The Ossetian War, as it’s known here, was Russia Today’s crucible. Especially in the first days of the conflict, when information was patchy and unreliable. RT became exactly what it set out to be: a source of information for the West about what the Russian position actually was. Moreover, it was the only press outlet available to a Western audience that had access to the Russian side of the fighting. The numbers reflected this advantage. According to RT, viewership reached almost 15 million and views of RT broadcasts on YouTube quickly clicked past the one million mark. To this day, RT sees the war as the event that best showcased its abilities as a news organization, and that made it a recognizable brand in the West.
But RT’s war coverage was at least as shrill and one-sided as anything the Western press produced. And this, according to people who worked for RT at the time, was a conscious choice. “RT sees it as a triumph, but RT went into a war. It was a P.R. war,” says another former RT correspondent who spoke on condition of anonymity. (Staff members were recently compelled to sign papers that barred them from speaking to the press.) “We were told, ‘Look at CNN, look at BBC. They’ve already taken a bias and we have the right to do the same.’ There was no room for questioning, for doubt.”
Russia Today correspondents in Ossetia found that much of their information was being fed to them from Moscow, whether it corresponded to what they saw on the ground or not. Reporters who tried to broadcast anything outside the boundaries that Moscow had carefully delineated were punished. William Dunbar, a young RT correspondent in Georgia, did a phone interview with the Moscow studio in which he mentioned that he was hearing unconfirmed reports that Russia had bombed undisputed Georgian territory. After the interview, he “rushed to the studio to do a live update via satellite,” he says. “I had been told I would be doing live updates every hour that day. I got a call from the newsroom telling me the live updates had been cancelled. They said, ‘We don’t need you, go home.’ ” Another correspondent, whose reporting departed from the Kremlin line that Georgians were slaughtering unarmed Ossetians, was summoned to the office of the deputy editor in chief in Moscow, where they went over the segment’s script line by line. “He had a gun on his desk,” the correspondent says.
Even those who were not reprimanded—and were otherwise believers in RT’s mission—were uncomfortable with the heavy-handed message control. Irakly Gachechiladze, an ethnic Georgian born in Moscow, had recently been appointed news director when the war began. Despite his staunch loyalty to the channel’s official line, he says he was uneasy. “It was not a happy time, obviously,” he told me when we met in his office. It was the biggest story anyone there had ever covered, but Gachechiladze politely bowed out. “I packed for the vacation that I had planned a long time in advance, and I left. When I came back, the war was over.”
Sophie Shevardnadze, the daughter of Georgia’s second president who has a political interview show on RT, took a leave of absence rather than report negatively about her fellow Georgians. “I didn’t go to work for three and a half months,” she says. “I took unpaid leave and I wasn’t even sure if I was going back.” The leave was, she says, her editors’ proposal. “I had to be on air on the ninth”—the third day of the fighting—“and they called me and they were like, you don’t have to do that.”