March 6, 2019  |  Updated March 6, 2019

The Network of the Russian Information Policy in Germany

By Susanne Spahn

This article is part of series of special articles for #DisinfoWeek Europe. To register and learn more visit DisinfoWeek.org

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Russia’s information policy network in Germany includes organizations as well as individual actors. The most important corporate actors are the Russian state media (Rossiya Segodnia) with their integrated radio and news website Sputniknews, TV channel RT Deutsch, and video agency Ruptly TV.[1] Furthermore, at the beginning of 2018, Ruptly TV established two subsidiaries in Berlin that are active in the social media realm, Redfish GmbH and Maffick Media GmbH. The former features videos under the name of Redfish and the latter is online under the headings of In the Now, Back Then, and Wast-Ed, all of which are available on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube.[2]

The Russian state media in Germany cooperates with left and right-wing populists, such as the editor in chief of the magazine Compact, Jürgen Elsässer, and the director of the internet TV program Ken FM, Ken Jebsen. Russian state media often presents individual media actors as ‘German experts’ or ‘expert interview partners’. Russian media’s advertisement and spread official Russian foreign policy positions, while attending various events, can be classified as a media partnership.[3]

Several German journalists, politicians, and organizations publicly express their sympathy and even strike an uncritical attitude towards Russian positions. Journalists such as Gabriele Krone-Schmalz publish books that show a very lopsided understanding and defense of Russian policy.[4] Krone-Schmalz is regarded as one of the leading experts on Russia in Germany and her appearances on talk-shows on national TV-programmes broadcast her opinions reach millions of viewers. Previously on ZDF, she stated that she was very skeptical of Russia’s responsibility for the Skripal poisoning and warned against demonizing Russia.[5]

Members of Die Linke (The Left), right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) and the German Social Democrats support positions that are very close to the Kremlin’s official line, including prominent public persons such as former chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Schröder, although holding high-ranking positions in Russian energy companies, is also regarded as one of the leading experts. Recently in Der Spiegel he doubted that Russia had violated the INF-treaty and warned of “Russia-bashing”.[6] Russian media in Germany has frequently quoted these statements.[7]

Organizations such as the German-Russian Forum and the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations also lodge biased criticism of German government policy toward Russia and show strong and unquestioned support for Russian policy positions.[8]

Russia’s network incorporates state political organizations, such as the Russian embassy in Berlin and the Agency for Cooperation with Russians abroad, Rossotrudničestvo. The embassy in Berlin is in close contact with German politicians such as Alexander Gauland, vice-leader of the right-wing party Alternative for Germany, and other party members who actively support Russian official positions and conduct “strategic consultations” in the embassy.[9] Rossotrudničestvo tries to spread an “objective view” of Russia abroad, organizing trips to Russia to inform German citizens about Russia and its foreign policy.[10]

Another aim is to reach out to the Russian-speaking “compatriots” in Germany, which is also the task of the Russian foundation “Russkij mir”. Recently, Russian-German organisations met in the premises of the Russian General Consulate in Leipzig. “Russkij mir” does not only promote Russian culture in Germany but also Russian nationalism and calls for serving the fatherland.[11]

During the 2017 German Federal Election, the Russian media network demonstrated that Russia not only tries to dominate the public discourse but also actively interferes in domestic affairs.

The stigmatization of Political Opponents: Reporting on Chancellor Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s support of sanctions against Russia, in response to the annexation of Crimea, has drawn the attention of Russian media coverage in Germany. Since the beginning of 2017, a whole series of reports have been published to discredit Merkel as a person and her policies. Rossiya Segodnya director Dmitry Kiselyev in his Sunday program ‘News of the Week’ on the Rossiya 1 channel tried to undermine Merkel, saying,

“I am far from touching on the most sensitive topic for women here, their wrinkles or their hairstyle, or the permanent measure of their pantsuit. I just have the feeling that Merkel has gone out of style. As called in French: she is démodée.  […] When one analyses Merkel’s activities more deeply, one can easily recognise a thesis, old for Germany, namely that about a lack of Lebensraum [space in which to live]. We painfully had to suffer the consequences of this, through Hitler. […] But in the Merkel era, completely in line with the old concepts of Mitteleuropa [Central Europe] and Lebensraum, Germany literally wanted to swallow Ukraine.”[12]

