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The global presence of Russian media

Throughout the twentieth century, and particularly during the Cold War, television and radio were crucial tools of soft power, alongside hard military and economic power, as a means of propaganda and ideological influence. In recent years, with the explosion of 24/7 news channels, many states are using media to extend their influence internationally and get their points of view across. Following the Qatari channel Al-Jazeera, the Chinese CGTN (formerly CCTV), the French France 24, the Iranian Press TV have started broadcasting to global audiences, both in English and via many other targeted language channels. Russia has also been a significant part of this process. In the ‘Concept of Russian Foreign Policy 2008’, the goal was set ‘to achieve a perspective of Russia in the world, developing its own effective means of information influence on public opinion abroad, to ensure the strengthening of the position of the Russian media in the world infosphere’ (Koncepciy avneshnejpolitiki Rossijskoj Federacii, 2008). As part of this goal, the Russia Today (RT) TV company and the Sputnik News Agency were created. These projects, especially RT, have become a notable tool of Russian soft power over the last decade.

RT, formerly known as Russia Today, which started broadcasting in 2005, is the first Russian news channel with global round-the-clock broadcasting in English and other major world languages - Arabic (since 2007), Spanish (since 2009), German (since 2014) and French (since 2017) - on a non-commercial basis. Given its availability in such major languages of the world, the network is aimed at a global audience, including foreigners living in Russia and those who are interested in Russian affairs. The purpose of RT is to provide coverage of the world news from the Russian point of view. Defining its editorial position, the RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan said in an interview: ‘It will be a view of the world from Russia. We do not want to change the professional format established by such TV channels as BBC, CNN and Euronews. We want to reflect Russia’s view of the world and make Russia itself more understandable’ (Lenta.ru, 2005). In another interview she said: ‘RT shows what neither Fox, nor NBC or CBS shows. People are interested in how and what Russian people think’ (Russian.rt, 2016); telling the American network NBC in a 2018 interview, ‘RT’s goal is to inform the audience. If you think that informing means influencing, then yes, you can say so’ (Russian.rt., 2018).

The founders of the channel aimed to present the audience in English-speaking countries with the views of Russian society on the most pressing issues, to get rid of stereotypes imposed during the years of the Cold War: ‘One of the key components of the Russia Today mission is a correct and balanced message to the foreign audience on the Russian view of world events’ (Tupitsyna and Neymatova, 2008).

The RT television network includes three round-the-clock news channels broadcasting from Moscow in more than 100 countries in English, Arabic and Spanish, RT America and RT UK, broadcasting from their own studios in Washington and London. RT channels also exist in French and in German. In addition, it has a documentary channel and a global news agency (RUPTLY), offering exclusive material to TV channels around the world. In 2018, RT was available to 700 million viewers throughout the world around the clock. In 2013, RT became the first news channel to pass the billion views mark on YouTube and since then it has remained as the leader among the 24/7 news channels on YouTube: the total number of hits for all RT channels on the world’s biggest video hosting site is about three billion. According to comScore survey, the online audience for the RT TV channel is over 32 million unique users per month. Funded by the Russian Federation, RT’s 2019 published budget will amount to S340 million, much smaller than the budgets of other leading international broadcasters (Russian.rt, 2018).

RT broadcasts hourly news bulletins about the events in Russia and the world: while about 70 per cent of programming is international news, including business and sports, the channel also regularly airs documentary films and cultural programmes. Among its flagship programmes is ‘Cross Talk’, and a weekly exclusive show ‘Politicking’, hosted by well-known American journalist, Larry King. According to television ratings from Ipsos, an international market research company, in 2017, 100 million people in 47 countries watched RT every week, with the biggest growth in Latin America and the US. The weekly audience in the US grew by more than 30 per cent - from 8 million to 11 million viewers, while the number of RT.com users globally was more than 187 million, according to Similar Web (Russian.rt, 2018). RT is the only Russian TV channel to be nominated six times for the prestigious Emmy Award. In 2012, RT was a finalist of the award for coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, while, in 2016, the nomination was received for a series of RT specials, dedicated to the 70th session of the UN General Assembly.

Since 2018, a massive information, and then political campaign against the RT and Sputnik channels, as the tools of Russian soft power, started among the policymakers and in the media of Western Europe and the US. The channels were accused of being the means of Russian propaganda, manipulating public opinion and providing fake news. The US Congress insisted that Russian channels should be included in the list of foreign agents and thus their activity would be limited. In 2018, US Congressmen presented a bill directed against the activities of RT Such a strong reaction by Western politicians and media could be considered as recognition of the effectiveness of the RT channel in influencing the opinion of audiences in their countries, a success in terms of promoting Russia’s soft power. In Britain the media regulatory authority Ofcom (Office of Communications) has fined the network for violating broadcasting protocols, while in the European Union too, concerns have been raised about the partisan perspectives that RT is allegedly promoting among its audiences - following an anti-Western editorial line.

 
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