MOSCOW — Pavel Koshkin wants you to know that he does not produce Kremlin propaganda.
Yes, Koshkin is the editor in chief of a small analytical journal that is financed by the Russian government.
Yes, he works out of a newsroom in the sprawling headquarters of the government’s official newspaper.
And yes, some of the pieces he publishes support positions held by Russia’s leaders.
How can Koshkin’s publication, Russia Direct, be anything but a Kremlin propaganda outfit?
“It’s an oversimplification for me,” Koshkin, 29, retorted in a recent interview in clipped, fluent English learned in Moscow and honed during a year studying in Tennessee. “The affiliation doesn’t necessarily mean the lack of integrity, the lack of quality and the presence of propaganda.”
What Koshkin does admit is that running his publication is somewhat of a balancing act. It’s something he embraces as part of what journalists are supposed to do.
A recent survey of Russian journalists published on the website OpenDemocracy found that 72 percent of respondents “had encountered instances of censorship in their work.” In July, journalists of the news outlet RBC were told by new management that they needed to observe in their coverage an unseen “solid double line” they should never cross.
So does Koshkin ever get a tap on the shoulder?
“Sometimes when we’ve tried to raise very sensitive topics, I wasn’t told you cannot do that; I was told you should be careful and you should maintain balance,” Koshkin said. “If you came up with something controversial, try to find the counterbalance, try to challenge this view you’d like to promote.”
But he says he has never been told not to publish something.
Launched in 2013, Russia Direct targets an audience outside Russia that is interested in issues pertaining to the country and its relationship with the world. Koshkin said its purpose is to present contrasting opinions in analyses and Q&A-style interviews that “let our readers come up with their own conclusions.”
The online site produces articles written by Russian and foreign analysts touching on such topics as: both sides of the issue of how and whether the United States should arm Ukraine; reactions to the Dutch-led report on the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over Ukraine; and the pros and cons of a law signed by President Vladimir Putin aimed at protecting Russia from “undesirables.” Russia Direct also produces monthly in-depth reports. Koshkin said it has more than 9,000 subscriptions, and its reports appear as a supplement to Foreign Policy magazine.
Koshkin does take one or two very pro-Kremlin positions, such as seeing what Russia did in 2014 to acquire Crimea as “incorporation,” as though the Black Sea peninsula were just lying around, looking for a country to belong to. Most of the world describes what happened as “annexation” from Ukraine. But when Russia Direct runs a piece on Crimea, it will also run something that criticizes the Kremlin’s position, “to create the platform for a dialogue,” as Koshkin puts it. (And in that critical piece, he will leave the word “annexation” in.)
Russian media critics, it must be said, heap huge portions of doubt over whether anyone funded by the state can publish freely.
“You cannot work for a state-owned publication and have an independent line,” said Tatyana Malkina, a veteran Russian journalist.
That said, the publication has nothing like the Moscow-centric slant of the outlets usually associated with Kremlin propaganda, such as the Duran, Sputnik or RT. And every Russia Direct story comes with a box directing the reader to another story that presents an alternative — if not always opposing — point of view.
So imagine Koshkin’s surprise when he found his publication lumped into a blacklist with those other organizations by a website called PropOrNot. The site describes itself as an anonymous group that has compiled some 200 outlets that “echo, repeat, and refer their audience to Russian propaganda.” The broad list includes English-language websites such as the liberal-leaning Truthdig, as well as the right-wing Drudge Report.
A number of sites on the list, including Truthdig – as well as other news sites – have vehemently challenged the report’s methodology and conclusions.
The website appeared during the U.S. presidential race, when Democrats, and later the Obama administration, accused the Kremlin of hacking the Democratic National Committee and interfering with the campaign. A report provided by PropOrNot served as part of the basis for a Washington Post report last month that described a Russian propaganda campaign that “created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.”
The Post subsequently ran an editor’s note saying it did “not itself vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings regarding any individual media outlet, nor did the article purport to do so.”
Koshkin said PropOrNot did not contact him before including Russia Direct in its blacklist. So instead, he contacted the anonymous group and wrote an earnest analysis about it.
“I asked for a specific example where we spread false news without providing necessary background, without providing opposite opinion,” Koshkin said.
PropOrNot responded by removing Russia Direct from the list, as it has with some other sites that similarly protested being included. The organization did not answer email messages from The Washington Post.
It was a victory, but not one that calls for celebration.
“The fact that we have a blacklist now is a sign that we are, unfortunately, in an information war,” Koshkin said. “It is not a good sign for me; I have to stay above this.”
This article has been updated to make it clear that several web sites named by PropOrNot challenged their inclusion and have been removed from the PropOrNot list. Also added is the reference to the editor’s note stating that The Post did not and does not vouch for the validity of PropOrNot’s findings.