This Week in Info War

RT France Television debuts to mixed reviews

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Kremlin-funded television channel RT aired its first broadcast in France on 18 December with a segment that quoted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accusing the French government of “supporting terrorism” in Syria and featuring a far-right local politician who waxed poetic about a world where France “regained its independence” from NATO. The channel hopes to expand quickly relying on such fake news. It has a reported launch budget of some $24 million and hopes to hire 150 employees by the end of next year. For the French market, this is a significant degree of funding; leading French news channel BFM TV now has an annual budget of about €60 million ($72 million). Most French households thus currently lack access to RT; it can only be seen online via its own website or with a subscription to the broadband arm of Iliad, a French telecom service provider. But RT’s reach may grow if negotiations with Orange and SFR—France’s two largest telecom conglomerates—end in an agreement. RT France also has a potential audience in Canada, Belgium, and the French-speaking Mediterranean.

The Kremlin initiative builds upon a foundation already established on social media in France. In the months before its transition to broadcast TV, RT’s French-language website and YouTube channel (with French dubs or subtitles of RT content) were already highly popular. During last spring’s presidential election, some videos received hundreds of thousands of views, likely due to their support of pro-Kremlin populist Marine Le Pen. Today, RT online boasts more than 84,000 followers on Twitter and a further 90,000 on Periscope, a live-video application.

French President Emmanuel Macron has pushed back hard against Kremlin-backed outlets ever since his election campaign last year, when Sputnik quoted a conservative politician calling him a “U.S. agent” backed by a “gay lobby”—and that he had an extramarital relationship with another man and an offshore account in the Bahamas. A Macron spokesman also claimed that “2,000 to 3,000 attempts have been made to hack the campaign, including denial-of-service attacks that briefly shut down Macron’s website and more sophisticated efforts to burrow into email accounts of individual campaign workers.” Less than 48 hours before the 7 May 2017 runoff, hacked Macron campaign e-mails and documents were released online, though with apparently negligible electoral impact, as French media complied with a government ban on publishing leaked information. The perpetrator appeared to be the Russian government-linked hacking group APT28, famous for its attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency. During a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Versailles just three weeks after his electoral victory, Macron promised to “set things straight. … Russia Today and Sputnik did not act as news outlets and journalists, but they acted as organs of influence, of propaganda, and of deceptive propaganda.” Macron added pointedly, “I have always had an exemplary relationship with foreign journalists, but they have to be journalists.”

Earlier this month, Macron proposed a law against “fake news”—similar to both a German law enacted on 1 January 2018 and the recommendations of a Czech task force against fake news established a year ago—that would allow judges to remove or block “fake” content during elections, mandate greater transparency for sponsored content on social media, and let France’s media watchdog, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, combat “any attempt at destabilization” from foreign-financed media. France already has an unenforced 1881 law on the books that prohibits “false news.” Yet Macron’s initiative has been controversial; although RT has few friends in French journalism, the French press is wary that Macron’s proposal could set a precedent for government restrictions on their work.

Xenia Fedorova, RT France’s station manager and editor-in-chief, has defended RT’s presence in terms similar to the station’s response to criticism in other countries. Federova insists the network is no more a propaganda outlet than BBC World, Al-Jazeera, or France 24, and she maintains that editorial decisions will be made locally, not in Moscow. She has argued that Macron’s proposed law shows “we are only at the beginning of curtailing of press freedoms in France—one that begins with an apparent attack against the ‘alternative’ media but may end up in persecution of all dissent, censorship and suppression of the freedom of speech for all.” Just hours before its first broadcast, Federova admitted the channel still had not been granted accreditation to cover presidential news conferences at Élysée Palace. “There was just one example of when we actually managed to visit [Élysée],” Fedorova said. “That was actually during the Trump visit to Paris [in July].” In an interview with Le Monde, Fedorova complained about “political pressure on people who want to work with RT or speak well of it.”

The key issue in the dispute, as in similar controversies elsewhere, is whether it makes any difference that RT France disseminates Kremlin propaganda. Noted social scientist Marlene Laruelle has found that despite being an arm of Russian state media, RT France has had little real impact on the media landscape. “Apart from confirming the convictions of a share of the public which is already reluctant to follow mainstream media, it is still very hard to measure any impact on broader public opinion,” she writes. That may well be the case. But the focus on Russia’s behavior—what trolls do on Twitter or how the Kremlin tries to influence foreign elections— creates a preoccupation with the latest news cycle and a mindset that fails to anticipate Moscow’s next moves or adequately evaluates Russia’s overarching goals. Consequently, the West is subjected to continual surprise and remains largely remains fixated on threats, rather than looking for opportunities Russian activities could generate for the West.