Director General of the Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency Dmitry Kiselev, host of the popular television program Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week), is the only journalist in the world to be targeted by political sanctions. The European Union included the prominent TV journalist on a list of Russians barred from travelling, owning property or banking in the EU. The World Press Freedom Committee, one of the leading organizations on the rights of journalists, has come to his defense.
In an interview with Izvestia, Kiselev said that the sanctions against him threaten the rights of all journalists in the world. He also explained that Russia and the West have switched roles and now Russia has become the main defender of democratic principles and freedom of speech.
You are the only journalist in the world to be sanctioned. Does that make you the Yury Gagarin of modern journalism? Did you expect this?
This affects all journalists. In my memory this is the first time international sanctions have been imposed on a journalist. I’m just journalist X. It is telling that the sanctions were initiated by Europe, which shows how EU officials openly disregard freedom of speech. This sets an unwelcome and dangerous precedent. It is in effect a betrayal of European values. If this precedent is normalized, if the journalistic community in Europe, America or any other country does not respond, it would mean that journalists consider this legal. This represents a dramatic turning point in Western civilization – to say that we no longer need freedom of speech or believe it is a core value. Moreover, the EU is not alone; it has the backing of the Norwegian parliament.
Even Norway, a country you have a special affection for since you have a degree in Scandinavian philology, has supported these sanctions…
Yes, I studied it at Leningrad State University and broadcasted in Norwegian for ten years at Moscow Radio. So, a man who is 100% a friend of Norway is being targeted by Norwegian sanctions that seek to restrict freedom of speech. Incredible, isn’t it? While I believe they aren’t fully aware of what they are doing, it still represents a turning point in Western civilization.
I’m accused of producing propaganda, of being a propagandist. The word “propaganda” in Greek means dissemination of information, ideas and concepts. For some reason the West is using this word as an insult… But propaganda is not a certified category of international law and the constitutions of all countries, unlike freedom of speech. These are formalized, state, interstate, supranational bureaucratic sanctions that are legal in the sense that they were passed into law, rather than lawful. They target freedom of speech.
It was odd to hear that the EU prohibited your entry as a Russian citizen. Does that mean that as a journalist you are free to visit EU countries...
I’m not sure that’s right. Nothing official has been released. If I’m allowed to visit Europe on a business trip, it means that EU is backpedalling because it realized that it is barbaric to restrict the work of journalists. Europe put itself in an awkward position and had to explain and justify these sanctions. But if it’s true that I can travel to the EU in a professional capacity, even though EU officials have called what I do propaganda, Europe finds itself in a ridiculous, paradoxical position: If I can work but not take a vacation, does that mean they don’t want a vacation to interrupt my propaganda? Doesn’t that seem schizophrenic to you?
If there is no logic to it, what is the point of these sanctions?
I don’t get it. It is ludicrous, completely absurd. These sanctions have no bearing on me personally, and yet they are aimed at changing my behavior. They threaten to seize my property and bank accounts, but I don’t have any in the West. These sanctions target not only my freedom of speech but freedom of speech in general. I’m just a symbol, or rather an example.
Sanctions have become something of trend. The United States and the European Union are always imposing sanctions. You’re the only journalist they’ve gone after. Do you find that confusing?
It is a strange story. They are calling me the country’s chief propagandist, which indicates either madness or ignorance on their part.
If the United States and the EU are in fact ignorant and yet powerful statesmen have been included on this list, perhaps someone advised them to blacklist these people, including you?
I know who exactly advised them. Sergei Parkhomenko and Alexei Navalny made these lists. They don’t hide it. But if Europe is going to rely on the opinion of a vanishing minority in Russia, it will find it hard to make sensible decisions in this world, especially when it comes to Russia. There are too many issues in the world that would be hard to resolve without Russia, including issues of war and peace in different regions.
Western behavior has bordered on schizophrenia. There’s that word again. Schizophrenia is a split in consciousness. It means living in parallel worlds and being guided by secondary things. When we are guided by trivial things that we’ve made important, when we follow the opinions of insignificant people, and even cultivate and inflate their opinions, we’re entering a hall of crooked mirrors.
I believe great powers that form the backbone of the EU cannot afford acting like this, because their status demands a certain level of responsibility. Otherwise they get themselves into stupid situations that eventually harm their own citizens. What does freedom of speech mean in European countries now that they have imposed sanctions on a journalist? Will they legalize taboo subjects or put limits on the work of journalists? If they adopt a certain position toward a foreign journalist, why not apply the same standards inside the EU?
A journalist who works for state-owned media is automatically branded a propagandist. Your show’s ratings are high and everybody has an opinion on you, good or bad. Are you the propagandist-in-chief?
