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The Russian English-language television network RT grabbed international headlines on Wednesday when it announced that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would host an exclusive new series on the channel. But Assange’s history as the world’s foremost whistleblower and his ostensible dedication to transparency, paired with RT’s perceived allegiance to the Kremlin and its alleged anti-Western bent, raises questions about his new job. Observers, however, suggest it is a perfect match.
The network, which is formally a daughter company of state news agency RIA Novosti but separately run and financed (RIA Novosti also owns Russia Profile), announced in a statement on its Web site that Assange has committed to a ten-episode series to begin in March, which will “focus on his favorite topic: controversy.” The new show, called “The World Tomorrow,” will feature a new guest each episode, picked from the ranks of various contemporary newsmakers – people who, according to RT, “Assange can clearly identify with, being a rather controversial figure himself.”
The 40-year-old Internet crusader, currently under house arrest in the UK and battling extradition to Sweden over questioning tied to sexual assault, said through WikiLeaks that the new show is a unique opportunity to gain an insight on future trends and events. “Through this series I will explore the possibilities for our future in conversations with those who are shaping it,” Assange said in a press release posted on the WikiLeaks Web site. “Are we heading toward utopia, or dystopia, and how we can set our paths? This is an exciting opportunity to discuss the vision of my guests in a new style of show that examines their philosophies and struggles in a deeper and clearer way than has been done before.”
But the move, which immediately sparked a flurry of commentary throughout both the Russian and Western press and on social media networks, is a curious one. Assange has long been famously associated with the outpouring of classified material in the form of leaked diplomatic communiqués, which have embarrassed the U.S. and foreign governments alike (Russia is no exception here). On second thought, however, the selection may be fitting, given the longstanding allegations of RT’s anti-American bent, matched with Assange’s own apparent skepticism of Western politics. What’s more, the shadowy Assange in many ways fits the typical RT bill, as critics say the network has a track record of reporting on a variety of peculiar stories, from conspiracy theories to downright oddball dispatches from Russia and throughout the world.
In a telling sign of the announcement’s impact on the international media scene, many have taken to the Web to either ridicule or voice their concerns over Assange’s new project, which critics deem questionable and believe further fuels RT’s reputation as a disreputable news source. “Shame on you, Mr. Assange! Hard to imagine [a] more miserable final[e] for ‘world order challenger’ than [as an] employee of state-controlled ‘Russia Today,’” tweeted UK-based Russian oligarch and publishing mogul Alexander Lebedev shortly after the news broke.
RT, for its part, shot back at criticism of the network’s new hire in a January 25 edition of "The Alyona Show", in which host Alyona Minkovski offered a scathing critique of the U.S. and British press for allegedly reporting unfavorably on the matter. Minkovski sounded off against newspapers such as The New York Times and The Guardian, calling them “cowards” for writing about the leaks but at the same time allegedly revealing the names of informants found in the documents. “They had no problem using [leaked WikiLeaks documents] to sell more papers, make a profit when it suited them,” she said, “and then of course they turned completely against Assange and started writing smear pieces about his dirty socks…so as not to be seen as being in cahoots with the man the U.S. government is leading a massive investigation against with charges of espionage.”
Observers said that Assange’s famously dodgy character would fit right in with a channel long criticized for reporting on a number of dubious themes – and above all, for consistently attacking the United States and its various policies at home and abroad. According to Internet entrepreneur, journalist and media critic Anton Nossik, the channel’s perceived dearth of credibility coincides with Assange’s own questionable integrity, exemplified by his putting scores of lives at risk through publishing sensitive documents.
“No normal actor in the international media, or politics, or public life would associate themselves with Assange after what we have seen and heard about his record,” Nossik said. But, he added, “[RT] is our biggest conspiracy theorist, and it is actually the only government body that openly says the Americans blew themselves up on 9/11, and this is very much what Assange would like to prove – that the United States is behind every crime in the world since Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, including 9/11.”
Other analysts noted that RT has long since cut back on its own efforts to cast itself as an unbiased news source. According to Kommersant FM commentator Konstantin von Eggert, the network has instead shifted its focus toward openly purveying state propaganda that hardly conforms to journalistic standards. And for this reason, he said, Assange will make a perfect addition to the team. “What he does is not journalism at all – you can’t compare it to the Pentagon Papers or to Watergate,” he said. “I’m not at all surprised that he teamed up with Russia Today, and I think no matter how much RT pays him, it’s not a marriage of convenience, it’s one made in heaven – or probably in hell.”
RT Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan, however, expressed little concern about Assange's patchy history or scandalous reputation, and reiterated RT’s commitment to providing “alternative views” not found elsewhere in the media. “Obviously, there have always been some heavy critics of RT among the mainstream media, probably there always will be,” she said in an E-mailed statement to Russia Profile. “But pointing out that our audience continues to grow in the U.S. and all around the world is the best way to answer those critics.”
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