Weekly media roundup: The focus of the Russian media this week has been on the riots in Ferguson, the execution of an American journalist by ISIS, and the closing of several McDonald's in the center of Moscow


People stand in prayer after marching about a mile to the police station to protest the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Photo: AP

Whataboutism,” which first rose to prominence during the Cold War era as a tool used by the Soviet Union’s most skilled propagandists, appears to be re-emerging as a new tool in the ongoing information war between Russia and the West. From the riots in Ferguson to the execution of journalist James Foley by ISIS, some Russian media outlets appear to have adopted a strategy of countering criticism of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy with an updated version of “What about…”

Ferguson unrest

Unrest in the U.S. town of Ferguson was a focal point for Russian media this week. This issue saw a rare consensus between opposition and pro-government media, namely, that events there are a sign that the U.S. should stop playing the role of world policeman and start looking at its own problems for a change.

Moreover, journalists underscored that the U.S. government employs exactly the same methods that it so vehemently condemns in other countries. This tone was especially pronounced in the pro-government media: Rossiyskaya GazetaIzvestia and Channel One.

For instance, Channel One harshly criticized the strong-arm tactics of U.S. law enforcement agencies: “Criticized all week long for excessive use of force, the police have not changed their methods. Even the UN Secretary General drew attention to this fact, such has been the blowback from the events in Ferguson.”

It is noteworthy that Channel One, which has always denounced Amnesty International as a politicized organization, has begun quoting its findings. Channel One recently pointed out that the human rights organization is “seriously concerned about the action of the authorities in the U.S.,” and reiterated that, “It is unacceptable to use excessive force to suppress protests and deprive people of the right to express their point of view.”

A similar thread was pursued by Rossiyskaya Gazeta, citing Russian Foreign Ministry official spokesperson Konstantin Dolgov: “At the same time as they require other countries to guarantee freedom of speech and not suppress anti-government protests, the U.S. authorities do not stand on ceremony with domestic critics of the continued inequality and discrimination suffered by their own ‘second-class’ citizens.”

Izvestia, meanwhile, published an interview with Anastasia Churkina, RT’s correspondent on the ground in Ferguson, who mentions numerous violations of journalists’ rights as well as the disproportionately harsh police reaction. Churkina said that in the past six years she had not seen “such treatment of journalists as in Ferguson right now.”

“When chaos erupts, it’s as if the line between journalists and protesters gets erased,” she said. “The police use tear gas and don’t look where they’re shooting, even though they know where the journalists are. During the dispersal of demonstrators, we too felt the effect of the gas.”

Interestingly, the main opposition media (Snob, Echo of MoscowNovaya Gazeta), although a lot less focused on Ferguson, still admitted that the tragic events demonstrate the long-standing problems of racism and inequality in the U.S.

Snob, avoiding assessments of its own, quoted U.S. expert M. Shtarker: “The police killed an unarmed black teenager? That happens all the time. No matter how many times politicians say ‘never again,’ it always does over and over. Social mobility in the U.S. is low and schools depend on local taxes, so it’s very hard to get a decent education and escape poverty for those born in a poor district. And doubly hard if you belong to the black, permanently discriminated minority.”

The liberal Slon also raised the issue of racism in an article by Irina Solomonova: “Racism is the prime issue: Ferguson’s population is more than 67 percent black, yet the police force counts only three black officers (and 50 white).”

Even Echo of Moscow, in a piece by author Eugene Lavrov, was critical of events in Ferguson: “Training manuals should include examples of this dual logic of U.S. policy. Detachments of the National Guard are arriving in Ferguson. U.S. law enforcement agencies are prohibiting reporters from covering the events.Tear gas and rubber bullets are still being used. The streets of Ferguson are full of unarmed people without any Molotov cocktails or firearms. But ever more security forces are descending on the town to disperse civilians who only want to know one thing: Who killed Michael Brown and will this killer face punishment?”

