‘Grassroots’ Media Startup Is Supported by the Kremlin

Charles Davis
02.01.18 4:45 AM ET

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Redfish, a Berlin-based media collective, launched with a promise to deliver “radical, in-depth grassroots features,” with professional graphics, filed everywhere from Eastern Europe to South America. Its first report, on a fire at a public housing development in England that killed over 70 people, has been praised by Vice, as a “fantastic example of amateur community-produced media.”

But Redfish does not appear to be as independent and community-based as its branding suggests. Its reports are the product of an in-house team of staff correspondents and producers, most of whom last worked for Russian government media. And by the time that documentary on Grenfell Tower was discovered by Vice, it had been airing for weeks as an “exclusive grassroots report” on RT, Moscow’s state-supported television network.

What exactly is Redfish, then? Amateur, community-produced media—or something else, designed to appear as something other than it is?

Redfish, for its part, won’t clarify. In an email, the company said it “is not interested in providing a comment for your story.” RT, meanwhile, did not respond to multiple emailed requests for comment, and phone calls to its offices in Moscow went unanswered.

The Redfish website, registered in September 2017, reveals little more than a desire to be perceived as a collective of activist journalists. “We are not driven by chasing clicks or trends—we are journalists who strive to be objective about where things stand,” it says. “But we don’t claim to be neutral: our team has a proven track record of both supporting and covering struggles which challenge the exploitative global system that enslaves humankind and is destroying our planet.”

Elizabeth Cocker, better known by the moniker Lizzie Phelan, is the only name listed on redfish.media. Before Redfish, Cocker spent the previous seven years working for the propaganda arms of Moscow and Tehran, her work closely adhering to the lines pushed by the governments that paid her.

As a reporter for RT, for example, Cocker filed a story suggesting an April 2017 sarin attack in rebel-held Idlib was a false flag; according to the United Nations, that attack was in fact carried out by the Syrian regime, a Russian ally. She also accompanied pro-regime forces into Eastern Aleppo after rebels were pushed out, her report stating that militants had been using bakeries, a frequent target of Russian and Syrian government airstrikes, to build weapons.

As RT’s correspondent in Libya, Cocker dismissed reports of rebel advances on the capital, Tripoli, as a “massive psychological operation.” The city fell 48 hours later.

Cocker has also worked for the Iranian government’s Press TV. In 2012, she reported that Syrian rebel fire was responsible for the killing of French journalist Gilles Jacquier, who had been touring Homs with regime forces. Jacqueir’s colleagues blamed the Syrian government, with the Committee to Protect Journalists stating that evidence points to “the possibility that government forces may have taken deliberate, hostile action against the press.”

Cocker’s LinkedIn profile says she left RT in April; she’s not the only one at Redfish whose last (and long-term) employer was an arm of the Russian government.

Jelena Milincic, whose Twitter bio identifies her as a correspondent for Redifsh, was a reporter for RT’s Spanish-language network as of October 2017. In 2013, Milincic met Russian President Vladimir Putin when he visited RT’s headquarters in Moscow, engaging in a roundtable discussion in which she lamented the difficulties she faced trying to obtain Russian citizenship. (Milincic is a native of Belgrade whose mother heads Sputnik Serbia, another media outlet established by the Kremlin.)

“We have to welcome professionals like you,” Putin responded, according to an official transcript. “You are a young and beautiful woman. I am sorry, but it is true that you are a woman of childbearing age. Your boss here sets a good example, by the way...” (That boss, RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan, likens the role of Kremlin-backed media to that of Russia’s Defense Ministry. Information, she has said, is “a weapon like any other.”)

Milincic recently filed a report for Redfish, viewed over 120,000 times on Facebook, about the economic crisis in Venezuela, accompanying Venezuelan soldiers on a trip to the border with Colombia to uncover smuggling rings that the government blames for shortages of basic goods in the struggling oil-rich country.