President Vladimir Putin appointed me director general of the Rossiya Segodnya new International Information Agency in his December 9 executive order. Both me and the agency have faced sanctions during a period of reorganization when Rossiya Segodnya did not even have the ability to do any propaganda. We hadn’t introduced any new brands, while our main product, the newswire in English, French and Spanish, appeared only on April 1, long after the sanctions were announced.
Are the sanctions preventive? Are they meant to discourage me from producing propaganda? The fact is that all Western news agencies impose a point of view. Take Reuters or the Associated Press. Both are propaganda agencies – they shape the dominant narrative and tell their audiences what and how to think. They interpret history, the present and future, and try to shape a system of values, a worldview and political agenda.
Your agency will also have an overriding political theme, won’t it?
Of course, but we haven’t yet had time to develop one. All news agencies do this and each one is headed by a boss that is engaged in legal professional activities. Maybe it makes sense to sanction them as well? After all, they are engaged in propaganda... In today’s world, information – how it is gathered, analyzed, interpreted and processed, its formats ranging from social media to feature films – pushes a value system, certain views on good and evil, and shapes attitudes to different events. It appears that the EU countries are allowed to have such agencies but Moscow may not by any means. Needless to say, Russia wants to compete in the field of international information because information wars have already become standard practice and the main type of warfare. The bombers are now sent in after the information campaign. For instance, America lost the war in Syria and achieved nothing. They also lost the information war over Crimea and achieved nothing. In the past, an attack was preceded by artillery fire; now it has been replaced with information flow.
So the sanctions were targeted at you specifically, and weren’t related to the nascent agency you lead?
I’m absolutely certain that Vesti Nedeli was the main irritant. It is an important news and analysis show, offering my weekly take on events. It is popular and well-known. People enjoy it (according to a study of news programs on different TV channels done by the Public Opinion Foundation last year, we came in first in a number of categories). Vesti Nedeli is an influential program. It promotes, or rather propagandizes – I’m not afraid to use this word – healthy values and patriotism. I’m sure that sanctions are related to Vesti Nedeli.
Other countries certainly have similar news programs, but no sanctions are imposed on their hosts. Can it be something you said, specifically, to provoke this?
Notable pundits are usually old enough to have extensive experience and impressive backgrounds, and long records in journalism, such as mine, as I am nearly 60. Media professionals of this caliber are perfectly entitled to express their own opinions and they confidently do so on their programs. The public tend to listen to their opinions after watching them for a long time, following their evolution, and forming a stable opinion of them. People trust them. And public trust in this case is a sociologically measureable characteristic. The higher the public trust, the more freedom these pundits have and, naturally, the greater their responsibility. In any case, there are hardly more than a few dozen pundits of this kind in the world’s leading powers. They are not mass-produced. All of them are engaged in the same process of presenting and interpreting news, and they all emphasize national interests while doing so. So, some countries can do this but others can’t? Is that what the EU thinks?
Meaning that other countries are held to a different standard. Can it be that they were annoyed by your statement about burning or burying the hearts of gay people killed in traffic accidents?
But this is a total betrayal of freedom of speech. As for gays, I have a very clear position on the issue. Gay culture certainly has the right to exist in Russia, and it does, de facto. Yet, it is a minority culture, and this is all it will ever be. A minority culture should not be imposed on the majority, especially not through aggressive propaganda. I do not believe this unconventional sexual orientation is an illness. I am not even saying it is outside physiological norms. But it is certainly outside accepted social practices, and for me this is a strongly held belief. Each country has the right to define its own social norms. In Russia, the norm is a traditional family. The Russian government is responsible for encouraging what is accepted as the social norm, because it is crucial for society. A family means children. Russia is experiencing a demographic crisis. Supporting the spread of gay culture in Russia amounts to self-elimination. Is this what they are proposing? And do we have to agree?
Do you believe this is what is being imposed on use?
Yes. And something that is absolutely alien to us. There are numerous examples of this. For example, my line about burning gay people’s hearts is now being used as a hostile meme. Alright, let the critics keep it up. I will not take back on what I said, but let me clarify what I meant. My statement should not be taken out of context. I was trying to be provocative. It was a controlled flame that I used to ignite the discussion. A dramatic conflict of opinions was what I was after; it was part of the script. The discussion focused on plans to introduce fines for propagandizing unconventional sexual relations among teenagers – for molestation in effect. Since gay people cannot reproduce naturally, they have to recruit new members of the community. Gay parades are aimed at attracting new members – everyone marching in bright feathers and laughing to show how fun it is to be gay. But the reality of being gay is very different. There is research showing that gay people have a shorter lifespan and face more abuse and violence in their relationships. They apply for psychological assistance more often and have a higher suicide rate. Gay communities are well-known risk groups for AIDS and hepatitis. Since even the most advanced medical technology cannot confirm with 100% accuracy that donated blood or organs are HIV free, gays are prohibited from donating under US, Canadian and EU law. In the US, it’s a lifetime ban that applies to anyone who has had sex with a gay man since 1977. In other countries they impose a moratorium on donating for people who have had homosexual intercourse. The rationale is provided on the FDA’s website. This is a highly respected health authority, the US equivalent of Rospotrebnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Protection and Welfare).
