Putin’s New Heroes, or the Day the Russian Press Died (Again)

No press today

Today, a Russian newspaper leaked the existence of a secret presidential decree, by which President Putin awarded various military-grade medals and orders to over 300 Russian journalists. The decree with № 269was issued on April 22, 2014; yet it remained unpublished and apparently was never intended to be made public, as the Kremlin database of executive orders skips a number from 268 to 270.  The lucky press workers got their awards for “high professionalism and objectivity in coverage of the events in the Crimean Republic”.  A source for Vedomosti who has seen the decree, can remember names working primarily for state-run news outlets such as Rossiya TV, Channel 1 and international propaganda arm RussiaToday, but also for private media that have excelled in pushing Kremlin’s line in this (and previous) emergencies, such as LifeNews and Komsomolskaya Pravda.  No names from (even marginally) dissenting media such as Echo of Moscow and TV Dozhd, predictably, appear to be on the list.

A Bulgarian blogger flipped sarcacstically that “In Russia’s Ukraine war,  more medals have been given to journalists than to soldiers”. Funny as this may appear, it is only natural. The Ukraine war, and especially the takeover of Crimea, has not been a traditional war. It was a war won almost entirely with weapons of disinformation and propaganda. In February and March,  Russia’s domestic media was mobilized to speak not to its own denizens, but to the “collateral” audiences in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine. To ensure that no confusing messages reach the Crimean population, in the weeks ahead of the so-called referendum, all Ukrainian TV and radio stations in Crimea were replaced with Russian media (more on the specifics of Russia’s information war in Crimea in my article from early March).

Thus, it was only natural that Putin would award the true warriors who won his war – the purveyors of propaganda and disinformation. It is also quite natural – actually, inevitable – that these awards should be kept secret. After all, what use is there of a disclosed government agent? Because that is what these press workers are – they are the direct equivalent of undercover spies, or saboteurs,  pick your term. They are the media equivalent of Soviet TV super-spy Stierlitz, for exactly as he passed off as a German Wehrmacht officer and subverted the Third Reich from within, so did these awardees parade as journalists and did their agent job, both at home and – more crucially – amongst the Ukrainians (now proud Russians, proud at least for a while).

Ironically, it was exactly these journalists, whose objective and professional reporting from Crimea convinced the Russians- and tried to convince the world – that an astonishing >97% of  all living Crimeans voted in the referendum, and that of those, nearly all voted in  favor of annexation by Russia. The Russian reporters from Crimea kept showing  the ecstatic faces of the new would-be Russians; all 97% of them. Not a single dissenter was to be found anywhere.

The irony comes to light in a new report, issued by the Kremlin’s own inquiry into the Crimean referendum, which concluded  that:

“in the opinion of practically all surveyed experts and citizens…the turn-out rate in Crimea was 30-50%, of which 50-60% voted in favor of joining Russia”

So, it appears that somehow the objective and professional Russian so-called-journalists missed to find and/or see approximately 50-70% of the population, who did not show up to vote (as they had warned they wouldn’t – in an unlawful referendum, in transparent ballot boxes with Russian – or worse – unidentified military men – walking about the ballots, or showing up at your home with the ballot box itself.

So who are the silent warriors who got Putin’s medals? The full list is not yet available, but some leaked names include head of foreign-language propaganda machine RussiaToday,  who was objective enough in her coverage of Ukraine to tweet this:

Украина. R.I.P. — Маргарита Симоньян (@M_Simonyan) April 24, 2014

Also in the list – with two different medals of honor – is owner and CEO of pro-Kremlin media outlet LifeNews (frequently referred to on the Ukranian netosphere as “LieNews”,) which became the butt of a long-running Internet meme with its Hollywood-esque story of the “business card of the Right Sector leader”, improbably found at the place of an alleged attack on a Slavyansk “self-defense” check-point.

A tongue-in-cheek program on Echo of Moscow, the news/talk radio station that is still able to afford a streak of undercover independence from the Government’s line, asked listeners this morning if the Kremlin should match the 300+ medals with an equal number of punishments – for those journalists who failed to objectively and professionally reflect the truth on Crimea. It all makes perfect sense, the radio hosts argued, before deciding to drop the topic “so we don’t give the Kremlin additional ideas”

Funny as all this may appear, it is a damning indictment on the state of media in Russia today, but also on the freedom of the press for decades to come. More than 300 media professionals received military-grade medals of honor.  These are not simple gilded trinkets, as you may mistakenly concluded. These medals come with quite tangible material benefits, not least of which is a life-long state addition to the recipient retirement pension, in the amount of up to 450% of the base pension (approx. $400 per month by today’s rates, but expected to grow substantially by the time these guys and girls get to retirement age).  In other words,  Russians should expect continued objectivity and professionalism – of the kind appreciated by the Kremlin – from this army of journalists until their retirement date. Or else, medals of honor may be easily revoked, as may happen popular Soviet/Russian rocker Andrey Marakevich, who risks being stripped of all titles and medals for speaking his mind against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

One wonders if the leak of the secret presidential decree was a true leak. After all, leaks from the Kremlin are – well….I wouldn’t say unheard of, but let’s say my memory struggles to remember the last one. And the leak was published in Vedomosti – not the most obsequious, but far from a dissenting or extraordinarily brave news outlet. So it might just as well be that the Kremlin engineered this leak, in order to get the message out: there is objective reporting, and we prize that objectivity.  And there will be other wars and annexations to come, and there’s plenty of oil money to give more state pension on. And, let’s make sure it’s clear, the objectivity of Echo of Moscow and Dozhd are below standards, thus they won’t get on this list. Maybe on the next one though.

P.S. I wonder if these 300+ information warriors will get on the list of EU/US/Canada sanctions. And why wouldn’t they? They clearly did a wet job for the Kremlin, or otherwise they wouldn’t be awarded as military heroes in an undercover war. Why treat them any different than other spies, saboteurs, and terrorists, or even differently from the notorious head of the Kremlin’s news agency RIA Novosti Dmitry Kiselyov, who was included in the first list of sanctions? Of course, they all have a choice to reject (and return) their medals, and get off the list. Oh, well. Like that’s ever going to happen.


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