On September 17, a Russian Air Force Il-20 plane was shot down over Syria. All 14 members of the crew were killed. The surface-to-air missile that hit it was Russian-made and supplied to the Syrian Army’s air defense forces by its Russian allies. In other words, it was a case of friendly fire: the Syrian army was targeting an Israeli bomber raining fire on their positions.
What followed in the immediate hours after the tragic incident was a very confused propaganda campaign, as Russian state media scrambled to put together a coherent narrative in the absence of a clear-cut policy.
Until a reluctant acknowledgement from the Russian Defense Ministry arrived that their plane was indeed shot down and it was indeed a Russian-made Syrian missile that hit it, RIA Novosti, a state-owned news agency, employed a time-tested deflection tactic of “accuse others of precisely what you are doing yourself”: it attacked CNN for publishing “fake news.”
The fact that only a few hours later Russia’s own defense minister confirmed that CNN’s initial report was entirely correct did not deter RIA Novosti, and the piece is still online without any corrections or clarifications.
What came later was even more absurd. State media must closely follow the official line, either directly told what to say — or, more importantly, what not to say — by the presidential administration or looking for cues in President Vladimir Putin’s words. But Putin had not yet made a statement, and the only available cue was an angry diatribe from Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He put the blame squarely on Israel, saying its jet fighter was spotted in the area — despite the fact that it was Syria’s own air defense that shot down the Russian plane.
State and loyalist media had no other choice than to follow the lead and attack the “aggressive actions by Israel” in their headlines. Until finally, Vladimir Putin defused the situation by saying that Russia wouldn’t blame anybody for the incident, which he ruled to be a confluence of tragic circumstances. And, again, the media took the cue and downplayed Israel’s involvement.
So, in the course of one day, Russia’s state media had to make two complete U-turns in their coverage of a major international incident, simply because they had no clear instructions on how to act in a specific sensitive situation. And doing simply what a journalist should do, i.e. report things as they are, is not an option when your duty is not to your audience, but to an increasingly authoritarian state that pays your salary.
It hasn’t always been like that. I remember a time when RIA Novosti was an internationally respected, independent and reliable source of information, even though it was state-owned. But things changed drastically in late 2013 when Putin signed an executive order merging RIA into an enormous propaganda conglomerate. The quality of its coverage sharply dropped, became more ideologically charged and less informative.
So while commercial media models may be unsustainable and many still operating newspapers are doomed to fail, state media are definitely not an answer.