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Russian media outlets linked to British state conjure up false story blaming RT for Amnesty’s downgrading of Navalny’s status
Kit Klarenberg, RT.com, Feb 26 2021

On Feb 23, Grayzone News journalist Aaron Maté revealed on Twitter that Amnesty International had rescinded jailed Russian activist Alexey Navalny’s “prisoner of conscience” characterization, on the basis he previously “advocated violence and discrimination and has not retracted such statements.” Within hours, the news outlet Mediazona, founded by members of the Pussy Riot punk collective, published an extraordinary exclusive, duly translated by Latvia-based website Meduza. It claimed Amnesty’s decision wasn’t influenced by Navalny’s past statements and refusal to repudiate them, but in fact resulted from a sinister Kremlin-orchestrated “campaign.” It’s certainly been a highly effective deflection operation, with far bigger outlets such as the BBC uncritically regurgitating the outlandish charge.

The primary foundation of this bombshell claim was vanishingly insubstantial. An alleged anonymous “source” at Amnesty reported to have told MediaZona that “people in different countries” who were “tied” to RT “might” have colluded to pressure the organization to rescind his status. Meduza then amplified this falsehood its English language report, bringing it to a global audience. This purported person’s suspicion was based on a mere two individuals who filed complaints with Amnesty in respect of Navalny’s categorization, allegedly citing a widely-shared Twitter thread written by journalist Katya Kazbek in their admonitions. It documented his extensive history of virulent hate speech toward immigrants, rampant Islamophobia, and open association with and defense of Neo-Nazis. Meduza implied that Maté was one of the individuals “tied” to RT involved in the dastardly ploy, on the basis he’s been interviewed on the news network a handful of times over the course of a decade, while Kazbek was directly referred to as an RT columnist. In reality she’s a freelance contributor who wrote a grand total of four op-eds for RT’s website between Aug-Nov 2020. Ironically, Kazbek has authored far more pieces for the US state-run RFE/RL in years past, an inconvenient truth unmentioned by MediaZona and Meduza or the outlets which recycled their propaganda. Meduza’s English Editor later publicly backtracked somewhat, underlining the article refers explicitly to “people from RT, not actions by the organization itself.” Amnesty International has also unambiguously dismissed any suggestions its decision was “response to external pressure” are “untrue.” The organization stated:

Amnesty decided to re-examine the case and conducted a thorough review of the evidence base. After painstaking consideration, we concluded that we had made a mistake in our initial determination.

The organization still contends Navalny is being persecuted by Russian authorities for “purely political reasons,” and calls for his immediate release. This was noted in MediaZona’s original article, although seems to have been entirely ignored by the vast army of journalists and pundits who fell hook, line and sinker for the outlet’s disinformation. Meduza and MediaZona are strong supporters of Navalny, to the extent their coverage of the subject has more in common with activism than journalism. As such, they would have every reason to concoct and amplify an extraordinarily dishonest conspiracy theory in order to whitewash their hero’s dubious past, which he has repeatedly refused to repudiate. Washington-based Anna Veduta, formerly Navalny’s official spokesperson, was even Meduza’s ‘global outreach director’ between 2016 and 2018. In between the two roles, she worked in communications for elite US foreign policy think tank the Council on Foreign Relations.

It’s surely no coincidence the pair’s duplicitous broadside comes mere days after RT and Grayzone published extensive reports based on recently-leaked UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development (FCDO) documents which revealed a number of nefarious information warfare campaigns waged by London against Moscow in recent years. The Baltic states, and Russian speakers therein, are key targets of these psyops efforts, funded to the tune of millions over several years, which aim to demonize, destabilize, and isolate Russia domestically and internationally by covertly co-opting civil society across the region. In the process, among other things, numerous journalists, ‘influencers’ and media organizations have been secretly funded, trained and supported by UK government contractors. One such contractor is Zinc Network, which has a long, deplorable history of propagandizing UK citizens, particularly Muslims of all ages, often with serious real-world consequences. Both RT and Grayzone’s exposés noted Meduza and MediaZona were named in documents as having collaborated with the shadowy communications company. It stated in a 2018 submission to the FCDO that it was “currently delivering audience segmentation and targeting support” for the two outlets, “in conjunction with data analysts at King’s College London.” Zinc Network stated:

[They] lack the expertise and tools to understand their audience profiles or consumption habits, and therefore promote content effectively to new audiences.

