Friday, April 04, 2014
BOB GARFIELD: In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Russian TV personality Dmitry Kiselyov as head of the newly-restructured state news agency, Russia Today. In years past, it seemed unlikely that this up and coming journalist would serve as the head of a government propaganda network. Here he is back in 1999.
INTERPRETER FOR DMITRY KISELYOV: You cannot separate a journalist from ethics but the people you see on the screen cannot often be called journalists, because often they are just agitators.
BOB GARFIELD: I wonder what the 1999 version of Dmitry Kiselyov would think of the more modern version.
INTERPRETER FOR DMITRY KISELYOV: According to published polls on Friday, Americans themselves consider Putin a much strong leader than Obama. You can see this on diagrams. And Russia is the only country in the world that is, in reality, capable of turning the USA into radioactive ash.
BOB GARFIELD: That was Kiselyov just last month on his show, News of the Week, which he hosts, in addition to his role as de facto minister of propaganda. And it is that role that prompted Kiselyov’s inclusion on a list of Russian and Ukrainian officials being sanctioned by the European Union for their part in the Russian takeover of Crimea.
But, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Joel Simon, including a journalist on such a list sets a dangerous precedent. Joel, welcome back to the show.
JOEL SIMON: Great to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess we better discuss the definition of “journalist” and whether a propagandist who self-identifies as journalist is necessarily eligible for the title.
JOEL SIMON: Frankly, I’m not even sure where I, I come down on Kiselyov. He’s, he’s grotesque. His comments are inflammatory. He’s a pernicious and destructive force in Russian society. And there’s no question that he definitely supported the Russian annexation of Crimea.
BOB GARFIELD: Just to give the listeners a notion of how incendiary this guy can be, here he is on the subject of gay rights.
INTERPRETER FOR DMITRY KISELYOV: It should prohibit them from donating blood and sperm, and their hearts, in case of an auto accident should be buried in the ground or burned, as they are not suitable for continuing someone else’s life.
BOB GARFIELD: As much as this guy frightens you and disgusts you, you are even more unnerved by the decision of the EU. Why?
JOEL SIMON: Well, let’s just say I’m uncomfortable with the decision. You know, where the line between propaganda and journalism begins and ends, that’s a highly subjective judgment. When governments make that designation and say, you’re a journalist, you’re a propagandist, we know the difference between one and the other and we’re going to take action on that basis, that is a troubling precedent, in many different contexts. The real issue, in terms of sanctions, in my view, is that Kiselyov participate in incitement of violence, which is a criminal offense under any definition. And I'm not sure that he crossed the line.
BOB GARFIELD: On the subject of, of inciting violence, there is historical precedent for that. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found a radio station partly responsible for the genocide, when the Hutu broadcasters incited murderous mass violence against Tutsi civilians. So it happens, but that’s not what Kiselyov is doing on News of the Week.
JOEL SIMON: Right. The reason that we don’t want governments making this distinction is because this distinction is the basis for lots of different kinds of action, including, in some cases, military action. Now, that military action can be justified under certain circumstances, as you mentioned. For example, incitement to genocide would certainly be a proper basis for that kind of intervention.
But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about speech that is inflammatory and disturbing and outrageous but has not crossed the line into criminal speech. And that’s why I think this designation is troubling.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to play the devil’s advocate for you for a moment and also the angel’s advocate. Kiselyov may not himself be inciting violence, but he is the architect of a, a campaign of hate speech and lies that is giving political cover to the dubious activities of the Kremlin, and he’s doing that explicitly for the Kremlin. Does this not make him a part of the apparatus of the Russian government and, therefore, as eligible for sanctions as anybody?
JOEL SIMON: He certainly played a noxious role, and he’s put himself at the service of Putin and his political project, including his annexation of Crimea. But the Kremlin is exploiting this designation to suggest that the European Union has a double standard. And that’s actually playing fairly well in Russia itself, so in some ways this designation is playing into the hands of the Russian government.
BOB GARFIELD: Is the European Union’s action going to make it easier for authoritarian governments to shut down freedom of expression in the future?
JOEL SIMON: I think it could be useful because basically they’re saying we’ve made a determination that this is not journalism, it’s propaganda and, on that basis, we’re taking action. If you put that in another context, we wouldn’t be too happy if the Russian government or the Turkish government or the Venezuelan government was making that determination about the domestic media and acting on that basis.
BOB GARFIELD: The European Union has made this decision. They've kind of crunched the numbers and decided that Kiselyov is a legitimate target for sanctions. The United States has demurred on this. Do you know the catalyst in the State Department that rendered them not to follow the Europeans in this sanction?
JOEL SIMON: I don't have any insight into those discussions, but I will say that based on what I’ve seen of Kiselyov, everything he said is probably protected speech in a US context, but that would not necessarily be true in a European context where because of the history of the media in its role inciting violence, particularly in World War II and even in the Balkan Wars, there are different standards. And it’s not clear to me that his statements would be protected in a European context. And perhaps that explains the different decisions.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Joel, thank you so much.
JOEL SIMON: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.