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Russia, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders: How Moscow Attempts to Deflect Criticism of Russia’s Domestic Information Controls

Russia, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders: How Moscow Attempts to Deflect Criticism of Russia’s Domestic Information Controls

Previous research found that when criticized for censorship, internet controls, or lack of a free media, Russia responded by deflecting attention onto countries with which it was in conflict. Specifically, research using English-language reporting from TASS and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs found that criticism by international press and internet freedom NGOs Reporters without Borders and Freedom House was often redirected by Russia to highlight Georgian, U.S., or Ukrainian performance negatives in the same NGO reporting. This research attempts to determine if a similar pattern emerges from the state media outlet Russia Today, using English language reporting from June 2006 to January 2020 (just over 212,000 articles). We first examine Russia Today’s (RT’s) reporting on the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report, then look at reporting on Freedom House and Reporter’s Without Borders.

RT articles only referenced the State Department human rights report eight times from June 2006 to January 2020. An examination of those eight articles brings us to an initial finding – in all of the RT articles referencing the State Department’s report, the focus is not on Russia’s performance. Rather, the focus is on negative aspects of the U.S. human rights record, though the mention in 2015 focuses more on Hillary Clinton, the Clinton Foundation and her run for the presidency than the U.S. government. As we have seen elsewhere, Russia redirects the criticism of its human rights, in this case back onto Washington.

RT mentions the two NGOs and their reports more often than the State Department reports: 57 articles mention Freedom House and 116 mention Reporters Without Borders. There are no mentions of either in 2006 or 2007, mentions appear in 2008, recede or disappear altogether from 2009-2012, then increase again and remain relatively high from 2013 through the end of 2019 (after which the database ends). This larger number of articles allows for some additional analysis of RT reporting related to the two NGOs.

In addition to tracking the number of articles containing the terms over time, we also measured the sentiment of all of the articles in the database using Google Natural Language tools. This provided a scale from -1 (very negative) to 1 (very positive), with zero as neutral. Comparing the baseline sentiment for all RT reporting with sentiment in articles containing the two NGOs provides an additional analytic tool.

Russia Today Articles and Polarity/Sentiment
The image below shows the sentiment for all Russia Today reporting in the database, approximately 212,000 articles covering every available report from 21 June 2006 to 9 January 2020. The higher and bluer the line, the more positive the sentiment; the lower and redder the line, the more negative the sentiment.

From the chart below we can see that overall monthly sentiment during the period is positive. The dip in September 2012 could be related to large anti-Putin demonstrations that month. The July 2007 peak tracks with the International Olympic Committee’s July announcement awarding the 2014 Winter Olympics to Sochi, Russia.

Russia Today Baseline Polarity

With the baseline established, next is a comparison of that baseline against stories referencing the NGOs. As shown in the images below, articles that contain either (or both) ‘Freedom House’ or ‘Reporters Without Borders’ are much more negative than the baseline.

Polarity of Russia Today articles containing the term Freedom House
Polarity of Russia Today articles containing the term Freedom House

While the baseline of all Russia Today reporting never dropped into negative sentiment for the month, the two charts above show the NGO-related articles frequently generated average sentiment scores below zero. On the surface this finding is not surprising, since many of the NGO reports criticize Russian performance. However, a closer look at the narratives associated with many of the articles reveals a more complex picture, one that echoes the finding above on RT reporting about the State Department’s annual human rights report – the focus of the reporting is rarely Russia; more commonly, RT redirects the human rights reporting onto other countries.

We will use the five most negative articles/months as our examples:

Highest Negative Sentiment

Russia Today BaselineWith ‘Freedom House’With ‘Reporters Without Borders’
Sep 2012 – 0.0009Apr 2010 –  -0.0969Oct 2008 –  -0.1875
Apr 2007 – 0.0038Nov 2015 –  -0.0685Aug 2013 –  -0.1402
Mar 2007 – 0.0044Jun 2013 –  -0.0580Sep 2009 –  -0.0989
Oct 2012 – 0.0080Mar 2010 –  -0.0541Sep 2008 –  -0.0974
Feb 2007 – 0.0081Aug 2015 –  -0.0505Apr 2017 –  -0.0740
Most Negative Sentiment

The four most negative articles reference Reporter’s Without Borders; three of the four most negative stories focus on Georgia and occur in 2008 and 2009 (Russia and Georgia fought a war in August 2008). The August 2013 article focuses on post-coup unrest in Egypt and the April 2017 story focuses on French criticisms of Russian state media for being propaganda outlets. None of the Russia Today articles focus on Russia.

This finding is in line with RT’s coverage of the State Department’s annual human rights report – rather than focusing on Russia or Russian performance, RT uses the reports to criticize other countries. In the case of Reporter’s Without Borders, the most negative stories focus on Georgia during a time period associated with Russia-Georgia fighting.

The Freedom House results are more varied: the June 2013 story is about Freedom House getting banned from Egypt; April and March 2010 focus on Kyrgyzstan’s poor Freedom House ranking in stories on U.S. use of a Kyrgyz military base, Kyrgyzstan’s ‘Tulip Revolution’, and discussions of tougher Kyrgyz policies toward Russia. The story in Nov 2015 focuses on George Soros and associated groups getting labeled “undesirable” by the Russian government, with Russian citizens and organizations banned from working on their projects. Undesirable groups are also the focus of the Aug 2015 article, though this time the groups are the U.S. “motorcycle clubs” Hells Angels and Bandidos, accused of being possible fronts for a U.S.-backed “color revolution” in Russia.

Though more varied, the RT coverage of Freedom House reports is similar in its efforts to direct attention away from Russia and onto groups or countries with which Moscow is in conflict. This again matches what we have seen in other research – negative reporting that attempts to direct foreign (i.e. English speakers) attention elsewhere.

The findings here are in line with previous research using data from TASS and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs – when Russian state media mentions Freedom House or Reporters without Borders, the focus is typically on discrediting the performance of other countries. Often (i.e. Georgia), the countries gaining the most attention are ones with which Russia is in conflict. Upon the cessation of that conflict, or the start of a larger conflict elsewhere, the focus shifts to a different country.

There appears to be an active, years-old campaign by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state media to refocus attention away from Russia’s record. The targets of the deflection are often countries with which Russia is in conflict or has concerns; less commonly Moscow targets individuals, for example George Soros or Hillary Clinton.

Previous research into North Korea did not find a similar misdirection effort. Future research will examine China’s and Iran’s approach to the NGOs.