The work, said to have involved “weekly mentoring sessions with specialists from the outlets,” reportedly helped the pair “reach broader audiences and create common framings of issues.” In other words, Meduza and Mediazona received surreptitious help at the UK government’s behest, and on London’s dime, to amplify their reach, improve editorial strategies, and agree joint output messaging. In response to the revelation, Meduza’s investigative editor has publicly attacked both RT and Grayzone’s reporting, dismissing the document’s authenticity, claiming to have been previously unfamiliar with Zinc Network, and rubbishing suggestions the outlet needed outside help to boost its readership. Requests for clarity on how and why Zinc Network referred to ongoing work with Meduza if it never actually happened, submitted to the platform’s Editor-in-Chief via email, have remained unanswered for days. However, Meduza’s aforementioned Investigations Editor has seemingly admitted publicly that the MediaZona story alleging RT-connected individuals were behind Amnesty’s Navalny decision was indeed revenge for exposing his employer’s clandestine connections with the British state. “Consider us even,” he sneered.

Meduza crops up in several other leaked FCDO documents. In one file Zinc Network drew attention to the case of its reporter Ivan Golunov, arrested in Jun 2019 on drugs charges, which were dropped mere days later after evidence emerged the case was politically motivated. As a result, the company pledged to provide bizarrely intimate assistance, including “counselling and mental health support” to individuals and organizations with which it collaborated, along with “a pool of specialists” to give guidance on “legal training and advocacy, personal safety and training focused around gender issues.” The same document also promised to “increase search ranking and visibility” of media platforms in the Baltics, by teaching them search engine optimization techniques, as well as “paid search activity for priority phrases” training in order to direct people searching for the phrase “news in Russian” away from RT. It’s unknown if Meduza has received financial support, directly or indirectly, from Whitehall, but the leaked files indicate the outlet has previously struggled to sustain itself.

In 2016, the BBC’s ‘charitable’ arm Media Action submitted a bid to the FCDO, pledging to partner with the outlet “to build their offering so it’s targeted not only at audiences inside the Russian Federation but also in the Baltics.” It went on to note Meduza was “currently experiencing difficulties in raising advertising funds.” No such difficulty seemingly bedevils Meduza any longer. Although in a more than slightly hypocritical twist, given the news organization seeks to expose corruption and vested interests, Meduza refuses to disclose who or what ultimately keeps its lights on. The outlet’s Editor-in-Chief explained in 2014:

I can’t tell you whether those financing the Meduza Project are Russian or foreign. There’s a huge discussion about our investors among Russian journalists, with some saying we have to tell people who they are. Yes, in a fairer world we probably should, but not in Russia. We have to protect our product and we have to protect our investors.

From Telegram to elections: Leaked documents expose sinister workings of UK government’s anti-Russian ‘troll factory’
Kit Klarenberg, RT.com, Feb 25 2021

The trove, recently exposed by hacktivist collective Anonymous, contains a variety of what appears to be internal documents of both the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and its multiple contractors: statements of requirement, contractors’ pitches which often include revealing information on past projects, staff CVs and more. The papers describe Whitehall’s effort to covertly co-opt media and civil society across the former Soviet sphere, in order to further London’s financial, geopolitical and ideological interests. Several of the newly-revealed files relate to Open Information Partnership (OIP), a self-styled “diverse network of organisations and individuals united in our determination to counter and expose disinformation,” working together“ through peer-to-peer learning, training and working groups” to strengthen civil society’s response to “disinformation” which the collective “believe to be an existential threat to democracy.”

