as being totally centralized and under the control of the government, like it was during the Soviet era. Thus, by default they propagate the idea that if any alternative view is published in the Russian media, it is because the government must have sent a directive, a la Soviet times, for it to be published.
Again, this should not be confused with the point that we are claiming the media landscape in Russia is not manipulated by the Kremlin. All governments influence media outlets in their countries. Look at how most Western media outlets cover Palestine, Iran or Muslims in general; they all mostly tow the line of their respective governments, with occasional critical reporting acting as an objectivity mask and a control valve to let some societal steam out.
Prior to looking into the Russian media’s varied perspectives on Syria and other issues, we would like to re-emphasize the following point. In our analysis of Russian policies in the Muslim world, we have on numerous occasions pointed out that the Russian ruling class is Western oriented and aspires to be part of the Western ruling elite.
For instance, we pointed out that Dmitri Trenin had articulated in the Washington Quarterly as early as 2009 the most accurate Western assessment of contemporary Russia within the current global power pyramid. Trenin wrote: “Russia was not to be integrated into the core West, but managed by it… Putin aimed at integration with it [West]. Unlike [Boris] Yeltsin, Putin put a price on his country’s cooperation with the United States. Washington would have to recognize Moscow’s primacy in the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States, the Central Asian Republics that were part of the Soviet Union before its breakup].”
With this in mind, let us look at some of the claims by the Daily Beast to push the narrative that Russia is planning to remove Bashar al-Asad. The Daily Beast implies that since a string of critical articles about the Syrian government were published by Russia’s Federal News Agency (FNA), an outlet owned by a Russian business tycoon and Putin’s confidant, Yevgeny Prigozhin, it is a sign that Moscow is turning against Asad. Firstly, as regular observers of the Russian political and media scene, we can clearly state that FNA is a third-tier media organization with no real impact on policymaking in Russia or a wider audience. Second, if the Russian government wanted to remove Asad from power, it would not be publicizing it in news outlets. The world would have learned about it after active policy steps were taken on this matter. Third, while FNA has some critical content about the Syrian government, it also recently published very staunchly pro-Syrian content as well.
Syria is not a crucial topic for the Russian society and government; Chechnya is. One of the highly sensitive topics for the Russian government is advocating or positively describing anything which has to do with separatism in Chechnya or the North Caucasus. The Kremlin has very low tolerance for deviating from its narrative on the events in Chechnya between 1994-2003.This topic is a redline as it is viewed as opening a window to Russia’s disintegration. However, even on this topic, one comes across some objective and positive coverage of Chechen separatism in the Russian media. For example, in March 2019, an influential Russian newspaper Kommersant, a private publication, described in an article in the Journal of the Middle East and Africa, titled, The Russian Media as a Promoter of Manipulative Approaches: The Case of the Syrian Civil War as “not owned or operated by state officials” published an article crossing most, if not all redlines on the topic of Chechnya. This is not the only article which crossed most of the governmental red lines on the topic. Prominent Russia media outlets regularly host Maxim Shevchenko who has a very different view on events in the North Caucasus.
The above referenced overview of the Russian media shows that in contemporary times, informational struggle is much more complex and nuanced. The frustrating factor is that this nuance and complexity aspect is only factored in when Western media outlets are being examined. Unfortunately, this is often done deliberately in order to paint other media outlets as highly biased and project the Western corporate media outlets as paragons of objectivity.