Misreporting on Russia

If you pick up the hard copy of the Wednesday issue of the New York Times, you will often find within a supplement bought and paid for by the Russian Kremlin and designed to improve Russia's image in the West. It is called "Russia Beyond the Headlines" and the content can also be found on a website of the same name. Only if you know that the Russian newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta, billed as RBTH's publisher, is owned and operated by the Kremlin itself will you have any clue that RBTH is a cog in the Kremlin's propaganda machine. Kremlin ownership of RBTH isn't otherwise disclosed by the Gray Lady, which receives a pretty Russian penny for including the supplement.

Reviewing RBTH's "coverage" of the arrest and torture of Leonid Razvozzhayev will make chills run down your spine, but for the wrong reasons. The problem is simple, really: the only way you can improve Russia's image, which is RBTH's raison d'être, is through misrepresentation.

On October 22, 2012, RBTH staffer Roman Vorobyov breathlessly reported that Razvozzhayev, tied to leading Russian opposition figure Ilya Ponomaryov of the Just Russia political party, had been arrested and confessed that opposition funds and orders were coming from Russia's enemies in Georgia and elsewhere abroad. The sub-headline to the piece squealed: "After one opposition figure confessed that the May 6 rally in Moscow was funded with Georgian money, Russia's opposition movement may face serious trouble." Then on the same day it reported the same allegation again, by republishing a wire item from Interfax, the Kremlin-owned wire service.

RBTH's glee at being able to announce the downfall of the democratic opposition in Russia was palpable.

Razvozzhayev's arrest came just over two weeks after NTV, a Kremlin-controlled broadcast television network, ran a story making similar allegations. RBTH published over a dozen items mentioning him after that time, starting with a report that criminal charges had been lodged against him on October 17th. All of the reports were republications of material released by Interfax other than the October 22nd item, which is the only one that carries a photograph. No opinion pieces appeared at all. Not one non-Kremlin-owned report about Razvozzhayev appeared on RBTH's pages.

The RBTH piece was the only one featured in one of the website's substantive sections, politics. All the other reports were buried, relegated to a running newswire feature in tiny print where they remained only briefly before disappearing into the bowels of the RBTH search engine. Most of the key details about Razvozzhayev's mistreatment were never reported at all, and the scant details that did make it into print which portrayed Russia in negative terms were treated as footnotes and fine print.

Little wonder. The New York Times, for example, had this to say about Razvozzhayev's "confession":

More than the prosecution of the punk band Pussy Riot or the criminal inquiries into numerous opposition figures, the abduction of Mr. Razvozzhayev has showcased the Kremlin's willingness to employ aggressive - even illegal - measures to suppress the political critics of President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Razvozzhayev's lawyers say that after he was abducted, he was driven across the Russian border, held for nearly two days in the basement of a house, denied food and subjected to what has been described as psychological torture, including death threats against his family.

You won't read anything like that in the pages of RBTH. The word "torture" appears in only two of the thirteen RBTH articles that have mentioned Razvozzhayev to date. Ironically, the first time it appeared was October 22nd, in yet a third item published by RBTH, a second Interfax report on the comments of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Interfax noted that Navalny had stated that if the torture allegations were true, he would generate a new "Magnitsky list" (a formal list of humans rights violators named in honor of Sergei Magnitsky, a crusading Russian attorney murdered in 2009) to respond to them. But the nature of the allegations is not discussed in the report, and the lengthy report with photograph actually authored by RBTH makes no reference to it whatsoever. The other two items published that day by RBTH, including the only item about Razvozzhayev actually written by RBTH, make no mention whatsoever of the torture issue.

Then on October 24th, RBTH carried an Interfax item reporting that Russia's human rights czar Mikhail Fedotov had called for an investigation. Again, none of the details about the torture were mentioned, and the word torture hasn't been mentioned in connection with Razvozzhayev since.

RBTH never reported that death threats had allegedly been made against Razvozzhayev's family by Kremlin goons in order to force him to confess. It didn't report that he was held for days in a secret location and told he'd be killed if he didn't confess. It did nothing whatsoever to update its in-house reporting in light of demands from both the U.S. government and Russia's own human rights authorities to investigate whether the "confession" had been obtained through torture.

RBTH carried (in small print, the buried) Interfax reports that the United States and the United Nations had both expressed concern about Razvozzhayev's treatment. But it didn't write about this itself, and in none of these reports does it even suggest that the Putin Kremlin might be facing "serious trouble" as it had said about the opposition when it reported Razvozzhayev's confession.

Its most recent coverage was on December 4th, when it reported (again via Interfax): "The Russian Investigative Committee has started a criminal inquiry against opposition activist Leonid Razvozzhayev on charges of illegally crossing the state border. Razvozzhayev also stands accused of inciting mass disturbances." No mention was made of the accusations of the torture or the international outcry. Razvozzhayev was back to being a common criminal.

Via Twitter, I asked RBTH for an interview with its editor in chief regarding bias issues. My request was ignored. I asked whether RBTH would hire an ombudsman to respond to reader complaints about bias, and offered to do the job for free. I was told they never get complaints so there was no need for such a function. I asked whether RBTH would publish a column by me about the Kremlin's recent crackdown on the Internet, or any other topic. I was told RBTH doesn't accept unsolicited proposals. I asked to be solicited. I was again ignored.

No columnist spoke out on RBTH's virtual pages in support of democracy and human rights in regard to Razvozzhayev. None was worried about Russia's international reputation or its return to the totalitarian practices of the failed USSR. RBTH didn't question or criticize Russian investigators when they refused to open a case to review Razzvozzhayev's allegations of torture.

RBTH maintains a stable of 16 bloggers, including U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul. Not one of them has uttered the word Razzvozzhayev, much less offered readers a staunch criticism of the Putin' regime's outrageous mistreatment of him and the Just Russia party, the only one in the Russian parliament that is even vaguely free-thinking. In November, at the height of the Razvozzhayev scandal, McFaul was blogging about improving US-Russia ties through hockey games. McFaul's posts read like Soviet propaganda; not once has he spoken out in defense of American values and human rights in Russia.

Of course, none of this is surprising. RBTH is funded by the Kremlin and it has a clear mission: ignore the screaming headlines about Russia in major world publications, create an alternate reality, and focus on trying to convince unwary Westerners that Russia is benign. Undercut opposition to Putin at every opportunity, and support Putin's efforts to revive the Soviet dictatorship.

It's simply outrageous that the New York Times, in exchange for the Kremlin's cash, helps RBTH to circulate its propaganda, and helps it to lull deluded readers into thinking RBTH is engaged in actual journalism. It's even more outrageous that the Obama administration is not just letting the Kremlin get away with its masquerade but actually facilitating the Putin crackdown rather than actively and publicly opposing it.

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