The Jurassic Park of Propaganda

While a little clumsy as far as propaganda goes, there is a clear line by Moscow to provide negative coverage of the U.S., which it sees as a competitor, and to put pressure on Georgia, with which Russia fought an actual war in 2008 and whose territories it declared “free and independent.” Similarly, Al Jazeera, the TV mouthpiece of the Qatari monarchy and, perhaps, the most professional and influential propaganda tool in recent years, is bent on advancing the interests of the ruling family in Doha. What is much less clear, however, is what interests are being advanced by RFERL’s constant attacks against Azerbaijan, Georgia, and other U.S. partners in the region.

In fact, through its coverage, RFERL has become a part of the domestic political debate in Azerbaijan staunchly supporting fringe opposition groups and criticizing the government. Often such criticism is much needed. There is no question about this and about the need for the opposition to have greater access to electronic media in Azerbaijan. Moreover, Azerbaijan clearly lacks sufficiently vibrant and diverse political discussions. All of this is true. Still, taking a side in a confrontational political debate in a country advocating for specific political forces seems to be a little inappropriate for a U.S.-budget sponsored media outlet.

The heated exchanges between Fox News and MSNBC can be considered by some as good for American politics, but, surely, few would advocate for such an exchange had one of the parties been specifically created and sponsored by, let’s say, the Chinese government. Nor does RFERL provide its readers with the whole picture.  Listening to the broadcaster, one could conclude that Azerbaijan’s debt of 9% of GDP is the end of its economy, while never even hearing about the debt overtaking the GDP in the U.S. or the intricacies of the debt ceiling debate in the U.S. And when one hears about the demolishing of Baku’s older housing to make way for new construction, there is never a mention of the American concept of “eminent domain"; or when speaking about illegal detentions, one never mentions Guantanamo. Not that one would justify the other, but, given the source of funding, a disclaimer like this would probably be appropriate.

Such selective delivery of information is eerily similar to that of Russia Today and Al Jazeera, and, in the case of Azerbaijan, of the Iranian broadcasters bent on undermining the secular system in the country. However, if Russian propaganda seems to have graduated to the next level, America’s RFERL still stands as a dinosaur of the Cold War with a lofty name of “Liberty,” a counter-balance to once-mighty Communist “Pravda” (the Truth).

The concept of the government-funded RFERL promoting independent media not beholden to governments in respective countries would sound attractive for an American observer had it been applied inside the United States and is a paradox that deserves a study on its own. As for the nostalgic analysts at the RFERL lost in the paradigms of the Cold War with their personal biases blooming in the relative obscurity of the RFERL HQ in Prague, Czech Republic, one can understand the frustration of authors on the government payroll, whose negative coverage of the area is one way to stress the need for their continued employment.