RT Deutsch and Sputniknews repeated these assertions, reporting demonstrators greet Merkel with ‘Heil Merkel’ (see Screenshot 1). In the explanation of a photo accompanying the article, it says:

“In Halle, Sachsen Anhalt, in a parade for the “Mother of all Germans”, demonstrators protested against the policies of the acting chancellor Angela Merkel. The demonstrators put up a red banner with the writing “Heil Merkel” and called out the very same watchword. The rally was held on the occasion of Merkel’s appearance at the Leopoldina Academy of Sciences in Halle (Saale).”[13]

Screenshot 1

In the run-up to the September 2017 parliamentary elections, the Russian media positioned themselves unambiguously. Research and statistical analysis carried out by the London Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the Arena Institute of Global Affairs at the University of London’s School of Economics showed that Sputnik and RT reports published between 2 and 10 September mentioned right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the leftist Die Linke as the only parties to be positively rated and the coverage of Chancellor Merkel and the German government was overwhelmingly negative.[14]

Source: Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and LSE Arena, Institute of Global Affairs
Source: Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and LSE Arena, Institute of Global Affairs

How Successful is the Campaign?

It is possible to make a preliminary assessment Sputnik International’s media offensive in Germany, since its start five years ago. The label Sputniknews has gained some currency, as has SNA radio, the abbreviation for Sputnik News Agency. Like RT, SNA radio operates under its acronym, attempting to hide the fact that it is a Russian government agency. SNA radio is gaining ground in the federal states under the name of Mega Radio and at present can be received in Berlin, Brandenburg, Hessia, and Bavaria on the Internet or in the digital radio standard DAB +.  Mega Radio’s connection to the Russian government, like that of Ruptly TV and its social media offerings Redfish and In the Now, cannot be recognized by looking at their websites. For that reason, several German politicians and other public figures have given interviews without being aware of talking to tools of the Russian government.[15]

On 12 January 2019 Sputniknews had 207, 000 Followers on Facebook (see Graph 3). More significant than Sputnik is RT Deutsch’s presence on social media. At the beginning of 2019 it had 404, 000 Followers on Facebook – eight times more than when the page launched at the end of 2014.

Followers on Facebook 

The number of users suggests that Sputniknews is less successful than RT Deutsch. The latter, however, has developed dynamically, even though the number of its users is not at the level of that of the Deutsche Welle, with which it likes to compare itself. In contrast, Ruptly’s social media channels Redfish and In the Now have been well received by the audience. In fact, in terms of volume of viewers the provider of the latter has even surpassed established media in Germany.

Conclusion

RT Deutsch and Sputniknews treatment of Chancellor Merkel demonstrates, in exemplary fashion, how political opponents of Putin in Germany are being discredited and denigrated. At the same time, they provide a platform for the domestic political opposition in the country, in particular, the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland and the leftist Die Linke. Political leaders and experts in opposition to the German government and its partners in Europe and the United States are liberally being quoted. The Russian media network tries to exploit freedom of the press in Germany for its own political goals. Russian media reporting is biased and in no way independent or ‘alternative’, as outlets are keen to present themselves. In the run-up to the federal elections, the Russian media interfered by stigmatizing their political enemies and supporting extremist parties. Here it became particularly evident, that Russian media networks abroad are an important weapon in Russian information warfare.

[1] Susanne Spahn, Russische Medien in Deutschland (Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung: Potsdam 2018), p. 6-11

[2] Jan-Henrik Wiebe, ‘Russlands heimliche Medienzentrale in Europa: Mitten in Berlin’, T-online.de, 16 November 2018, https://www.t-online.de/nachrichten/deutschland/gesellschaft/id_84584050/mitten-in-berlin-russlands-heimliche-medienzentrale-in-europa.html.

