The expansion of media over the last two decades, including a rapidly increasing array of international news channels, has irreversibly created a fragmented global media system, in which multiple actors play their role in weakening each other and further their agenda of interests to disseminate their views known to the public for their own purposes. Undoubtedly, in an increasingly interdependent world, the ability to communicate and disseminate narratives has become a primary means by which states attempt to influence and constrain other international actors; and international broadcasters are a key dissemination platform for those narratives (MISKIMMON, O’LOUGHLIN, AND ROSELLE, 2012). “Therefore, whoever exerts the greatest control over those processes, may find themselves in a greater position of power” (ROGERSON, 2000, pg. 425-26).
Furthermore, a plethora of international actors such as NGOs, citizens, activists, terrorist groups, and stateless nations all contributing to the mix of global media voices does not by default equate to a state anachronistic status. Conversely, states and their governments rather continuously explore new mechanisms for leveraging new communication technologies and in many cases are zealously pursuing complex strategies for adding their own voices to this cacophony (PRICE, 2014). All this is to say that states, like other actors, are leveraging media to (re)assert power on the global stage. Enter the TV news channel RT. A sizable news and current affairs global television network which includes five round-the-clock channels: studios in New York, London, and Moscow broadcast in English, Arabic, and Spanish.
There is also a documentary channel RTD, as well as news video agency Ruptly and multimedia platform rt.com. A sort kind of channel created to be Russia’s instrument to challenge the dominance of broadcasters stations that have dominated the field since the early 1990s, notably BBC World (BBCW) and CNN International (CNNI). According to the Russian president Vladmir Putin RT is: “…another strong player in the world news scene, which not only will objectively talk about what is happening in our country, in Russia, but also will try – I want it stress, try – to break the monopoly of Anglo-Saxon media on information world flows […] we have never proceeded from the fact that this will be an information service or a channel that will engage in the apologetics of Russian politics. We wanted the information arena to have an absolutely independent information channel.
Of course, it is financed by the state, and one way or another can not but reflect the position of the Russian official authorities on what is happening in our country and abroad. But still I want to emphasise this again: we did not conceive this channel – RT – as some kind of apologetics of Russian politics – both external and internal.” (KREMLIN, 2013)Central to the creation of RT was the Russian belief that Western reporting on Russia’s involvement in the the series of colour revolutions in Georgia in 2003, as well as in Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 was unfairly negative and represented weakness in Russian “political technologies” of information management. (SAARI, 2014; SERGUNIN; KARABESHKIN, 2015).
With these criticisms in mind, the Russian state threw its weight behind founding RT to cover “stories overlooked by the mainstream media to create news with an edge” and provide an “alternative perspective on major global events, and acquaint international audiences with a Russian viewpoint” (ABOUT RT, 2016). Therefore, how able is RT to deliver on its ambitions? Studies of International Relations (IR) “still fail to address the issue adequately and comprehensively, in addition, less has been done to overcome absence of understanding the communication dimension of international relations” (COBAN, 2016).
Yet, scholars of Media and Communications “have rarely tested the extent to which international broadcasting content serves as a direct articulations of state positions and interests”. According to the author, the association between these two spheres – ownership and content – is “generally assumed rather than empirically tested” (TOULA, 2017, pg. 10). It is believed that only a detailed analysis can equip one to trace the operations of RT and thus identify why and how RT was adopted as an instrument of public diplomacy. Analysing the RT case in the Syrian Conflict also enables one to develop a clearer understanding of how the Russian channel disseminates the news to the foreign public in a way to maximize audiences, and at the same time, enhancing its sponsoring government’s policies – in doing so – helping shaping public atitudes globally. Yet, at a given point in time of resurgence in attention to international broadcasting, more specifically the ones representing an alternative to the United States and European Media.
The Syrian civil war is partly a contest of narratives, an important on of which is that it has a context of bilateral relations between Russia and US, with differed priorities competing for an audience in the global arena. Specifically, this work examines Syria’s conflict news with the understanding that RT is subject of the structures of a state (ie. Russia), and also act as media organisation subject to competition with other media actors, as well as the demands of their audiences. The confluence between of that two poles largely determines to what extent the international media are soft power vectors for the State sponsoring them. Yet, it presents a scholarly opportunity to examine the relationship between a state-sponsored television channel and power articulation.
The scholarly significance of this work resides in bringing together the fields of international media studies and international relations, which operates within a specific paradigm of public diplomacy, strategic narratives, contra-flow and international media studies. Some experts of public diplomacy, strategic narratives, and contra-flows such as McNair (2006), Miskimmon, O’Loughlin, and Roselle (2013), Price (2014), Nancy Snow (2010) and Thussu (2007) point out the proliferation of international broadcasters. Simultaneously, others which have engage with the textual content of IBs ignore analysis of state interests.
The idea and motivation for this study were triggered, at first, by an eagerness and inquisitive will to analyse the script behind the mediated process with regards to the renewed tension, hostility and political antagonism between Russia and the United States, which grew dramatically throughout 2014 with the annexation of the Crimea, and in 2015 when Russia entered the stage of the conflict in Syria. This thesis does not propose to provide solutions or policy recommendations – though its findings can contribute to both. In doing so, this work attempts to construct a theoretical framework of analysis based on evidence, quantitative and qualitative methodology.
The emphasis is on the network per se, not only the content concerning particular stories, but also taking into account the role of state sponsorship, interests, and policies. Studies about Moscow’s public diplomacy has been in the spotlight in the last decade (TSYGANKOV, 2006; SIMONS, 2011; 2014; SZOSTEK, 2016). On 2016, Russia entered the top 30 most influential countries of the world – for the first time – by the criterion of soft power[footnoteRef:5]. At the current stage, Russia develops its own approaches and formats for using soft power in foreign policy, related to special perceptions of its nature and capabilities. From this Russian perspective, the international relations is an arena of constant competitiveness and the country sees itself as one of the emerging powers, which are challenging Western hegemony in the international system. And by Western, the Russian government means the United States, which actively obstructs their country’s rise and pursuit of legitimate interests (SZOSTEK, 2016).
In this context, to secure its own views on the current affairs and advances its public diplomacy objectives RT is the tool. However, according to many scholars including Vitopoulos (2015), “there is but minimal research on RT that focuses on the interpretations it suggests and the strategies it pursues to convince its audience about the rightness of the Russian stance.