At this point, Dmitry Kiselev opened a book by Sigmund Freud to a bookmarked page and read out a highlighted line: “A person’s final sexual attitude is not decided until after puberty…”
This statement here is the grounds for banning homosexual propaganda among minors, because their identity is still being formed. I don’t deny that some of them may be predisposed to homosexuality. We are trying to save the others.
Do you think Russia should also ban gay people from donating blood and organs?
It’s not banned in Russia now. But why shouldn’t we borrow from US policy in this case? The bodies of gay people who die in car accidents are buried and cremated, including their presumably healthy hearts. They are not even considered as a source to prolong someone else’s life. Different countries require different quarantine periods since the last homosexual encounter. But homosexuals may have upwards of 1,500 partners throughout their lives, so 500 would not surprise anyone, by comparison. This data comes from respected US and European studies. Homosexuals have a different lifestyle, a different pace. So they are de facto banned from donating. In Russia, the state is responsible for ensuring that HIV is not transmitted through donor blood. The risk is as high as dying in a plane crash. I don’t think it is right. I would rather Russia looked to other countries that have studied this problem in greater depth than we have. Gay hearts are turned to ash in these countries because they cannot be used to save lives. I support this policy. But I never suggested cutting the hearts out of living people and burning them, as they claim.
You know gay people. How would you characterize your relationship with them?
I do have gay colleagues. Most of them are very calm and quiet people who keep to themselves. They do not flaunt their sexuality. They have never been unfriendly to me personally. And I am not a homophobe. The West is simply not happy about Russia being on the upswing. This is the core of the problem. There is a clear upward trajectory even though the Russian economy is not as surefooted as we would like. But its progress is cyclical. Every valley is followed by a peak. But when a TV program supports Russia’s progress and helps it recover from its 20th-century injuries, the West is quick to sanction the host. Moreover, they were quick to label me a homophobe and an anti-Semite who wants to see America burn. This does not sound like a good style.
So who do you think it trying to draw the iron curtain now? Which side?
I think we have swapped roles. Russia is the one promoting freedom of speech, not the West. A great tectonic, civilizational shift has occurred. In Russia, you can say whatever you want: there is a range of TV channels, the Internet is not blocked, and there are newspapers and radio stations to suit every taste. Books are never banned – everything that is not explicitly forbidden by the Constitution gets published. There are all kinds of Russians with all kinds of views. Some even use the word patriotism as an insult. Ksenia Larina from the Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station said the term made her “throw up worms and cherry pits.” But no one is questioning her right to say these things. Keep it up, Ksenia. The EU’s selective sanctions starkly reveal what Europe supports and what it does not. For example, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina have been received at the European Parliament where they called for the sanctions list to be expanded. Their sacrilegious dancing in a major Russian cathedral is seen as good and productive behavior, while the journalist Dmitry Kiselev’s personal freedom of speech – and that of his highly popular news show – is considered a bad thing that should be discouraged. “Vomiting worms” is good, but it’s bad to tell people what our reporters saw in Kiev and examples of fascism in Ukraine. This is quite a surprising value system, isn’t it? Yet, it has done Russia good – it helped us see more clearly who supports what.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it is not planning to limit the entry of Western journalists. So we are not mirroring their policies.
Of course not. Russia is above this. We have been through periods when freedom of speech was violated in the Soviet Union. Under Stalin, for example. We have lived through the iron curtain. Strange as it might seem, we have now switched roles. Russia has turned into a beacon of freedom. Anyone can choose to ridicule everything like Ksenia Larina, and do so freely on the radio, without fearing sanctions from the government or from the European Union, for that matter. In Russia, one can fully exercise and even abuse freedom of speech in a way that hurts the government and the country. Therefore, Europe’s sanctions have not really harmed me or anyone else in Russia; they have harmed Europe’s own values. The EU has declared that freedom of speech is no longer valued there. That’s what has happened.
Are you planning to visit Europe in the near future?
