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OP-EDS

Don’t shoot the messenger

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The pictures coming out of Ukraine are devastating, heartbreaking, and beyond justification. No-one supports war. At least I don’t. I’ve seen it up-close and in the eyes of a dying child that will haunt me forever.

For nearly two decades, I’ve reported on conflict. I should be in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, reporting now – but I’m not. Instead, I’m writing this from Moscow, where the population is divided over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a military operation against his neighbour.

The reason I’m not there, though, is through no fault of my own. In 2018, I flew into Kyiv to participate in a conference about media freedom hosted by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The authorities slapped a five-year ban on me before deporting me. The irony isn’t lost on me.

The charge was that I had reported on the Russia/Ukraine war four years earlier for a Russian television network – RT (Russia Today) – and hence I was a “propagandist” or “Putin information soldier”.

That charge was racked up again in the past few days after the European Union decided to ban Kremlin-backed media outlets as part of a wider package of sanctions against Moscow. Other countries have since followed suit, including digital platforms like Apple, TikTok, Netflix, and Facebook’s parent company, Meta.

Of them all, I commend Twitter’s response. It flagged my account as being part of “Russian state-affiliated media”. It’s true. Neither I nor RT have ever hidden the fact that the channel represents the Russian government’s point of view.

But Western powers have chosen to see that point of view as misleading and misinformative. Putin would beg to differ. And seeing that a sizeable part of the Russian population still supports him, I believe there’s value in hearing his justification for this war.

I’m not writing this to defend Putin’s actions in the Ukraine. Truthfully, I’m conflicted. Working for RT doesn’t mean I unequivocally support Putin and think Russia’s in the right in this conflict.

But are my views relevant? I would argue that they aren’t. I’ve always understood my duty as a journalist to report what I see and hear with integrity and to the best of my ability. My responsibility is to the people who entrusted me with their story, and to my readers and listeners. It’s for them that I uphold the values of my profession.

I’m writing this because I support the idea of media plurality. I believe it’s useful for Western audiences to understand what Russians are thinking, especially in their own language. For years, those of us who don’t speak Russian had to rely on a select few people chosen by the mainstream press to represent and/or dissect what was going on in Russia. This was Putin’s motivation for setting up RT 17 years ago. Until its banning this week, it broadcast in English, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, German (which was already banned in February this year), and French. He saw it as an opportunity for Western audiences to understand the Russian government – and I think that’s valuable. Especially at a time like this. If nothing else, to quote from the famous Chinese general and military strategist, Sun Tzu: know your enemy.

While it’s true that the Russian population is divided over this war, it would be unfair to merely cast those Russians who support it as misinformed and unintelligent. It’s insulting to them – and quite frankly to journalists like myself who work in state media. Many of us have worked in this profession for years and are seasoned, qualified correspondents by anyone’s standards.

There seems to be a trend of presenting media that are aligned with official adversaries as inherently propagandistic and deceitful, while the output of Western media is presumed to be objective, free from manipulation, and truthful. The charge of “propaganda” is the easiest way to delegitimise a channel. If stories that appear on RT were to appear on the BBC, would they still be regarded as propaganda? Who decides what’s propaganda anyway?

Banning pro-Kremlin channels doesn’t stop them broadcasting inside Russia. Every channel has a point of view; all media are subjective. At least RT is upfront and honest about it.

Unsurprisingly, I received my fair share of hate mail this week. I hope it ends there and doesn’t escalate into the kind of death threats I received during the last Russia-Ukraine war.

Then, Ukrainian blogger Denis Kazansky instigated an online campaign that spiralled from him blaming Ukrainian intelligence for letting me into his country, to people calling for me to be killed. Kazansky branded me the “scum of the earth”, and subsequent tweets by his followers called to “F*** her”; “take a knife and pull out all her Russian shit”; and “not just to catch her but kill her”.

Kazansky made no secret of the fact that he supported the Kiev government and hence took issue with my reports from eastern Ukraine where people support Russia. Though I respect his right to disagree with those I interviewed, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have interviewed them or given their views airtime, especially in light of the fact that they repeatedly told me they believed the Ukrainian media was lying.

By banning RT, Western governments are giving in to the Kazanskys of the world. I was frightened enough by his threats to leave Ukraine. I wrote at the time:

“What does Mr Kazansky achieve by getting me out of Kiev? He complains my stories show only one point of view but then denies me access to the other. It’s one thing for the crazies out there to make good on Mr Kazansky’s words; it’s quite another for him to taint our profession and use the very privileged position we have as journalists to shed light on the many different narratives out there.”