[3] Susanne Spahn, Das Ukraine-Bild in Deutschland: Die Rolle der russischen Medien. Wie Russland die deutsche Öffentlichkeit beeinflusst (Kovač Verlag: Hamburg, 2016), p. 19-29.

[4] The latest book: Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, Eiszeit. Wie Russland dämonisiert wird und warum das zu gefährlich ist (Beck Verlag: München 2017). An overview of her publications on her personal website: http://www.krone-schmalz.de/buecher.html

[5] Gabriele Krone-Schmalz, TV-Talk Show Markus Lanz, ZDF, 13. March 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GquySg6dlNI

[6] Gerhard Schröder,  ‘Das ist mein Leben, nicht eures‘, Spiegel online, 1. February 2019, http://www.spiegel.de/plus/gerhard-schroeder-ueber-seine-russland-jobs-das-ist-mein-leben-nicht-eures-a-00000000-0002-0001-0000-000162162944

[7] Alexander Boos:’„Spreche mit Putin lieber persönlich“: Ex-Kanzler Schröder gegen „Russland-Bashing“‘, Sputnik, 1 February 2019, https://de.sputniknews.com/politik/20190201323804937-schroeder-spiegel-interview/

[8] Michael Harms, ‘Wir kommen an Russland nicht vorbei‘, Moskauer Deutsche Zeitung, 28. January 2019, https://mdz-moskau.eu/wir-kommen-an-russland-nicht-vorbei/?fbclid=IwAR2xAK2MVupef_0o_jQ3aSe_a0l7PgB2EHSW-qfdlj-PrKM-ryNz_Fv8TDg

“Platzeck fordert Anerkennung der Krim-Annexion.” 18 November2014,  http://www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2014-11/platzeck-russlandukraine.

[9] “Strategiesitzung in der Botschaft. AfD sucht Rat aus Russland.”7 December 2014,  http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/afd-suchtrat-aus-russland-strategiesitzung-in-der-botschaft-a-1006983.html.

[10] Gesine Dornblüth, “Die Medienoffensive des Kreml.” Deutschlandfunk, 11 November 2014, http://www.deutschlandfunk.de/russland-diemedienoffensivedes-kreml.1773.de.html?dram:article_id=302804.

[11] Jan-Henrik Wiebe et al., ‘Das Netzwerk des Kreml in Deutschland‘, t-online, 11. January 2019, https://www.t-online.de/nachrichten/deutschland/gesellschaft/id_85054572/vereine-als-einfallstor-das-netzwerk-des-kreml-in-deutschland.html?fbclid=IwAR2xAK2MVupef_0o_jQ3aSe_a0l7PgB2EHSW-qfdlj-PrKM-ryNz_Fv8TDg

[12] As reported by RT Deutsch, ‘Russischer Star-Moderator: “Merkel ist aus der Mode gekommen” − Springerpresse tobt’, Deutsch.rt.com, 3 February 2017, https://deutsch.rt.com/europa/46056-bild-russische-merkel-kritik/.

[13] ‘Protestler in Halle begrüßen Bundeskanzlerin mit “Heil Merkel”-Ausruf’, RT Deutsch, 23. March 2017, https://deutsch.rt.com/newsticker/48093-heil-merkel-grusse-aus-halle/.

[14] Reproduced by permission of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the Institute for Global Affairs  (ed.), Make Germany great again: Der Kreml, die Alt-Right und die internationale Einflussnahme auf die Bundestagswahlen 2017. (ISD) London 2017,  http://www.isdglobal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Make-Germany-Great-Again-DE-131217.pdf.

[15] See, for instance, the reports by Jan-Henrik Wiebe, ‘Russlands heimliche Medienzentrale in Europa: Mitten in Berlin’, T-online.de, 16 November 2018, https://www.t-online.de/nachrichten/deutschland/gesellschaft/id_84584050/mitten-in-berlin-russlands-heimliche-medienzentrale-in-europa.html, and Markus Wehner, ‘Des Kremls neue Medien’, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 23 January 2019, p. 10.

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