Strategic Communication and So-Called ‘Independent Media’ In Russia-EU Confrontation

Europen Union – Russia summit in 2013 (Credits: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Strategic communication has characterised the recent Russia – European Union dynamics. In this article, we aim at analysing the structure and work of Meduza.io, a news website that has played a decisive role in the Moscow-Brussels confrontation.

Last week a group of international experts visited Moscow to attend the first international scientific conference titled “Role of the Civil Society in Ensuring Democratic Standards for Organisation and Conduct Elections” organised by the Obshchestvennaja Palata Rossijskoj Federacii (Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation) and the Rossijskoe Obshchestvo Politologov (the Russian Society of Political Scientists) on September 14th-15th, 2021 at the Lomonosov Moscow State University.

Among the international experts who attended the conference were foreign politicians, scholars, journalists, political analysts who travelled to Russia during the week of the Russian elections. After the conference, some of these experts had the opportunity to visit several polling stations as international experts or members of foreign media agencies and reported the situation they had witnessed on the ground.

Soon as the Russian votes finished and Edinaja Rossija (Russia United) won the elections with around 49% of the votes, a journalist linked to the media agency Meduza.io contacted the international experts via e-mail or social network seeking information about their stay in Russia. Alexey Kovalev described himself as an editor of Meduza.io interested in obtaining information or interviews from those international experts who attended the conference in Moscow who he wrongly labelled as ‘international observers’.

Considering that the journalist portrayed Meduza.io as an independent Russian news site, we investigated more about this media agency before answering Kovalev’s questions.

Looking at the official website www.meduza.io the page ‘O Meduze‘, we discovered that the Medusa Project SIA is an international Russian edition registered on September 5th, 2014 as a sdrestvo massovoj informazii (mass media) with the official number 000840272 and based in Riga (Latvia), Krišjāņa Barona iela 5-2, LV-1050. According to the page Kodeks redaktsii “Meduzi”, Meduza.io reports news and events about Russia and the world every day. The editorial board do not support any political party, and a single politician and Meduza.io does not accept help from anyone. The media agency does not accept money from any side.

On October 20th, 2014, Galina Timchenko, the former editor-in-chief of the Russian news website Lenta.ru, founded Meduza.io. In the beginning, Meduza.io was a manual aggregator of news, texts, and podcasts in Russian, focusing the attention on the reliability of the information about Russia, not the source’s status. According to open sources, in July 2014, Galina Timchenko founded the company Medusa Project SIA and registered with the Riga tax office, and in August, she began recruiting personnel from Latvian recruiting portals to a new Russian-language online media outlet. The authorised capital of Medusa Project SIA is € 2.8 thousand. The sole owner of Medusa Project SIA with a 100% stake is Russian citizen Galina Timchenko. Ivan Kolpakov is the editor-in-chief. During the years, Medusa Project SIA increased its employees and journalists and its revenues.

According to this information, the first impression of Meduza.io was positive. However, the media agency headquarter is based in Riga (Latvia) near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Latvia in the Latvian capital, where it is also based the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence which is located in Kalnciema Iela 11B, Zemgales priekšpilsēta, Rīga, LV-1048 only around 4 km far from the media agency.

The map shows where Meduza.io is located in Latvia and the distance from the Latvian MFA, the NATO Stratcom, and the U.S. Embassy (Credits: Google maps)

It is not a secret that the relations between the Russian Federation and Latvia are problematic since the Baltic republic has become a U.S. strategic partner at the Russian borders, and the Latvian Government has been several times accused of alleged discrimination against the Russian-speaking population.

Looking more profoundly on the Internet, we discovered that in 2018 the editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov was accused of sexual harassment during a party in honour of the publication’s birthday. According to the official version published by Meduza.io, during the party, “Meduza chief editor Ivan Kolpakov became intoxicated and groped the buttocks of an employee’s wife, saying, “You are the only one at this party I can harass and get away with it.”.” The case pushed Kolpakov to resign, although after a few weeks, on November 6th, 2018, Meduza’s board of directors decided to reinstate Ivan Kolpakov as chief editor while the employee whose wife was harrassed ‘voluntarily quitted his job’ (as Meduza.io reported). Kolpakov’s sex scandal divided Meduza’s public audience since the employee resigned while the editor-in-chief did not lose his job.

Regarding the person who contacted the international experts who attended the conference in Moscow, we know that Alexey Kovalev is a journalist, media manager and commentator. He graduated from the University of London, and he is a fellow at the World Press Institute (WPI), whose goal is to bring foreign journalists to the United States to experience U.S. media and life. He is a regular contributor of opinion pieces to The Guardian, The Washington Post and the New York Times. In 2015 Alexey Kovalev also founded The Noodle Remover, a propaganda-debunking project. He attended the Aspen Ideas Festival, an event created by The Aspen Institute, an American institute based in Washington, D.C.

The Noodle Remover is a project on Medium.com, an American online publishing platform owned by A Medium Corporation and developed by Evan Williams in 2012. Evan Clark Williams is an American technology entrepreneur who is the co-founder of different companies, including Twitter, Blogger, and Medium.

Among the writers of The Noodle Remover, Ivan Beliaev is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, a private, nonprofit corporation funded by the U.S. Congress through the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM). This independent federal government agency oversees all U.S. civilian international media.

Amidst the journalists working at Meduza.io, Eilish Hart holds an M.A. in European and Russian Affairs from the University of Toronto. She is also a Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program and an editor of the BMB Ukraine Brief focusing on political, economic, and security issues in Ukraine. We can mention other journalists and photographers who are working at Meduza.io as Evgeny Feldman, a Russian photojournalist and photo editor based in Moscow who in 2017-2018 covered Navalny’s presidential campaign, Kristina Safonova, a Russian journalist who decided to apply for training at the Washington-based International Center for Journalists, or Andrey Pertsev, a journalist who is also a contributor to Moscow Carnegie Center, the Russian office of the famous Washington-based Carnegie Center for International Peace that in its Board of Trustees former U.S. diplomats, members of U.S. State Department and has been financed in 2020 by critical Western institutions or companies such as Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Facebook, the United Kingdom Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and Bank of America Foundation.

At the end of this investigation, the question is how the people working for Meduza.io are independent or free or any bias? We are not judging the original idea of the media agency of aggregating news from different sources on Russia. At the same time, we cannot state that every single person who works for Meduza.io has a connection with Western institutions. However, we might ask if since Meduza.io started writing its articles, the editorial board and the journalist have not been influenced by all their experience in the United States we documented before. In this context, we decided to share our analysis with the people who attended the conference and avoid any questions of a media agency whose editorial guideline aims to obsessively criticise the Russian Federation and perpetuate a negative message about life in Russia.

Authors: Guido Keller & Giuliano Bifolchi