Russian journalists aren’t given access to Ukraine and aren’t permitted to cross Ukrainian-controlled checkpoints, which means that even if my banning order was miraculously lifted, I would be putting my life in danger by going to Kyiv as a journalist for RT. To be fair, Western and Ukrainian journalists are also targeted if they try to enter the pro-Russian parts of Ukraine. Unfortunately, this means very few stories from this part of the Ukrainian population make it into the mainstream media – all the journalists are in and around Kyiv.

Over the years, the targeting of journalists has got so bad, the OSCE has held several workshops aimed at finding ways to protect our safety. After one such meeting, I approached a group of Ukrainian journalists and extended my hand in an offer to have a one-on-one with them, but they literally turned their backs on me. They, too, believe I’m a Russian stooge. If journalists cannot support each other to protect all our safety, how then can we expect others to? A dangerous precedent is being created that paves the way for others to intimidate, harass, and possibly even harm us while we do our jobs. The banning of pro-Kremlin networks merely fuels the problem.

Not only does it violate freedom of speech, it’s the start of a slippery slope that opens the door for future suppression. Wars will increasingly be fought online through the media. It’s already becoming a case of whose story wins rather than whose army wins. Banning the stories you don’t like seems an inadequate way to deal with the problem – or with one’s enemy.

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. yitzchak

    Mar 3, 2022 at 11:43 am

    Ms Slier should distance herself from RT which has become such a propaganda production line.
    Remember you will be judged according to the company you keep.
    Do the right thing …..resign your position now

  2. Ben Friedman

    Mar 3, 2022 at 1:20 pm

    Paula Slier makes some valid points but how can she compare media from Western Democratic countries to those of a dictatorship where protesters are jailed for opposing the government RT represents the views of that dictatorship

  3. Louise Temkin

    Mar 3, 2022 at 2:46 pm

    Any respect I ever had for Paula Slier as a human being, a Jew or as a journalist is gone. Anyone who works for a State owned news channel in a patently undemocratic and corrupt country, spreading their lies,misinformation and deceit under the guise of fair reporting must be considered to be working in the very dregs of their profession. You protest too loudly and too much in your own defense and that of Russia, Paula. Clearly RT must have been the only job you could get and you are desperate to keep it.

  4. Stephen Paul

    Mar 3, 2022 at 4:57 pm

    Dear Ms Slier
    I find your attempts to justify your RT position with the rationale of journalistic ethics sickening. What is “conflicting” about a sovereign democratic European country in the 21st Century being viciously attacked by an overwhelming invading force which is committing war crimes against a civillian population of men, women and children – creating death, terror and destruction and so far a million refugees. For declared provocation reasons which are delusional, Orwellian and paranoic. By its very charter NATO is a defensive alliance from which not one word has ever been uttered about any intention to somehow destroy Russia This tragedy unfolding is purely the KGB megalomania of Putin. And it is tragic not only for Ukraine and its people but for Russia and the Russian people. A proud nation is descending into pariah and junk status. This is not about “news appearing on the BBC” but a propogandizing state media mouthpiece propogating and supporting aggression and war in Europe on fabricated pretexts no different to Der Sturmer in Nazi Germany. By all means ,as a journalist, report on the Russian geo-political viewpoint, however unhinged it is; provide credible reports on their card of so-called official neo-nazi gangs marauding against Russian speaking Ukrainians not shown on the BBC.??? But to directly align yourself as a paid employee is shameful. Putin is allowing no protests. Have you published on RT any Russian opinion critical of him or his war? If so I would like to see it. Journalistic ethics ? Have you no red lines ?

  5. Editor

    Mar 4, 2022 at 8:47 am

    I disagree with you. Knowing Paula Slier’s work over many years, her journalistic ethics are above reproach and always have been. I do not believe in censorship and believe all views should be heard. And when it comes to RT, I would rather Paula Slier was reporting for it than anyone else because I trust her journalism – editor

  6. Ginger Tart

    Mar 6, 2022 at 11:06 am

    Paula, you’ve lost your journalistic integrity. Whilst everything you say about the dangers of censoring journalism is correct, you’ve improperly drawn a moral equivalence between Western reporting of the horrific facts of war, and your reporting of Putin’s justifications for the war. But what you fail to acknowledge is that your reporting of Putin’s justification gives credibility to his justifications, as if his point of view for the reasons to invade Ukraine is morally equivalent to the Ukrainians’ valiant attempt to protect themselves. By doing this, you’re complicit in spreading his lies. This is no different from certain journalists in the US reporting the “fact” that Donald Trump believes the election was stolen without simultaneously reporting that this so-called ‘fact’ has been proven a lie. For example, RT reports that Putin believes the Ukraine ‘regime’ are ‘Nazis’ – but why doesn’t RT report that there is no evidence of this at all? They don’t give the counter-view because they’re spreading Putin’s propaganda rather than presenting a balanced picture. Unfortunately, you’re complicit in this. You’re on the wrong side of history, and “know your enemy” is no defence.

