The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion RT is a terrible network. But don’t ban it.

The stand of Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2018. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

For years, I have been the victim of an Iranian state media propaganda campaign intended to justify my arrest and imprisonment on false espionage charges. So I’m very familiar with how state-run media organizations often distort reality or lie outright. Still, I’m torn on the issue of blocking the ability of Russia’s state-owned television station RT to broadcast internationally.

It is absolutely the right instinct to support efforts to defang Russian President Vladimir Putin as he attacks Ukraine, a sovereign neighbor that is fighting valiantly to protect a young and fragile democracy. Severing Russia from the international messaging network for banks and freezing the assets of Putin and his cronies make all the sense in the world. So does downgrading relations or recalling diplomatic representatives.

Some measures, though, such as governments blocking the English-language RT — formerly Russia Today — from international airwaves and social media platforms, require further scrutiny and might actually backfire.

RT is funded by the Russian government and its editorial line matches the perspective of its underwriters. That’s not a secret. But pulling the plug would be at odds with democratic values and would do nothing to slow Putin’s aggression.

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In the past few weeks, I’ve been dismayed to see people I otherwise often agree with claim Putin’s belligerence is somehow justified. What these figures seem to have in common is an affinity for things perceived to be against U.S. national interests. They believe the United States represents the modern world’s most dangerous imperial power and rail against American hegemony, never having set foot in an authoritarian country like Russia. These skewed perspectives are sometimes influenced by English-language state-run organizations that present themselves as objective news outlets. RT is, perhaps, the most well-known, but certainly not the only one.

No matter how RT attempts to brand itself, though, it’s clearly anti-Western, not anti-imperial. If anything, its coverage is rooted in the very power dynamics it is attempting to criticize. And it is much less influential in the West than many assume: Its reach is dwarfed by mainstream news outlets from both sides of the political spectrum. By blocking it, governments might inadvertently give fodder to its supporters — especially people sensitive to the idea of U.S. hegemony — and undercut the United States’ contrasting free and democratic example.

Moreover, today, no one can credibly claim ignorance of Putin’s atrocities the way foreign supporters of the Iron Curtain did during the 20th century. There are now simply too many sources of information providing ample evidence of the heartbreaking reality.

RT is very much a propaganda outlet, but it also offers a worldview informed by insiders with insights into places we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. Having a window into how an adversary thinks could be a useful tool — and could do more to reveal that adversary’s true nature to Western audiences than taking it off the airwaves.

Putin will win very few new hearts and minds if RT continues broadcasting. In fact, as the crisis in Ukraine deepens and his lies get demonstrably bigger, reality will become easier to distinguish from the fiction he has been spinning for years.

As a longtime viewer of PressTV — the Islamic republic’s equivalent of RT was the only English-language channel on the television in my cell during the nearly year and a half I spent in Iranian prison — I have become a very astute consumer of this kind of “reporting.”

It puts a regime’s insecurities on full display, 24 hours a day. If one follows a story long enough, the holes become abundantly clear. An example that sticks out for me is the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. I hope you can excuse me for believing Scotland was on the verge of breaking away from the United Kingdom; PressTV made it seem like a foregone conclusion. Yet the vote wasn’t even that close.

Now, with all eyes on Ukraine, juxtaposing RT’s coverage with that of independent international news outlets is perhaps the most effective way to expose Putin’s disinformation. Unlike when I watched PressTV in prison, most RT viewers can change the channel whenever they choose — and more and more will choose to in the weeks ahead.

It’s also important to note that there are almost certainly people working for RT who are providing information to the outside world that might not otherwise get out — if not in their public reports, then secretly. When I reported from Iran, some of the most damning material about the excesses and atrocities of the Iranian regime was made available by people working for state-run media who had access to raw and uncensored footage and leaked it to foreign media. They were devastated by what they saw and disgusted by how they earned their wages — so they found ways to make up for it.

On Thursday, the production company behind RT America ceased its operations after the channel was dropped by several U.S. TV distributors. Such trends could continue. If technology companies decide to block RT content on their own, that is their call and should be part of broader efforts to actually combat disinformation.

But ultimately, RT’s ability to broadcast its twisted narratives is not an important press freedom issue, and governments shouldn’t turn it into one. Instead, they should be focusing their efforts on amplifying independent outlets and voices in Russia — ones that are being shut down and targeted by Russian authorities by the day.