That report is now available on RT en Español, where it’s described in Spanish as an investigation by “the Redfish project.” (Belal Alwan, a Redfish producer formerly with Ruptly, an on-demand video division of RT, likewise described Redfish as a “new investigative video project” in a post on his Facebook page.)

Another Redfish correspondent, William Whiteman, also worked for RT and, in August and September of 2017, accompanied Cocker on a trip to the Philippines. Until recently, Whiteman’s LinkedIn stated that he “is a host /producer at online news platform, In the NOW”; it also said he had “worked as [a] correspondent at RT International.” It now identifies him as a “reporter at redfish,” omitting that previous experience.

“In the Now” first began as a show on RT but then, according to BuzzFeed News, “transitioned to a standalone project in the spring of 2016.” It has its own website, inthenow.media, but its videos “live on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and nowhere on each platform is there branding or descriptions that connect them to RT.”

Redfish, likewise, makes no mention on any of its platforms of the place where its work has been most widely distributed: RT. Five of the nine employees publicly associated with this new startup last worked at a Russian state media outlet; one of the few who did not is a U.S. journalist, Rania Khalek, frequently hosted as a commentator on Sputnik and RT, the latter identifying her as a contributor. Khalek announced in November 2017 that she had accepted a job as a correspondent for Redfish.

Redfish’s aggressively “grassroots” branding comes amid a more covert and recently exposed Russian effort to infiltrate left-of-center media. As reported by The Washington Post and the left-wing website Counterpunch, this initiative has entailed creating fake web personas, masquerading as independent journalists, that exploit the trappings and platforms of alternative media to push the Russian line on geopolitics.

Russia is not the first country to promote its agenda abroad, nor the only one to use ostensibly independent media to do it.

During the height of the Cold War, Radio Free Europe, for instance, was billed as providing “unbiased news for Eastern Europeans,” historian Kenneth Osgood noted in an October 2017 piece for The New York Times. In reality, the CIA “used it to wage a subversive campaign to weaken Communist governments behind the Iron Curtain.” And it did so surreptitiously, the agency creating a front group, the National Committee for a Free Europe, “that implored Americans to donate ‘freedom dollars’ to combat Kremlin lies,” as if it were a grassroots initiative launched by concerned patriots. The donations, according to Osgood, amounted to about $1 million a year (the outlet’s actual budget was around $30 million).

It’s not that everything RT or Radio Free Europe reports is total fake news; there’s enough injustice, from East to West, that a skillful propagandist’s aims can be achieved simply by fanning the fires of selective outrage over one, somewhere, while studiously ignoring an inconvenient other. But it’s essential to be aware of those aims so as to better catch an embellishment, lie, or manipulative fixation—why sovereignty is an issue for Russia in Syria and Venezuela but not Ukraine and Crimea, and likewise why the U.S. government is concerned about democracy in Venezuela, a center-left foe, but not Honduras, a right-wing friend.

Hypocrisy is universal, which is not a revelation. Sometimes it can even do some good; a corporation or government need not be angelic, and indeed none are, to observe that a rival is a fraud.

“Looking back at the Cold War: Soviet attacks on U.S. sins around civil rights spurred the U.S. government to improve its civil rights stance domestically,” Peter Pomerantsev, a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics who has tracked Russian propaganda efforts, told The Daily Beast. “So, in some cases, foreign campaigns can be a good thing.”

States are rarely motivated by principled internationalism, and only sometimes by the spectacle of good public relations; cynical self-interest often better explains why a particular injustice is denounced, defended, or ignored on the part of officialdom. That’s easy to see, and it’s why a state might wish to obscure its cynicism by packaging its line in someone else’s earnest aesthetic.

Russia is also not the USSR, and its use of state-backed media to promote conspiratorial disinformation on behalf of authoritarian clients rather undermines the notion that its right-wing government is today engaged in anything as noble as the fight for civil rights.

All money corrupts, but the degree to which it does, and to what end, can only be assessed if there’s some transparency. That shouldn’t bother independent, grassroots media.

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