James Kirchick, a Berlin-based fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative, is a columnist for the New York Daily News, Haaretz and Tablet Magazine.
I was two days into a pleasant Baltic Sea vacation when the request from RT arrived in my inbox. Formerly “Russia Today,” RT is Moscow’s multilingual, global cable news network.
RT is not your babushka’s Soviet-style propaganda; it broadcasts sophisticated conspiracy theories and “anti-establishment” attitudes to push a virulently anti-American and illiberal agenda. The network relies on a pool of talking heads, including 9/11 truthers, anti-Semites and other assorted extremists, who espouse the sort of views found where the far left and the far right converge. It has amassed more YouTube hits than any other global news channel.
Resting in my Stockholm hotel room after a tour of the Swedish royal family’s residence, Drottningholm Palace, the idea of appearing on Russian state television to talk about the sentencing of leaker Pfc. Bradley Manning — the topic of the panel onto which I had been invited — was the furthest thing from my mind. Obsessive and one-sided coverage of the Manning case is typical of RT, as with any story that can be used to paint the United States in a negative light. What’s more, I had sworn off appearing on RT or any news channel funded by an authoritarian government, after Iran’s English-language broadcaster deceived me by posing as a Danish network to book me on a panel about the 2008 vice-presidential debate.
But suddenly an idea popped into my head: I could use the opportunity to publicize the abominable anti-gay laws passed by Russia’s lower house of parliament that essentially forbid public expression of pro-gay views. The measures — and anti-gay statements by various Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin — have encouraged harassment of and attacks on gays. The situation for gays in Russia has become so dire that some have compared next year’s Sochi Olympics to the 1936 Berlin Games, when the world stood in silence as Hitler’s Germany ramped up its oppression of Jews, gays and other minorities.
So I told the RT producer that I would be happy to appear on the program, and I asked the network to provide a car to ferry me to the studio and then to the airport after the show, as I had a flight that evening to Tallinn, Estonia. This was hardly an unusual request, and the producer readily agreed.
The following day, I set out to look for some gay-pride paraphernalia — ideally a rainbow flag I could hide until my moment on live TV. Hours scouring downtown Stockholm turned up nothing. Then, in a bargain bin at a vintage-clothing store, I spotted a pair of rainbow suspenders.
With the assistance of Mark, my traveling companion, I hooked the suspenders around my waist and let them dangle across my legs. We jumped into the Mercedes sedan waiting to take me to the studio. The driver, a friendly, older gentleman, brought us to the headquarters of Sweden’s public broadcaster. There, in the cafeteria, a crew was milling about with a camera propped up in front of some shrubbery resembling a jungle. Between the earpiece dangling across my shoulder and the microphone wire snaking under my shirt, I worried that my strategic suspender-pull might fail.
The RT host opened the broadcast with an announcement that Manning’s “fate” was imminent. After asking the other guest his opinion of Manning’s sentence, she turned to me. Paraphrasing the gay playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein, who recently said that “you cannot just ignore evil” with respect to the Russian government’s “war on gays,” I tugged the suspenders up and over my shoulders.
“Being here on a Kremlin-funded propaganda network, I’m going to wear my gay-pride suspenders, and I’m going to speak out against the horrific anti-gay legislation that Vladimir Putin has signed into law, that was passed unanimously by the Russian Duma, that criminalizes homosexual propaganda [and] that effectively makes it illegal to talk about homosexuality in public,” I said, trembling with a bit of rage and a lot of trepidation.
Surprisingly, the anchor and her panel, which consisted of RT’s news editor and a correspondent, allowed me to go on like this for more than two minutes. I even got in a line about how anyone who works for RT should be “ashamed” of themselves, and I asked the host how she could “call [herself] a journalist” and “go to sleep at night” seeing her “paymasters” rule a country where real reporters “are routinely harassed, tortured and in some cases killed.”
Shortly thereafter, my audio was cut off, and I rose from the chair. The Swedish crew, who I feared might face repercussions for my tirade, gave me a standing ovation. Bidding them a hasty farewell, I ran to the waiting Mercedes to catch my flight to Estonia. A producer from Swedish TV called to ask where I was. Worried that the Russians were looking for me and fearing a rebuke for abusing the Swedes’ hospitality, I told her she had no business asking my location.
“Calm down,” she said. “We are a democratic country and were impressed by what you did.” (When I told her that RT was “evil,” she chuckled and replied, “They have a different system.”)
Twenty minutes later, after a brief phone conversation in Swedish, the driver explained to me in broken English that RT would no longer pay for the ride and that he would have to leave me on the side of the road. As he pulled off the highway, I told him I would pay for the taxi — which, in light of the waiting time involved and the absurd strength of the Swedish currency, would set me back several hundred dollars. He agreed.
At the airport, the driver took my credit card and called his dispatcher to begin a transaction. After some back-and-forth with his colleague, he hung up and told me the ride was free. From donning rainbow suspenders on the network of a country where doing such a thing could land me in jail to spotting a taxi ride for the impulsive journalist who would pull such a stunt, there is no act too small in solidarity with those striving for their freedom.
Condemning Russian homophobia and supporting that country’s gay community were not my only purposes Wednesday. I also hoped to expose RT’s pernicious influence as an outlet that poses as a legitimate news organization, yet is anything but. For too long, journalists in democratic countries who take Western freedoms for granted have either accepted job offers or appeared on this network and others like it, lending these propaganda outlets undeserved credibility. They should instead treat RT with the contempt it merits.