Bankrolled to the tune of £10m by the FCDO, OIP’s 44 partners are dotted throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Its four founding, leading members are controversial ‘open source’ investigations website Bellingcat, NATO propaganda arm Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab, Media Diversity Institute, and shadowy information warfare specialist Zinc Network (formerly Breakthrough Media). If those names were not enough to arouse suspicion, OIP’s real nature as the UK’s anti-Kremlin propaganda wing is heavily hinted at in another batch of internal FCDO files, leaked around the time of its launch in 2019. The new leak seems to confirm OIP’s role as an insidious tool for achieving Whitehall’s global policy objectives.

Zinc’s bid to take part in FCDO’s effort to ‘Support Independent Media in the Baltic States’contains a dedicated section on building “the reach and influence of Russian-speaking journalists and media personalities, including émigré and exile journalists.” Noting “audiences have strong brand allegiances to individuals,” Zinc pledged to identify people in the Baltic states who would be offered extensive clandestine support, including “personal brand strategy informed by individual target audience analysis, growth strategies for their chosen social media platform, and digital marketing and campaign training.” Participants would also be taught to “develop, pitch and place articles with national and international media outlets,” provided with “opportunities to pitch for regular slots with media outlets,” and “referred” to OIP. Another excerpt boasts Zinc has “pioneered digital campaigning built around online social influencers,” employing individuals who “often enjoy a direct link to our target audiences.” The company continued:

Our research and production teams work with them to draw on digital analytics to inform effective and bespoke content to deliver messages that are both resonant and credible. We nurture these networks over extended periods of time, enabling us to deliver both long-term strategic messaging to audiences, but also to conduct multi-layered ‘rapid response’ communications following key events.

One such key event was an Apr 2018 protest in Moscow against restrictions on the use of messaging app Telegram, such is the scope of its network, Zinc was “able to activate a range of content within 12 hours” of the demonstration erupting. This content was no doubt amplified by the Western media, which coveredthe unrest widely. According to papers leaked back in 2019, one of OIP’s key objectives is to influence elections “taking place in countries of particular interest to the FCDO.” Network members are trained in “identifying key trends and flashpoints in activity or narratives” in order to “test different approaches to engage targeted audiences,” and “intensify” this activity as polling day nears. The new files provide an example of this: The elections in North Macedonia. A case study records:

The FCDO identified North Macedonia as a priority country early on in the project. Zinc identified a large media outlet within the country, MOST Network, and deployed a team which included a network manager and security consultant within three days of request. Over two weeks, our team and consortium partners, including DFR Lab and Bellingcat, provided cyber-security training, mentoring on digital forensics, open source investigation and media ethics.

It’s unclear when this action was conducted, but the document states it was done “to respond” to the 2019 election in that country. There, the pro-European Union, pro-NATO candidate Stevo Pendarovski secured a clear win in the second round against Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, a more skeptical, pro-Russian figure. A competition no doubt “of particular interest to the FCDO.” One wonders whether Zinc et al were rushed to North Macedonia in “response” to a virtual tie in the first round of voting, which precipitated a run-off. In any case, the impact of this apparent meddling is debatable, in polling conducted prior to the vote, Pendarovski consistently enjoyed comfortable leads over his opponents. Nonetheless, the question of whether OIP may have impacted results of other elections elsewhere is, fittingly, an open one. For instance, in Nov 2020, Maia Sandu defeated incumbent Moldovan President Igor Dodon. This again represented a clear battle between pro-Western and pro-Russian sentiment, with the former emerging victorious, in a win that was widely acknowledged by the mainstream media to be surprising. In turn, Slovakian political monitor MEMO 98 published an extensive study of the Moldovan election campaign, attributing Sandu’s upset to her social media nous. The organization is an OIP network member, and its analysis would certainly have helped Zinc et al “identify key trends and flashpoints in activity or narratives” in order to “test different approaches to engage targeted audiences” in the lead-up to election day. According to yet another proposal document, Zinc, Bellingcat et al identified Moldova as being in “the most vital space in the network,” due to being “subsumed almost entirely within Russia’s ‘sphere of influence.’” Two Moldovan organizations, the Association of Independent Press and Newsmaker, are fellow OIP network members, and thus could well have served as conduits for FCDO-funded, pro-Sandu, anti-Dodon material.

