RIGA, Latvia — European Union leaders are considering creating a new Russian-language television channel aimed at combating Russian propaganda, an EU foreign minister said in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
"Russian TV, particularly for the last couple of years, has been very aggressive in what can no longer be considered normal news or normal journalism, but is more information warfare and propaganda," the foreign minister of Latvia, Edgars Rinkēvičs, said.
The proposal being discussed, he said, is "to invest jointly in alternative sources of information — not alternative propaganda sources, but an alternative normal European TV channel, with entertainment, with news, but with very factually accurate news."
Rinkevics said that between between 13 and 15 EU member states have informally expressed support for the idea, from smaller countries on the EU's eastern border to Scandinavian countries, Poland, and Great Britain.
The notion of alternative Russian-language information has been the subject of discussion in Washington and European capitals since Putin began consolidating control over the Russian media a decade ago. The focus has intensified recently as Russia used its control of the media to shape domestic support for the February invasion of Ukraine, painting the overthrow of the country's Russia-backed president as a U.S.-devised plot to put "Nazis" in power. The Kremlin is also increasing its reach into English-language propaganda, using everything from Russia Today to the newly-formed Sputnik news agency, to spread its message abroad. It uses all the tools at its disposal to stir domestic antagonism both toward the US and EU in general, and toward neighbors like Estonia and Latvia.
Latvia and its neighbor Estonia have the largest proportion of Russian-speakers of any European Union country — hundreds of thousands of citizens and residents for whom Russia's major broadcasters have, according to figures from Latvian Television, become a growing share of their media consumption. Those two countries in particular have post-Soviet histories of difficult relationships with Russia over the status of those minorities, many of whom arrived during the Soviet occupation and were not granted citizenship when the Baltic States became independent. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both countries have ramped up their spending on local Russian-language media — but they are dwarfed by the lavishly-funded Russian TV networks that dominate Russian-language media with an almost uniform Kremlin line.
"We can't compete on resources," said Rita Ruduša, the commissioning editor for news, current affairs, and documentaries at Latvian Television, the national public broadcaster. She said that the Russian channels sometimes spend on a single, lavish prime-time show more than the public broadcaster spends on Russian-language programming — which is placed amid Latvian programs — in a year.
The discussions in the EU are preliminary, and the project could go in different directions, people involved said, from a full-on Russian channel — with the EU paying both for original programming and for licensing non-political entertainment — to a combination of programs and grants that would allow national broadcasters in Latvia and elsewhere to expand their Russian offerings.
"The conversation is about funding, and it's about content — this shouldn't be another propaganda tool," said Rinkevics, adding that the timeline is uncertain: "As everything in the EU, things take time."
An EU-backed NGO, the European Endowment for Democracy, is one of the groups developing proposals for the Russian-language broadcsting. Officials there could not be reached for comment during the holidays.
The Europeans, however, aren't alone in trying to create a new Russian media. One group of leading Russian journalists who have decamped to Riga to start an independent news site, Meduza.io.
And Washington has its own revived stream of Russian-language content. US-government funded funded Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in October launched a well-produced half-hour news show called "Current Time"— its slogan is "facts, not lies" — which is being carried by national broadcasters in Lithuania and Georgia, among other outlets. (The show can also be seen on YouTube, though view counts mostly hover in the hundreds.)
However the American effort has met some resistance. Latvian Television turned it down, though it is airing on a smaller private channel there, and it has no outlet yet in Estonia.
"It looked one-sided and sounded more like strategic communication than public service. It didn't resemble public broadcasting in the European understanding," said Ruduša, of the Latvian national broadcaster. "It is very well produced but really the other side of what we were getting from Russia."
Jeff Trimble, the deputy director of the international broadcasting bureau at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the US international broadcasters, said the programming isn't intended to simply be counter-propaganda, but simply "a western style news program in the best tradition of that.
"It's not giving a single perspective to counter the Russian perspective — it's giving the complete story," he said. He also said the US is open to partnerships with a Europeans and the states on Russia's borders
But, Trimble said, "in the absence of consensus and a working plan to come up with a truly coordinated international effort … we've started to do new programing and new projects that might become part of a new international effort if other countries were to step up their game."
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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