Current Time America news anchor Ihar Tsikhanenko, right, prepares for a broadcast in the offices of Voice of America in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. Two U.S. government-funded news outlets are launching Current Time, a global Russian-language TV network aimed at providing an alternative to slick, Kremlin-controlled media that critics say spread propaganda and misinformation. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Nearly three decades after it helped topple communist totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe, US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is challenging Moscow again, this time with a new 24-hour TV news channel in Russian.
Officially launched in Prague this month, the “Current Time” channel targets an audience of more than 270 million people, mostly in the former Soviet area, with news and views that provide an alternative to the Kremlin’s version of reality as channelled through state-controlled media.
The new channel’s launch comes as relations between Moscow and the West have hit their lowest point since the Cold War, triggered by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its military campaign in Syria a year later.
Suspicions also linger in the West about the extent to which the Kremlin may be using the internet and other means to spread fake news that could boost the popularity of pro-Russian politicians, thereby destabilising NATO and the European Union.
Moscow has been quick to denounce the new channel, with prominent Kremlin-appointed talk show host Dmitry Kiselyov — known as Russia’s chief spin doctor — labelling it a scam.
It’s “mostly money laundering under the guise of fighting Russian propaganda,” he said on Russian state TV last week, without elaborating or offering any proof of fraud.
RFE/RL, which reaches 23 countries in 26 languages, has launched the venture jointly with the Washington-based Voice of America.
As the official US international broadcaster, VOA targets more than 236 million people a week in more than 45 languages.
– ‘Need for objective news’ –
For decades, the stations fought a key ideological battle for the West during the Cold War.
Banned across the communist bloc, the stations regularly had their signal jammed by various regimes, but people behind the Iron Curtain still managed to listen in secret to broadcasts that inspired them to oppose totalitarian rule.
Current Time executive editor Kenan Aliyev told AFP the new station, known as Nastoyashcheye Vremya in Russian, has similar aims to win viewers in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
“Our ambition is to gain the audience in this important region which has lately been bombarded by a lot of disinformation, lies and propaganda,” he said.
“We feel there is a need for objective news and we will try to provide this type of service to our audience.”
Current Time programming ranges from breaking news to business, documentaries and even cooking shows. Coverage of issues like poverty, corruption and healthcare also features prominently.
Some programmes focus specifically on the Baltic states, Moldova and Ukraine, all under Moscow’s thumb during Soviet times and now home to significant ethnic Russian populations.
The station broadcasts via satellite, cable and the internet from Prague, where RFE/RL has been based since its 1995 move from Munich.
“Most importantly, we do social media and digital coverage for audiences that are particularly hard to reach, like those in Russia,” Current Time director Daisy Sindelar told AFP.
– Riga: a hub for independent media –
Conceived during the administration of former US president Barack Obama who took a firm line against Moscow over Crimea, the station officially launched its around-the-clock broadcasts under US President Donald Trump, known for his seemingly pro-Moscow stance.
RFE/RL President Thomas Kent says that while the US Congress has approved funding for “decades”, he told AFP that possible federal cost-cutting under the billionaire reality TV star-turned-president could affect programming.
Current Time’s operating budget for this year is $10 million (9.5 million euros).
“We hope that the uniqueness of what we do will help preserve our funding,” Kent told AFP.
Similar channels that operate free of Kremlin control include the BBC’s Russian language service, which is setting up a new bureau in Riga, the Latvian capital.
Ethnic Russians make up a quarter of Latvia’s population of two million people. Authorities in Riga are concerned Moscow is trying to target the country’s largest minority with propaganda designed to destabilise the Baltic NATO and EU state.
Last April, Latvia banned broadcasts by the Russian-language Rossiya RTR TV channel for six months, claiming it had incited hatred and made anti-Ukrainian statements.
Latvian state broadcaster LTV has a Russian-language TV and radio station as well as a news website to draw ethnic Russians away from almost exclusively pro-Kremlin media beamed in from Russia.
Riga has also recently become a hub for independent Russian media who have trouble operating in Russia itself, including the Meduza website run by former journalists from the Russian news site Lenta.ru.
Estonia’s public broadcaster ERR has also created three Russian-language media outlets.
According to a 2016 TNS Emor poll, the stations, including ETV, ETV2 and ETV+, captured an audience of around 20 percent of ethnic Russians who account for a quarter of Estonia’s 1.3 million people.