Belarus sits in the same “most vital,” Russia-“subsumed” space, according to the document, so it may be no coincidence. MEMO 98 published several analyses of media coverage and social media activity related to anti-government upheaval in Minsk, which began May 2020 and intensified significantly following credible allegations of widespread vote-rigging in favor of President Alexander Lukashenko in that year’s August election. In its studies, MEMO 98 drew attention to the reporting of Belsat, a Poland-based television channel aimed at Belarus, founded in Dec 2007 by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it specifically seeks to influence political change in the country. The monitor praised the station’s “reasonably balanced” reatment of the Presidential candidates, and “extensive coverage of protests and related intimidation of activists.” Belsat isn’t a member of OIP, but the newly-leaked documents reveal it received significant support from Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF), at the FCDO’s behest, after then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to fund the station, specifically to counter alleged Russian “information operations.” In all, Belsat received 150 days of consultancy in improving “TV output quality and audience reach” from TRF, its namesake newswire’s charitable wing.

OIP, the “disinformation-fighting” umbrella encompassing many of the initiatives above, is very concerned for its security, it seems. A file outlining “risk management” strategies for the project states it’s “vital” its offices have a dedicated security team, “resourced with qualified personnel,” namely, “former military and security services” operatives. It’s likewise mandatory for all OIP employees, and partner organizations, to be “subject to national security vetting.” The FCDO also seems very keen to keep its location concealed. The headquarters was to be “located in a non-descript building that avoids attention. Its presence should not be advertised,” with all windows “tinted from external view.” Strict “access controls,” including “reinforced airlocked doors,” CCTV, and a “segregated meeting room” for “sensitive briefings” were also urged. The same file offers appraisals of 56 organizations recommended by the FCDO for OIP’s network, including one of its four lead members. Zinc found:

Bellingcat is somewhat discredited, both by spreading disinformation, and by being willing to produce reports for anyone willing to pay.

Somehow, even more damning words were reserved for proposed partner Propastop, an Estonian ‘fact-checker.’ The appraisal noted:

Propastop has ties to both the Estonian government and neo-fascist groups. Sources indicate that Propastop has been involved in inciting violence against Estonia’s Russian minority. Its reporting is widely considered to lack credibility and they have published a number of intentionally false and defamatory articles about Russian media outlets.

As a result, Zinc stated Propastop had been “removed from consideration for inclusion in the network.” However, Propastop still went on to become a member of OIP, as did many others about which significant concerns were raised as to their credibility, independence, funding sources and more. That so many untrustworthy if not outright criminal organizations were recruited for OIP is understandable when one considers its actual modus operandi. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the risk of OIP being “interpreted as a UK-sponsored ‘troll factory’” was well-understood by the FCDO. To mitigate the danger, it was undertaken to “position the project externally as being within the established and accepted sector of media development and pluralism and fact checking.” Hence all the lofty references to defending democracy and civil society in official literature related to the initiative. It’s worth reinforcing that as shockingly Orwellian as OIP is, it’s just one component in a vast £100m effort, announced by Theresa May in 2017, to demonize, destabilize and isolate Russia nationally and internationally. Indeed, OIP’s budget represents just one-tenth of that staggering total. It’s also worth reinforcing, the project is in no way concerned about openness, democracy, truth, accuracy, equality or peace, as a highly illuminating passage in one of the many FCDO documents leaked so far starkly underlines. It stated:

[One] barrier to combating disinformation is the fact certain Kremlin-backed narratives are factually true. Responding to inconvenient truths, as opposed to pure propaganda, is naturally more problematic.

RT has reached out to the organisations mentioned in the documents leaked by Anonymous, and has received no response at the time of writing.

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