US set to challenge Kremlin with new Russian TV channel


By Jan Flemr and Mary Sibierski, AFP

PRAGUE — Nearly three decades after it helped topple communist totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe, U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) 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 channeled 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 destabilizing 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 — labeling 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 U.S. 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 programs 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.