Former employees of Russia’s largest state-media holding have divulged behind-the-scenes details about what they portray as a Kremlin propaganda campaign to deliberately mislead and inflame television audiences with news coverage of the Ukraine conflict.
The Russian culture website Colta.ru this week published tell-all accounts by two people about their time working at VGTRK, Russia’s main state broadcasting company, whose networks included the national Rossia-1 channel.
They describe how Kremlin officials dictated to VGTRK management and editors how news events should be covered, including whether incendiary buzzwords to discredit Ukraine should be deployed on air.
One source said weather reports were even used for propaganda purposes after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory in March 2014 and the ensuing war between Kyiv’s forces and Russian-backed separatists that the UN says has killed more than 6,400 people.
The August 6 report by Colta.ru did not identify the two sources by name. Their testimony was gathered by Aleksandr Orlov, a former deputy editor in chief with VGTRK’s 24-hour news network, Rossia-24.
Orlov, who says he was fired two years ago for his support of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, is currently writing a book about Russian television.
‘Welcome To The Club’
According to one former VGTRK employee, a top editor mobilized his underlings for a confrontation with the West at a staff meeting in February 2014. That month, street protests in Kyiv led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally, and ushered in a pro-Western government.
“The editor in chief said that a ‘Cold War’ is starting,” the source told Orlov. “...He said it was the beginning of an era that would make the 1970s and 1980s look like child’s play. So those who didn’t want to participate can go find something in another line of work.... Everyone else: welcome to the club.”
Senior managers would go in for meetings at the Kremlin to discuss a news coverage strategy, which would then filter down the editorial chain, the former employee said. After Russia seized Crimea, “no less than one story a day” was required about how the peninsula was thriving.
While Russian state television regularly portrayed Ukraine’s post-Yanukovych leadership as a “junta” and its supporters as “fascists” and “Banderovtsy” (Ukrainian ultranationalists), the Kremlin also purportedly reined in the rhetoric due to political developments.
The ex-employee said that after Ukrainian officials and Russian-backed rebels agreed to an initial cease-fire in September 2014, those three pejoratives were banned from use in coverage of the conflict.
A study by the media monitoring website Medialogia partially corroborates this claim. Results of the study showed that the word junta disappeared from news coverage by Russia’s six leading television networks shortly before and for nine days after the cease-fire deal was signed.
A cursory search for the words “fascists” and “Banderovtsy” on VGTRK’s main news site reveals a sharp drop in their use vis-a-vis Ukraine around the time of the cease-fire.
They reappeared regularly in mid-September, when the cease-fire collapsed and the United States and the EU expanded sanctions against Russia.
“The situation rolled back and everything started anew,” the interview subject told Orlov.
Guidance And Forecasts
A second former employee in VGTRK’s news broadcast operations told Orlov that the editors would convene in the Kremlin every Friday at noon and return with a centimeter-high stack of papers spelling out what to cover and how, as well as “who the best experts are to invite.”
“They brought me some of the sheets of paper from this file, and I worked according to them,” the source said.
The source added that the editor in chief had the freedom to decide whether or not to air a segment about “some car accident outside Moscow,” but that “where big politics are concerned, war and peace, he has no freedom.”
The second source also told Orlov that the bosses pushed to have the weather prognoses sound ominous for Ukraine as winter approached last year.
Ukraine relies heavily on Russian gas supplies, which Moscow has halted in the past over pricing disputes.
“The general trend was to stoke fear: that they depend on us but we’re not going to send [Ukraine] gas and you’ll all freeze,” the source said.
‘Nowhere Else To Go’
The accounts from Orlov's sources largely jibe with other descriptions of the inner workings of Russia’s state media machine given by journalists who say they quit or were fired after becoming disillusioned with their jobs.
In June, Konstantin Goldentsvaig, a Berlin-based correspondent with Kremlin-allied NTV television, said he was released from his contract early after he gave an interview to German television in which he called Russian President Vladimir Putin “cynical.”
In a Facebook post, Goldentsvaig asked for forgiveness for participating in "collective propaganda madness."
The first source told Orlov that many former colleagues are not devoted to the Kremlin’s media mission. Between 40 and 50 percent of them attended antigovernment protests in Moscow in 2011-12, the source estimated, even though the bosses “categorically forbade this.”
"But they didn’t quit," the former VGTRK employee told Orlov. "The reasons were banal: families, loans. Plus, everyone understood that there was nowhere else to go."