After Europe imposed sanctions against me, I got a call from Japan, and an invitation to visit. I was flattered. But actually, I had been planning to travel to northern Norway, driving from Murmansk with my kids. We booked a fishing cottage in Gjesvaer, the northernmost Viking village in Norway, home to just 150 people. I wanted to show them the never setting sun, bird colonies, northern fishing and seals. We even paid in advance. But our good landlord, Bjorn Jensen, and his wonderful family have been also hit by the sanctions. They may have trouble renting out the place now, as reservations are usually made up to a year in advance. Maybe they will still find new tenants, but it will be an unnecessary headache in any case. The whole story is really absurd. It’s a pity my children will not get to see Norway. But they can still see Japan.
The United States has not sanctioned you. What do you think this means?
No, the Americans haven’t. They would rather let the Europeans do the dirty work. It is all part of their policy to destroy Europe, same as tapping Angela Merkel’s phone and industrial espionage. Europe is America’s rival, everyone knows that.
What is journalism in your view? Is it propaganda? Some claim that journalism is dead.
Journalism is more than just a profession. It’s an entire environment within society. It’s an environment for circulating information, ideas, values, perceptions of good and evil, and it cannot die. Especially professional journalism. Do not confuse bloggers who tap at their keyboards in the comfort of their own homes with professional journalists. Professional journalists operate within accepted ethical norms. They never lie and always check the facts. Mistakes? There may be mistakes. How you feel about them is what matters. For example, on Vesti Nedeli, on the December 8 show, I mixed up the Ukrainian presidential administration building with the Ukrainian government building. So I mistakenly gave the impression that the first act of violence perpetrated by the militants involving broken helmets and bloodshed was during the assault on the administration, whereas in fact it was during the assault on the Government House on November 26. Now, in hindsight, we know this was the work of Right Sector (Kiselev holds up a damaged Berkut helmet). In the very next program, aired on December 15, I voluntarily apologized for the confusion, correctly laid out the course of events and arrived at the same conclusion that the Berkut police unit did not start the violence. Anyone can make a mistake. Last week, speaking at a US-EU summit in Brussels, Barack Obama said that Kosovo became an independent nation after holding a referendum. In reality, Kosovo never held a referendum on independence. I haven’t heard Obama ever apologize for this. It's about how you deal with your mistakes: you either recognize them or not. That's why professional editorial offices and professional media are more trusted. Their role will only grow. After all the injuries Russia suffered in the 20th century – reprisals, war, terror, the destruction of the Church, the collapse of our county, and the catastrophic annihilation of our nation – there’s an atmosphere of mistrust and an absence of values in the country. They must be restored. A vacuum of values is called an anomie. For a human being, this condition is considered pre-suicidal. We are living in a social anomie, out of which we are just beginning to emerge. However, we are being told to stay put.
To use your words, is Ukraine now living in an anomie?
Yes. Or the vacuum is filled with something poisonous. The mission of a journalist is to promote healthy values. This can also be done by the Church, the family, and education, but professional journalism bears enormous responsibility as well. After all, a professional editorial office always has a goal. And state-owned media is bound to have a constructive rather than a destructive goal. That's why journalism as a profession is in demand. I’m talking about normal journalism, the creative and meaningful kind of journalism where society is not undermined for sport.
Can I infer from what you said that, for example, the television channel Dozhd (Rain) is a case of unprofessional journalism?
It shows. They don’t even really position themselves as journalists. What journalism? What are you talking about? It’s not a hospital, but a make-believe game of hospital. Their work is openly biased and destroys values. I'm not in favor of shutting Dozhd down. There must be niches for different people. Everyone is entitled to have one. However, we are not losing on the information field, because 88% of the people still get their news from the central TV channels. They are generally associated with the state. Take Izvestia, an independent newspaper, which is still associated with the state in the people’s minds, with the normal values supported by the state and society, and is thus regarded as more trustworthy. We are not losing. If we were losing the information war, we would not be a nation. There would be no social peace. We would go down the same path as Ukraine. We cannot afford to lose. And we are winning this competition fairly.
Have you already devised a strategy for Rossiya Segodnya? The Kremlin has collaborated with the American PR firm Ketchum in the past. In your opinion, is it appropriate for Western experts to be in charge of promoting Russia’s image?
I’m not sure if the contract is ongoing. Suppose it is. First, I cannot evaluate the effectiveness of the contract, but let’s assume that it is effective.
We live in a global world, and Russia should not isolate itself. We're not in favour of autarky, are we? Many foreign journalists work for Russian channels. They realize that the dominance of the so-called Anglo-Saxon perspective in media is detrimental to their countries as well. Openly totalitarian states will emerge unless there is a counterweight, like Russia, to represent alternative viewpoint.