  7. yitzchak

    Mar 6, 2022 at 4:16 pm

    I have watched RT over the years,with incredulity, and now during this voracious attack on Ukraine which has been independent for 30 years and which had a long history of being a separate republic between 1920 and 1990 in the the USSR.
    The current propaganda on so called nazis in Ukraine are interlaced with footage from nazi propaganda films as though they were the same thing.
    Putin is meshuga with every card up his sleeve.Nothing justifies what has happened.
    Paula Slyer is an apologist for the Russian state whitewashing all actions.
    If she wants the RT version to be available in the West, then she must also advocate western stations to be available in Russia.
    Remember Lord Haw Haw and the Tokyo Roseand your reportage is not to be trusted.

  8. Russell Caplan

    Mar 10, 2022 at 2:45 am

    The comments so full of vitriol and Western self righteousness are a reflection of just how propagandised the authors are by the hegemonic monotone of mainstream corporate media. Banning RT is indicative of this moral hubris and exceptionalism that brooks no dissent from the dominant narrative that is being pumped out by the likes of the BBC and no doubt other mainstream Western media. This is full spectral media war where any view, other than that which has Russia as the aggressor and the blood dripping NATO alliance as the great humane defender of freedom and democracy, cannot be tolerated. Those who have swallowed the propaganda that NATO is a defensive alliance either know no history of the recent past, or have conveniently forgotten it. Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria are just a few that come to mind. NATO was either formally or informally involved in expanding its offensive domain into areas of the world it has no business in and to the detriment of the peoples who inhabit those areas.

    Lord Hastings, first Secretary General of NATO described its mission “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” NATO which is essentially an extension of US militarism in pursuit of these goals is using and abusing Ukraine as a battering ram to undermine Russia and bring the German economic power house to heel. The distressing images we in the West are now being bombarded with is designed to pull at the publics heart strings and so shape this one sided narrative. Having a go at Paula Slier for daring to report on an equally distressing and heart rending situation for civilians in the two break away republics of the Donbas shows just how debased and propagandised Western public opinion has become regarding this conflict.

    RT is no more a mouth piece of the Russian government than BBC, CNN, CBS, MSNBC, The New York Times, Washington Post, The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph and counting. All of these media echo the NATO line and consensus. They rarely give space to dissenting views. RT on the other hand gives voice to many Western productions that are not given a look in by the establishment corporate and mainstream media. RT embraces a level of political diversity that is conspicuous by its absence in most of mainstream Western media. And if any of Paula’s critics have bothered to watch RT news, RT does not hide news about dissent in Russia either.

    The crimes of NATO are rarely reported in mainstream Western media. And when they are, those providing the information are hounded, persecuted and tortured like Julian Assange. The idea that we have freedom of the press and free speech is utterly fanciful and those criticising Paula for her sterling journalism with RT display a level of hypocrisy in direct proportion to their righteous indignation.

    Russia’s side of the story needs telling because it is legitimate and closer to the truth than
    Western media would have us believe. It is also worth noting that what Russia is doing to Ukraine is much the same as Israel does to its neighbours when it perceives a threat to its security. While I do not wish to debate the rights and wrongs of this, I simply want to emphasise that Russia has been complaining and warning for years that it views NATO expansion into former Soviet republics a threat to its security and that it was not willing to tolerate it.

    In 2014 the democratically elected government of Ukraine was violently overthrown with US and EU involvement. One of its first declarations was to ban the Russian language. The anti Russian sentiment prompted the people of the Donbas to refuse to recognise this anti Russian putschist government. So they tried to use force to get these Russian speaking people to submit to their authority. They started killing their own citizens instead of trying to mollify their anxiety. I can’t remember any moral indignation displayed in the West while thousands of innocent civilians were being killed by the Western backed putschist government installed in Ukraine. It was only then that Russia intervened. A peace process was brokered by Germany, France and Russia and sanctioned by the UN Security Council. For eight years Russia has been complaining that the Ukrainian government, with the backing of France, Germany and no doubt the US, is not implementing the terms of these accords. The Ukrainian government has recently made it clear they have no intention of implementing these accords. In December the Russian government warned NATO and the US that unless its security concerns were addressed that included full implementation of the Minsk accords they would be forced to take military technical steps to ensure their own security. The US, NATO and the EU simply upped the ante. Russia was left no alternative. And Western public need to know this side of the story.

    Keep up the good work Paula. Don’t be censored by this hypocritical moral censure of righteous indignation.

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