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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Russian Channel’s War Coverage Continues to Cost It Journalists

Russia Today, a government-funded English language news channel that says it is available to 644 million people worldwide and 85 million in the United States, has been rocked in recent days by two of its anchors protesting its coverage of Ukraine.

The first, Abby Martin, denounced Russian military action on Monday. Then, on Wednesday, Liz Wahl quit on air, saying she could “not be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin.”

Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the channel who prefers it to be called simply RT, makes it clear that her journalists promote the Russian view. But, she said in an interview Wednesday before news of Ms. Wahl’s departure broke, the policy does not mean the channel ignores events on the ground in Ukraine or anywhere else.

William Dunbar, a British journalist, disagrees. He started working for RT in 2008, when he was 23. He knew he would struggle to overcome the channel’s editorial line, he said, but “I was confident at the time that I would be able to fight my corner.”

That moment arrived, he said, when he was in Georgia as Russian bombs began to fall in the summer of 2008. He mentioned reports of the bombs in a phone interview with the studio, he said, and was quietly told that those mentions were responsible for his being kept off the air. He had previously seen reporting critical of Russia held off the air, and studio commentary that ran counter to his reporting. He recalls that Georgian staff members, who were likely to find such edicts hard to stick by, were given paid leave.

After seeing footage of destroyed apartment blocks in Georgia and photos of the dead, Mr. Dunbar said, he found he “was not allowed to report it,” but was instead asked to divert to stories that served Moscow. He resigned.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Russia Today went to war alongside the Kremlin,” he said. “Its sins are more of omission that commission. Rather than telling their journalists what to say, it’s more like telling them what they are not going to do.”

Ms. Simonyan said that Mr. Dunbar’s complaints were “not about the bombing or anything of that kind. He was building up P.R. for himself, which he quite successfully did.” Her network, she said, reported on everything it saw in Georgia. It was just the case that what it saw matched the Russian view of events.

Russia Today was the brainchild of Mikhail Y. Lesin, a former media minister who was an adviser to President Vladimir V. Putin from 2004 to 2008 and who was also known for masterminding the takeover of the privately owned NTV television channel, “which put a network highly critical of the Kremlin firmly under state control,” according to the state news agency RIA Novosti. Mr. Lesin had been pitching the idea of an outlet that would make Russia’s position clear “since Yeltsin’s time,” Ms. Simonyan said.

RIA Novosti was itself suddenly dissolved in December by a decree from Mr. Putin. The decision to shut that state-run news agency, which offered “professional and semi-independent coverage,” and to create a new one to be run by a Russian television host known for his homophobic remarks and belief in foreign conspiracies, was widely viewed as “putting a reconstituted news service in the hands of a Kremlin loyalist,” my colleague Steven Lee Myers reported at the time. The new state media organization will be known as Rossiya Sevodnya, or Russia Today.