Russian pro-government media carry out an ongoing campaign to discredit nations unaligned with Russia’s interventionist policies. Russian cable and online TV broadcasts spearhead the disinformation campaign. The broadcasts, disguised as news and documentaries, reach the televisions and computers of hundreds of Latin Americans who are exposed daily to Russian propaganda to influence regional governments.
RT TV and internet network is the main pillar of the Russian campaign in Latin America. The network started broadcasting in 2009 and operates in Moscow, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Havana, Mexico, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Without factual evidence, RT claims to have a weekly audience of 18 million viewers in 10 countries in the region.
The network was able to access Latin American audiences by purchasing different cable companies. In Venezuela and Argentina, the signal is also transmitted through open TV. Carlos Murillo, an international relations specialist at the University of Costa Rica, warns that the Kremlin uses information as a weapon, and RT became one of its main means to attack Latin America.
“Moscow can’t promote its hegemonic project actively; it prefers to use subliminal techniques, so that the world can know its alleged noble purposes. If we remember the czarist period and its cultural influence, Putin’s regime is a hybrid between the czarist and Soviet eras. Therefore, news stories at RT feature the message of ‘Russia’s good,’ distorting and adapting interviewees’ statements to strengthen the [hidden] official message,” Murillo told Diálogo. “In short, it’s an extensive and intensive use of communication as a soft power resource, as a political weapon to position their interests in the region.”
Alejandro Barahona, a political scientist at the University of Costa Rica specialized in Latin American studies, agrees with Murillo, and adds that Russian TV stations try to present themselves as alternative media outlets. In reality, they are part of a communist propaganda mechanism that only tries to promote Russia’s role in the region.
“Power tends to be more and more [fluid]. This helps us understand the multiple spaces necessary to manage it, and mass media are essential to influence public opinion. That’s why Russia promotes its media and agencies to fuel its expansion both politically and militarily in Latin America,” Barahona said.
In addition to RT, Russia seeks to increase its presence by way of the Sputnik news agency, a platform presented as an international service, which only disseminates the distorted discourse of Russia and its allies, just like RT. Every year, both media outlets organize paid visits to Moscow for Latin American journalists to promote themselves to the Latin American press.
Russia seeks to influence countries in the region with these platforms. The two most recent cases are Venezuela and Nicaragua. Russian TV channels replay altered and exaggerated speeches of Nicolás Maduro and Daniel Ortega, referring to so-called coup d’états. They also attack international organizations, such as the Lima Group that advocates for a democratic transition in Venezuela and Nicaragua.
“RT becomes a key element for all those under direct Russian influence. The Kremlin knows that Venezuela and Nicaragua are partners that enable it to show what a good, loyal partner it is and that it’s there for its partners no matter what. Moscow needs Caribbean coasts, and these two countries along with Cuba are key. They are in the United States’ backyard, hence the urgency to reinforce regimes that might be of help. So RT’s coverage on these cases is based on the position of an attempted coup d’état,” Murillo said.
Complaints in other latitudes
The concern about RT’s role is a troubling topic beyond Latin America. Several countries reported that the network is mere propaganda and publishes fake news to interfere in local affairs.
For example, Spain accused RT of promoting social unrest and seeking to interfere in Catalonia’s bid for independence in 2017. The network was also linked to fake social media accounts used to disseminate information that defended the secession.
France experienced a similar situation during the 2017 presidential elections that saw the victory of Emmanuel Macron. “During the campaign, RT and Sputnik were influence agents that spread fake news about me and my political campaign,” said Macron during Vladimir Putin’s visit to France in May 2018.
Far from new, the Russian strategy intensifies around the world, and Latin America is no exception. The presence of its interfering propaganda in Latin American countries is undeniable. RT and Sputnik depict an idyllic and happy Moscow that doesn’t exist, a purportedly well-intended Moscow that in reality only seeks to expand its politics and military power in Latin America for its own benefit.