Despite avoiding any sharply critical statements, independent business daily Kommersant nevertheless focused on the chaos in Ferguson: “The U.S. town of Ferguson has seen the arrest of more than 30 rioters, report local TV stations, citing police. The rioters were dispersed using tear gas, which also hit journalists. The U.S. aviation authorities extended its ban on flights over the town at an altitude of below 900 meters. The town was plunged into chaos after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed African-American teenager earlier this month.”

The ISIS execution of an American journalist

A member loyal to ISIS waves its flag in Raqqa. Photo: Reuters  

Such a tragic event as the brutal execution of U.S. journalist James Foley by ISIS militants could hardly fail to provoke a wave of new articles and media responses. Analysis was largely confined to pro-government publications (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Channel One, Life News), while the opposition (Echo of MoscowSnobNovaya GazetaSlon) limited themselves to statements of fact.

Channel One implicitly laid the blame at the door of the U.S. government: “With roots in Syria and support from the Pentagon in the fight against Bashar al-Assad, the group [ISIS] emerged from under the wing of the U.S., but earlier this year declared its zone of interests to be neighboring Iraq, which ran counter to the plans of the White House. Within a few months the Islamists took control of several provinces in the country, seizing tons of weapons along the way on the approach to Baghdad...”

Life News focused on the inhumanity of the terrorists: “ISIS militants beheaded U.S. journalist James Foley and posted a video of this horrific act online.”

Nadezhda Yermolayeva, reporting for Rossiyskaya Gazeta, underlined the culpability of the U.S. authorities: “Journalists have learned that the terrorists were demanding a multi-million dollar ransom from the deceased’s relatives. Unfortunately for Foley’s family, the government refused to pay the rebels and he was killed.”

She also quoted Russian Middle East expert Stanislav Tarasov: “The paradox is that ISIS has been joined by many Islamists supported by Washington during the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Now Washington is forced to deal with them.”

SnobNovaya Gazeta, Echo of Moscow, and Slon hardly commented on the event, limiting their coverage to reports of the death of a journalist who had been captured by rebels. Although venturing a discussion of the situation, Kommersant provided only summary information without any assessments.

Closing of McDonald’s restaurants in Moscow

People pass by the closed McDonald's restaurant in Bolshaya Bronnaya Street in Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

This week saw the temporary closure of several McDonald's restaurants, most notably the one at Pushkinskaya, the first outlet to open in Russia, back in 1990.

The opposition press (Slon, Echo of Moscow) could not resist commenting on the move. Slon’s Ivan Davydov saw it as a “crackdown” by the Russian authorities on everything American, including values ​​and symbols.

“Russians are quite sensitive to symbolism, and realize that it’s all about targeting hostile symbols,” he writes. “McDonald's arrived in the Soviet Union not to sell hamburgers, but as a way of life. The dream of freedom.”

He added that such measures resonate with the public: “The country is ready for Cold War II, and enthusiastic about it this time. The people and party are finally united.”

Echo of Moscow blogger Georgi Yans joined in the criticism: “The attempt to close McDonald's is a huge mistake on the part of the authorities. Popular, likable, inexpensive McDonald’s is a mecca for students, drivers, and other lovers of poor nutrition. It’s a very rash decision. It is one thing to deprive a hundred or so ‘national traitors’ of parmesan and other delicatessen whatnots, but another entirely to close the door on millions of McDonald’s customers.”

Pro-government media kept silent on McDonald’s. Channel One delivered some typically worded phrases about the temporary suspension of operations due to violations of sanitary standards, as did Life News, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, and Izvestia.

Perhaps the most interesting coverage came from Kommersant, which canvassed the views of politicians and public figures to see who would – and who would not – miss the fast food chain. LDPR deputy leader Aleksei Didenko was quoted: “It's a real celebration for the LDPR, since the ‘Close McDonald’s’ slogan and the party itself were born around the same time.”

Some Russian politicians turned out to be advocates of fast food, for example, the Communist Party’s Vladimir Solovyov: “McDonald’s came here in the 1990s at a difficult time, and wasn’t afraid of what was going on in the country... That’s worthy of respect,” he concluded. As a lawyer, Mr. Solovyov “quite often encounters situations” where “something is closed at the request of Rospotrebnadzor [Russia’s consumer protection watchdog].”