The Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the situation in Russia are viewed very differently in different European countries. Why? That question international media representatives discussed on Monday in Berlin at an event organized by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.
Following the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Russian officials were quick to announce they had four or five "hot leads", about which commentators in traditional and social media, within Russia and elsewhere, began speculating with gusto. The ideas ranged from an Islamist act of revenge, Chechen assassins and the CIA to a potential rival (Ukrainian, of course) vying for the affections of a woman. It is a prime example of what Putin’s communication policy – one could also say propaganda machine – does perfectly: create an impenetrable fog. Confusion is inevitable when numerous theories are convincingly presented, then repeated and embellished by as many people as possible. This also serves as a distraction – from the war in Ukraine and Russia’s role in it. It even helps to further demonize enemies, such as Ukraine and the US. There are many lies, but as Russian author Boris Pasternak says in his sole, world-famous novel: "There is only one truth".
How Russia's current communication policy functions and if and how Putin's propaganda is influencing European views – and what can be done about it – were the topics addressed at a discussion organized by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation that brought together several international media representatives last Monday in Berlin.
Brain washing à la Putin
The influence of Russian television should not be underestimated: 95 percent of all information in the country is disseminated by television, and television sets run in most households round the clock. The transmitted information is alarming and, according to participants in the discussion who monitor the Russian media landscape, anyone who watches for an extended period of time becomes appalled at the blatant falsehoods that are both broadcast and believed. True journalism is not to be found, they say, and would have difficulty competing with the programs and familiar faces that fill Russia's networks.
Poles and Finns are well acquainted with the situation. The methods and messages underlying the Russian propaganda were used, for example, during the period of martial law in Poland. And that means everyone in Poland distrusts them. The country has no "Russia sympathizers" as does Germany; Russian propaganda simply does not work there. Approximately 98 percent of the Polish press opposes Putin. According to the Finnish media representative present in Berlin, people in Finland are saying "we know our Russians" from years gone by and "we don't believe them." What is new, they said, is how quickly the Russians are now reacting, as the Nemtsov case demonstrates.
The Ukrainian participant also emphasized the Ukrainian media's relative immunity to Russia's propaganda. At the same time, he said, serious journalists find it difficult to impossible to find effective responses to "propaganda warriors", above all in the country's east, where independent sources of information are now virtually non-existent.
And in Germany?
According to the participants, the situation seems to be different in Germany. For example, they asked, why does Golineh Atai, the Moscow correspondent for ARD, one of Germany's main public television networks, feel it necessary to tell German journalists – as she did a few days ago – not to be afraid in light of complaints and serious threats resulting from stories critical of Russia? Media watchers at the gathering also noted that opinion pieces critical of Putin are becoming increasingly rare on Germany's public television stations, and respected talk shows always invite the same mildly critical guests to appear. In addition, not only are journalists with critical opinions no longer asked to comment, they are even receiving hate mail and threats – and that in a country that is proud of its press freedoms. Something is not right, the attendees said, but what?
What should be done?
The gathering's participants discussed possible reasons for this ostensibly "typically German" problem. They developed a series of practical suggestions for responding to Putin's propaganda in Germany, including analyzing the most frequently used propagandistic images and assertions, such as the oft-repeated accusation that Europeans supported fascist groups on the Maidan in Ukraine and helped them come to power; carrying out information campaigns explaining the current situation in Ukraine; and proactively contacting media representatives and schools, as well as organizations that are considered part of the controversial "Putin lobby" in Germany.
The participants agreed that, despite all the concern about the quality of German media reports on Ukraine and Russia, not too much credence should be given to the impact the propaganda is having. A press that strives to achieve the greatest degree of objectivity is better than one that is no longer capable of being objective – for whatever reasons – and that allows itself to be reduced to a propaganda war.