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Russian TV Show 'Fake News' Deconstructs Kremlin's Disinformation

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Russia, state television channels tell viewers what to think about the Russian government, foreign affairs, the Russian opposition. It has always been a difficult place to be an independent outlet, and it is getting harder. But NPR's Lucian Kim found one Russian TV channel that is openly challenging Kremlin propaganda.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Russian TV news has come a long way from the awkward, wooden newscasts of the Soviet Union. From their state-of-the-art Moscow studios, the Kremlin's TV channels beam out slickly produced new shows that reach tens of millions of people every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: The overriding message is always the same. President Vladimir Putin is working tirelessly to help Russians and to ward off aggression from the United States and its allies. On Russian TV, there's almost no alternative to the barrage of government propaganda, except for one little show that deconstructs the world according to the Kremlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KIM: The show's name is "Fake News," and it airs every weekend on Russia's last independent television channel, TV Rain.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAKE NEWS")

MASHA BORZUNOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: In this particular episode, host Masha Borzunova will skewer state TV for its newfound obsession with opposition politician Alexei Navalny and warnings of an imminent attack on Russia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAKE NEWS")

BORZUNOVA: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Here, she explains how state TV repeatedly brings up the threat of war with the United States to distract from more pressing issues at home. I visit Borzunova as she's taping the show in TV Rain's studios in a converted Moscow factory.

BORZUNOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: We don't choose the topics for our show, she says. Our friends at state television do. She says she watches the main TV news programs and then decides what the most important themes are to debunk.

BORZUNOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Propaganda isn't just about fake news and outright lies, she says, but about showing only that part of the truth that's convenient for the government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Her show also pokes fun at Putin, in contrast to the sycophantic treatment he gets from state media. Here's a montage of him clearing his throat during a recent speech and the audience's adoring response.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Clearing throat).

(APPLAUSE)

KIM: Television critic Anna Kachkayeva says Borzunova's show has become an integral part of Russia's media ecosystem because it helps Russians understand how government propaganda works.

ANNA KACHKAYEVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: As for the TV Rain news channel, she says, it's played a unique role ever since its founding a decade ago when Dmitry Medvedev was Russia's president and people hoped he would allow for a more open political environment. TV Rain at first called itself the optimistic channel. Unexpectedly, it became an alternative to state TV with its hard-hitting coverage of a terrorist attack on a Moscow airport and then a wave of anti-government protests that state television largely ignored. A few years ago, Russian cable providers stopped carrying TV Rain, forcing the channel to go online and rely on a subscription service for revenue.

KACHKAYEVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: While it's become the channel for Russia's educated urban class, Kachkayeva says, it does not reach a mass audience. Still, Natalya Sindeyeva, TV Rain's owner and founder, says the channel is constantly under threat.

NATALYA SINDEYEVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: The risks are enormous and unpredictable, she says. Their license could be revoked, or prosecutors could open a criminal investigation. In recent months, Putin has launched a full-scale assault on freedom of expression and is pursuing a campaign of intimidation against critical media. The government recently branded independent news outlet Meduza a foreign agent, and it's now struggling to survive after losing advertisers. The Kremlin maintains media are free to report what they want within the framework of the law. Sindeyeva says she prefers not to think about the risks to TV Rain because otherwise it would be impossible to do her work.

SINDEYEVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: She says disinformation is worse now than during the communist era. In the Soviet Union, people understood that government media lied, Sindeyeva says. But today, there are so many sources of information that people don't know what to believe anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAKE NEWS")

BORZUNOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: That's where the program "Fake News" comes in, with hosts like Masha Borzunova calling a spade a spade, week in and week out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FAKE NEWS")

BORZUNOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: At the end of her program, Borzunova calls on viewers to like it, share it and show it to their parents and grandparents. The show has picked up a loyal following on YouTube, where a weekly episode can easily get more than half a million views. The audience leaves thousands of comments, thanking her for the show. You've opened people's eyes, one viewer writes. Natalya Sindeyeva says her channel's main mission is not to fight propaganda but to report on what's really happening in the world.

SINDEYEVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Our job is to give people the chance to make up their own minds, she says. They should decide for themselves if they want to believe lies.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYNTHETIC EPIPHANY'S "THE CATALYST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.