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Russia: Racial Propaganda in the State-Owned Media

Two Residents of an African Ghetto? Photo by Ilya Varlamov/zyalt.livejournal.com, used with permission.

Is the pen really mightier than the sword? Or, in today's age, is the keyboard greater than the laser-sighted assault rifle? For some purposes, the answer is yes. Whether seeking to inflame passions, discredit an individual, or simply reshape the debate, powerful interests have often eschewed coercion and instead planted false or misleading stories in the press to transform public opinion. Just ask the United States military. In 2005, the Pentagon – desperate to capture the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people – paid millions to Iraqi newspapers to ensure that pro-American stories would appear in the Iraqi press.

These techniques of misinformation and misdirection are particularly widespread across Russia. Drawing on a rich tradition of “political technology” honed under both the Tsarist and Soviet police states, the Russian media are now rife with paid stories (vbros) planted to advance specific agendas. The smoke and mirrors characterizing Russian public life is often unimaginably difficult for the outsider to decipher. Consider, for instance, Mikhail Prokhorov's recent departure from his leadership of the political party Right Cause: numerous versions are possible, including that the whole thing was stage-managed from the beginning. No wonder Kremlinologists are so frequently wrong.

A recent example suggests this phenomenon reaches far further than the release of pictures of politicians in bed with prostitutes or false reports of candidate deaths on the eve of an election. Last Thursday, Vesti FM’s Ksenia Krikheli – a seemingly mild-mannered journalist who normally covers local issues like schools – published an article [ru] on a small Moscow suburb in Liubertsy called Krasnaya Gorka. In an article laced with racial stereotypes and innuendo, Ms. Krikheli reported how local residents were living in fear as their quiet suburb was being transformed into an “African ghetto” overrun by an influx of unruly, violent, and sex-crazed African migrants. Ms. Krikheli described a “local” population unable to sleep and scared to venture onto the streets because of late night African drum playing, African prostitution (women supposedly asking “3 rubles for sex”), and criminal activity.

This article – which has spread across Russian online media – was followed by another article. In this follow-up article, Ms. Krikheli – clearly portraying herself as an investigative journalist seeking to find the truth – reported visiting a police station where a number of African migrants were being detained (in response to her article, she mused). She then had the following to say:

Не исключаю, помешала сотрудникам полиции еще и потому, что в участок на роскошном “Лексусе” как раз приехал африканский босс, видимо, выручать собратьев из плена. Уже возникли какие-то договоренности, и мой визит совсем некстати.
Сотрудник полиции говорит африканцу: “Мы с вами свяжемся через 10-15 минут, обо всём договоримся”.

I cannot ignore the fact that it seemed that I was suddenly interfereing with police work because an African boss soon pulled into the parking lot in a luxurious Lexus to bail his brothers out of jail. Some kind of agreement had already been worked out, it seemed, and the timing of my visit seemed inopportune. The police officer said to the African boss, “Lets talk in about 10-15 minutes and figure out what to do.”

Muckraking bloggers investigate these allegations

As this news story spread across the Russian media landscape, prominent photo-blogger Ilya Varlamov (LJ user zyalt) traveled to the “African Ghetto” to investigate [ru]. In three hours of interviews, he found nothing to support Ms. Krikheli's article. He did not find a single person who had spoken with Ms. Krikheli. Furthermore, everyone he spoke to denied having any problems with African migrants living in their neighborhood.

For instance, one woman with three children said:

«Нормально живется. Никаких проблем. . . А в соседнем доме живет Пьер Нарцисс, «Шоколадный заяц». Но вообще с ними никаких проблем нет — всегда здороваются, не шумят. Что-что? Ночью играют на барабанах во дворе и танцуют африканские танцы?! Бред какой-то, первый раз слышу. Наоборот, вообще никакого шума от них. У нас в школу ходит много их детей, все прекрасно ладят. Это вам какую-то чушь рассказали».

“Everything is fine. There are no problems. My neighbor is Pierre Narciss, the “Chocolate Rabbit.” In general there are no problems with them – they are always saying hello, and don't make much noise. What's that? At night they play the drums and do African dances? Those are lies, that's the first I have heard of this. On the contrary, there is absolutely no noise. Our school has a number of African children and everyone gets along fine. What you have heard about is absolute nonsense.”

Terrorized by an Influx of African Migrants? Photo by Ilya Varlamov/zyalt.livejournal.com, used with permission.

Ilya also spoke with a local African migrant from South Africa who had moved to Moscow to manage a nightclub. He was clearly worried about the effects of the article:

Было видно, что к прессе у него очень подозрительное отношение. . . «Мы собираемся подавать в суд на них», — заявил он. «Они все переврали. Здесь живет много африканцев из разных стран, и все всегда жили спокойно, а они там наговорили непонятно что. Я не понимаю, зачем надо так врать».

It was clear he had a very negative view of the press. “We intend to take them to court,” he said. “They have distorted everything. Many Africans from different countries live here, and we have always lived peacefully, and then they write this stuff. I do not understand why they would do this.”

Why would Vesti-FM publish this kind of nonsense?

If the fair residents of this quiet suburb were not terrorized, what could possibly motivate Ms. Krikheli and Vesti FM to print this kind of racist misinformation? As Varlamov poses it:

зачем серьезной государственной радиокомпании надо раздувать абсолютно несуществующую в реальности проблему? Да еще описывать все в таких страшных красках? Ради сенсации? И как у журналистки, готовившей материал, обстоит дело с журналистской этикой? Слышала ли она об ответственности за разжигание межнациональной розни?

For what reason would a serious government radio station need to fabricate a nonexistent problem? And to paint it in such vivid color? Just to create a sensation? And doesn't a journalist, preparing material, have professional ethics? Has she heard about responsibility for stirring up inter-ethnic conflict?

Although it is unlikely that a definitive answer will ever emerge from the murky world of Russian misinformation, one strong possibility is that this series of articles were paid for by wealthy interests (one possibility: construction companies) who have an interest in deflecting anti-immigration attitudes toward African migrants. There are some clues in Ms. Khrikeli's articles themselves. At one point, she writes:

Анастасия говорит, что жизнь рядом с мигрантами из стран СНГ ни в какое сравнение не идет – они просто ангелы на фоне африканского народа, заполонившего подмосковные Люберцы. “Что вы, таджики и узбеки – тихие, спокойные, никогда не собираются большими компаниями, не шумят. Африканцы же всегда после себя столько мусора оставляют. Очень плохо мы живем здесь”, – отмечает она.

Anastasia says that there is no comparison between these African immigrants and life next to migrants from the CIS countries [former Soviet republics like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan] – they are simply angels in comparison with the African people, who are overrunning the Liubertsy suburbs. “The Tajiks and Uzbeks are quiet, peaceful, never congregate in big groups, and do not make a lot of noise. The Africans are always leaving trash everywhere. It is awful living here.”

Articles around the web have appeared which further support this explanation. One article on Islam News proclaims that the residents of Liubertsy “now sorely miss living next to Tajiks and Uzbeks.”

A great deal still remains unclear. Since Vesti FM is state-owned, what role did the Russian government play in these articles? Whatever the explanation, however, Ms. Krikheli's articles are a sad reflection on the state of journalistic ethics in the state-owned Russian media as well as the ease with which it is manipulated. For the African immigrants of Liubertsy, let's hope that the ramifications end there.

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