I have colleagues who have worked for the BBC for 25 years and now want to come to work with us because they can no longer take all the anti-Russian nonsense, hatred and censorship. I get calls from Paris telling me that there are stop lists for people who are banned from French TV – people who used to be frequent guests in the past and were prominent cultural figures in France.
Can you put them on the air?
Yes, of course. Western journalists often tell me that they work under real censorship. So, it's quite normal when people want to work in Russia, which they see as an alternative and a source of balance and parity – not just nuclear, but also information parity. That’s their way to defend their freedom. Total self-reliance and isolation is not an effective strategy for a country. Russia does not want this. We are an open country. For example, Russia says that it’s ready to switch to visa-free travel with the EU overnight, but the EU is not willing to reciprocate. We have switched roles. In the past, the Soviet people required exit visas. That was how the USSR protected itself. Now we realize that we live in the best country in the world.
And the other countries are jealous of us?
That may well be the case. Yes, we do have issues and problems, we don’t hide them. But our country is trending upward despite the economic downturn.
Are you going to hire employees for your agency based on certain criteria or will just about anyone be able to work for you?
Everyone who was unwilling to work with me has already quit. I already said that if someone is going to engage in subversive activities, that doesn’t suit my plans.
Some believe the former editor-in-chief of RIA Novosti Svetlana Myronyuk paid for her excessive liberalism.
The issue is not Svetlana Myronyuk, but our liberalism in general. There’s liberalism and then there’s subversion. Western liberals do not condemn their country or their people. However, I may read in a newspaper (I think it was Moskovskiye Novosti) the headline “They Knew Not What They Fought For” about the Russian soldiers who fought in the first Chechen war. That 's what I call a subversive activity. Even if a soldier said he did not know what he fought for, that only reveals his psychological trauma, what they call post-traumatic stress disorder. It makes it seem like our society (and particularly Moskovskiye Novosti) has abandoned him. Instead of giving his life meaning, it takes away the last thing that he may have. The article could have been given a different headline, such as “Hard Times for Heroes,” and then explain in the article why the soldier says he doesn’t know what he fought for. I'm not in favor of covering up facts, but I’m also against the brave people who take to the Internet to rub salt in wounds, speculate and devalue a soldier’s real accomplishments on the battlefield. These soldiers need our support. The newspaper should have explained that post-traumatic stress disorder is common, that soldiers often need psychological help and that their families and friends should be more attentive and think about what can be done for them.
Do you believe that Ksenia Larina is not a liberal either?
She does not tolerate other people’s points of view, particularly mine. I put up with her views and I don’t think she should be sanctioned for them. While they – Parkhomenko, Navalny and the like – do not tolerate other points of view and make lists. What kind of liberals are they? They are absolutely totalitarian creatures. Absolutely. That makes me a liberal, because I tolerate them. I say let's hear them out, let’s take a look at what they have to say. No one should be shut down. But there’s no need to turn everything on its head, especially when a media outlet is funded by the government.
In 2003, you organized the Jazz Koktebel festival. Will it continue in the future?
Yes, we are going to hold the 12th festival this year.
As far as I know, your partners in the festival are from Ukraine. How are arrangements for the festival going?
The Ministry of Culture has announced its support of the festival. The situation with the organizers from Kiev is difficult, because the Verkhovna Rada introduced a bill that makes visiting Crimea a criminal offense punishable by three to five years in prison, and if done by prior agreement and in a group of people the prison term is even longer. Just doing business in Crimea, even from a desk in Kiev, is also subject to criminal prosecution. There’s only been a first reading of the bill. I’m not sure whether it will pass in the second reading, but in that case my friends won’t be able to organize festival in Koktebel. I organized the first three of them when I lived in Kiev, but then I stepped back from running things and only retained the title of founder. This festival has become the largest jazz festival in the former Soviet Union. People come all the way from Japan, Canada, Hungary and Norway to attend. A traditional throat singer from Tuva, Russia, came once, because this kind of singing is popular among jazz musicians. Someone asked him what he thinks about when he sings like that. He said he remembers his father who burned to death in a tank in the Second World War.
Since Russians and Ukrainians, and people of other ethnicities, fought Nazism in WWII together, it is painful to see what’s happening in Kiev today...
We have won. We are proud of it. People who deprive themselves of this heroic past live in negativity. They turn into a nation of losers. They only remember the famine and the fact that their land was once occupied.
Many say they defend freedom, but aren’t people supposed to defend their families and countries first?
Of course. When we are asked to abandon the family by accepting untraditional values, we are essentially being asked to allow our country to be destroyed.