Update: Russian government gets press the old-fashioned way

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Originally published 10.18.2013

With Russia’s government facing frequent abuse in foreign press for its LGBT rights positions, no news has often been the only good news for the Kremlin in 2013. Unless it’s the news they write themselves.

Rossiykaya Gazeta, a government-owned newspaper with its roots in the very tail-end of the Soviet era (its first issue appeared 13 months before the dissolution of the state), maintains a branch for disseminating information to non-Russian countries, “Russia Beyond the Headlines” (RBH). “Our news, told in your language,” boasts the masthead. RBH maintains a blog, but it also insinuates itself into American and European daily newspapers by buying advertising space that it fills with its articles.

It’s not uncommon for outside parties to purchase such “inserts” in publications like the New York Times. Inserts materials are always marked as paid advertiser content, but the cosmetic resemblance between the ads and the paper’s regular material is “amazingly effective” at investing readers’ interest, according to comments the Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride gave to the Washington Blade.

Russia’s government has been pummeled in the LGBT press and in general media outlets for a series of new laws singling out gays, including a ban on gay couples adopting and a much-derided ban on “homosexual propaganda” (a vaguely defined quantity that critics allege amounts to little more than a license to prosecute gay rights activists). Perhaps with that in mind, RBH materials popped up in the Washington Post in October and the New York Times in September. Another insert is scheduled for a November issue of the Post.

Rather than tip-toe around the issue of LGBT rights, the latest RBH makes it their front page story. “Supplement editor Elena Bobrova said that this topic was selected because it was the first subject she was asked about by Americans when they learned she was from Russia,” according to an RBH press release. The release quotes Bobrova as saying that it was an opportunity to explore the “cultural differences” between the US and the more conservative, Orthodox Church-influenced Russia.

The RBH piece quotes both homegrown critics like “former Soviet dissident” Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who called recent laws “a step toward the Middle Ages,” and proponents of the legislation like Elena Mizulina, the politician who co-authored the “homosexual propaganda law” and called it insurance for “traditional family values.”

For outsiders unfamiliar with Russian media it can be difficult to know which in-country news sources are credible. “Evaluating the information is difficult if you’re not already familiar with the coverage,” Spectrum Human Rights Alliance’s Larry Poltavtsev told 429Magazine. Poltavtsev is a Russian immigrant to the US and a vocal critic of Putin’s government. 

“I trust the activists on the ground, the grassroots and the victims of these policies. Those are the most reliable sources insides Russia,” says Poltavtsev, cautioning against any LGBT issues coverage from “pro-Kremlin” news sources.

Though state-owned, RBH still contends it is the most reliable source for American readers who want news about Russians, by Russians. “[We] offer original, on-the-ground coverage from independent journalists and opinion pieces from commentators who hold a wide range of views about Russia’s leadership” reads the RBH mission statement.

Update 10.22.2013: 

“I hope you see that we do try to cover LGBT issues, both online and in print,” Lara McCoy, a spokesperson for RBH, told 429Magazine. “Our goal is to give a more complete picture of modern Russia.”

So would RBH ever circulate material in the gay press?

“It would be theoretically possible to place a story in a publication for a niche audience,” McCoy said. “But we’re not set up for it. It’s something we’ve discussed for the future.”

We’ll have to wait for the future to see how the Kremlin’s policies affect its LGBT citizens too, and how RBH tackles it when they do.

429Magazine

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