Baroness Helic is a Conservative Life peer.
Alongside Russia’s war in Ukraine is a war on truth. Vladimir Putin prepared the ground for his invasion through the press and broadcasters. Russian state media and their proxies spun lies about the Ukrainian government being run by Nazis and drug addicts, and invented atrocities to blame on Ukraine.
As quick victory has eluded the Kremlin, Putin has doubled down. All independent media and reporting have been banned in Russia. Social media have been restricted. By suppressing information, the Russian government hopes to hide the horrific cost of its war – first and foremost from Russians.
Worryingly, it is not just Russia where the Kremlin’s lies are printed without question. The Russian state has actively worked to build its propaganda machine abroad. This has been true here in the UK: in the last decade, for example, Russian media such as RT and Sputnik spread lies about Russia’s activities in Syria.
It is most visible, though, in the Western Balkans.
Sputnik and RT have a significant presence in the region. Sputnik’s Serbian-language reports are provided free to local media, who – often desperately short of funding – reproduce them wholesale. Truth is squeezed out.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina – where Sputnik also has a large number of Facebook followers – the Russian agency has extensive connections with local media, who blindly publish its disinformation.
It is closely aligned with local secessionists, and readily attacks their political opponents as western puppets and threats. It works closely with the media channel ATV, controlled by the separatist leader Milorad Dodik, sanctioned by the United States in January. It portrays NATO as a threat, and Russia always as a friend.
In North Macedonia, NATO’s newest member, Sputnik continues to try to stir up the disputes and grievances which previously prevented membership, seizing on any opportunity to emphasise division with neighbouring Bulgaria. Despite having failed to prevent North Macedonia’s NATO entry, Russia still dreams of using the country to undermine the alliance – and hopes to block any moves towards EU membership.
The situation is even worse in Serbia, where the dominant government-controlled media echo the Kremlin’s propaganda. Read Serbian dailies, or watch the state news channel, and you would believe that the Ukrainian government are killing their own people. That they are Nazis, shooting civilians in the back – a claim which resonates in the Balkans, where Yugoslav identity was built in part on stories of resistance to Nazi atrocities in the Second World War.
Polling in Serbia shows strong support for Putin, and a belief that Russia is the main power Serbia should depend on for its security.
For a decade, the Kremlin has sought to sow division in the Balkans, and to exploit the region as a weak point within the heart of Europe and NATO, through which to cause division and instability.
While we give Putin’s propaganda free reign, he can succeed. If the dominant media narrative is of Russia as a friend and NATO as aggressive, of democracies as weak and autocracies as effective, there can be little hope for long-term stability and prosperous relationships.
These ideas and attitudes cannot be reversed overnight. But we do have a tool to challenge them: free and independent media, who report impartially, diligently, bravely. In Ukraine, journalists are on the frontlines to bring us news unfiltered by the Kremlin’s propaganda department. As Putin has sought to restrict the press and reporting in Russia, the BBC have been taking steps to ensure that truth can still be heard.
The BBC and its reporters are renowned around the world. But we have not been giving them the support they need. As too often, we have looked at a great national institution and found ways to criticise it, rather than to improve it.
Instead, we should value the role that BBC journalists fulfil in challenging propaganda through their fair and determined reporting. And we should recognise the part that they can play in defending against Putin’s war on the truth.
In the Balkans, I believe we should increase the funding for the World Service’s local language journalism, so that BBC reporting can compete with the distortions of Sputnik, RT and state-controlled media. Sputnik is able to propagate its disinformation through local media, in part because of consistent efforts to squeeze funding for the independent press.
To counter this, we should fund the expansion of existing BBC services in Serbia, and extend provision into Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia. We should support them to provide BBC bulletins and coverage to other broadcasters in the region, so that local media have a genuine choice. And we should resource the sort of innovative approaches now being adopted for Russia, where the BBC are taking to platforms like TikTok to reach audiences otherwise cut off.
We will not change minds immediately. But by ensuring that Russia’s voice is not the only one in the Balkans, and that the impartial, scrupulous reporting for which the BBC is renowned can be heard, we can expose RT and Sputnik for what they are. We can challenge the Kremlin’s narratives, and provide an alternative to their lies.
And we can offer a reminder to the citizens of the Balkans, that aggression and autocracy are not the best foundations for a society, but that prosperity is best served by a free press, respect for rights, and democracy.