Aspen Ideas Festival 2014

What is Russian Propaganda Saying Now?

In the wake of the tragedy of flight MH17, the Putin-run Russian media faces a conundrum.

(Wikimedia Commons)

In a foreign policy speech last week, President Vladimir Putin told the Russian people that he would do “everything in [his] power” to contain the separatists in eastern Ukraine who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17.

The United States and Europe disagree, yesterday approving sharp new economic sanctions against Russia based on their conclusion that the Russian government is playing an active role in the conflict in Ukraine.

At the Aspen Ideas Festival last month, Ukrainian activist and journalist Vitaliy Synch gave an example to support their suspicions—that contrary to his own statements, Putin has actually been directing the Russian media to commend the work of the separatists over the past year.

“One of Russia’s largest channels, NTV, shows a lady who lives in Donetsk who goes into her basement…to hide from the carpet bombing of Ukrainian aviation. The Ukrainian journalists looked into this and said, “this could not be possible—our aviation could not be bombing residential properties.” Then the people found this lady…and she actually lives 300 miles away from the military zone.

And the reason that she showed them to the basement is that she’s poor…they paid her, and eventually they made a made-up thing, they broadcast it sixteen times on Russian television and Russia Today.”

According to Synch and his fellow panelist Viktoria Siumar, deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, the Putin-controlled Russian media has been propagandizing Russia and eastern Ukraine for months. The Russians have cut off all non-Russian television in the war-torn area, they said, and have been showing pro-separatist content in its place.

Synch and Siumar suggested that even the United States and its European counterparts have been affected. When asked why the United States had initially been so slow to impose sanctions on Russia, Vitaliy said that “Russian propaganda has also been effective in the U.S. and Western countries. A lot of Western media corporations have their headquarters in Moscow as opposed to Kiev. They’re not on the ground, they’re affected by their environment.”

“[Putin] has created a monopoly of information,” added Siumar.

Even after the Malaysian Airlines crash, it’s been business as usual for the Russian media. State-funded Channel 1 suggested that the attack could have been an assassination attempt on Putin. And a reporter for Moscow-based RT resigned last week over “disregard for the facts” in the channel’s coverage of the disaster.

Now that Putin is starting to bend to Western pressure to control the separatists, however, his journalists may have to change their tack. But how can they renege on a topic they’ve been reporting on for months?

“We have a war, really… it’s a war of propaganda,” Siumar explained last month. “Propaganda can be funny. But when people die, it’s not funny.”

Now, almost 300 people have died—and Putin and his media have to decide what side of the joke they’re on.