This is a start. A small start, but it is the first tiny baby step towards fully countering the massive Russian propaganda machine. It is not nearly enough, by no means, but it indicates a step in the right direction.
Current Time broadcasts in Russian from Capitol Hill
IGOR TIHONENKO, green-eyed, with sandy blond hair and a trim beard, looks into the camera and intones, “I took his words as a direction.” He is paraphrasing the explosive testimony of the former FBI director, James Comey, about President Donald Trump. Mr Tihonenko, a native of Belarus, is broadcasting live in Russian on the day of the Comey hearing to an audience in Russia and the states on its periphery. Shortly afterwards his Russian colleague, Roman Mamonov, checks in with a correspondent at one of the Washington bars that opened early to allow political junkies to drink along with the testimony. The hearing was broadcast in its entirety on the network (and on Facebook) in simultaneous Russian translation.
This is American state television, beamed from a studio beside Capitol Hill. Mr Tihonenko and Mr Mamonov are two of the youthful faces of Current Time, America’s answer to Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin’s propaganda network. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which oversees Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has started a 24-hour Russian-language TV channel to counter the rise of RT and Sputnik, another pervasive Russian broadcaster. Viewers of Current Time in Russia proper cannot be many—it started quietly in October, and is available there only online or by satellite. No cable providers will carry it.
Current Time reflects something of a return to cold-war thinking: for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian-language broadcasting is the priority for American counter-information efforts. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its aggressions in Ukraine, followed by the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns to obscure or justify those incursions, jolted the leadership of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty into action. In addition to news, Current Time features documentaries from independent filmmakers depicting people’s lives inside Russia. The two services have also set up a fact-checking unit to correct Russian official statements, called Polygraph. At present it is available only in English, but its backers hope to get funding to offer it in Russian and other languages.
It is unclear what Mr Trump thinks about this. His administration is said to have considered replacing the CEO of BBG, John Lansing, with an ally of the president. Mr Lansing has not had a chance to brief senior White House officials on the new initiative. But congressional leaders seem to approve. The BBG will spend $22m this fiscal year on Current Time; information warfare is politically in vogue. “We’re trying to fill the void” of real news and information left by Russia, Mr Tihonenko says. Just do not liken it to Russian propaganda, the Americans say.
Russia’s slickly produced English-language version of RT, featuring American and west European presenters and guests, could pass at times for a non-Russian channel, save for the messages the channel delivers (many of them, in 2016, attacking Hillary Clinton and supporting Mr Trump). The network is just one stream of what RAND Corporation, a think-tank, calls Russia’s “firehose of falsehood”. People do not even have to trust Russia’s propaganda outlets for this saturation strategy to work. Detektor Media, a Ukrainian NGO, found in a survey that only 1.3% of Ukrainians trusted Russian TV channels for news about the conflict in the country’s Donbas region. Yet in the same poll, more than a third of respondents believed the official Russian line on it.
It is in places like Ukraine—where the media are more open and competitive—that Current Time could get some traction with viewers. The channel is available there on cable TV as well in all the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Georgia, and Moldova. The BBG is running surveys to measure viewer numbers in these markets, and in Russia itself. In May Current Time videos were viewed 40m times online.
Current Time could provide a template for broadcasting in other places: plenty of congressmen and officials want to broadcast into North Korea. But even in more open Russia, getting large numbers to watch Current Time (mostly through the internet) will be difficult. These are not Soviet days, when Western government radio services could reach up to 25% of the population in a given week. People have more options for information about the West, including social media. Also, under American law, Current Time must provide objective journalistic coverage, on topics consistent with American policies and values. Many Russian viewers will not be clamouring for that. But in the age of RT and Sputnik, the bet in Washington is that at least some of them will be.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Current Time”