“Russia is the world champion in free speech.”

This claim was made by the Russian TV host and state media boss Dmitry Kiselyov during a lecture he delivered to students of journalism at Moscow State University on 23 October.

Mr Kiselyov repeated his own remark at a Russian journalism conference held in Sochi earlier this autumn.

#149 out of 180

It is not difficult to make the case that what Mr Kiselyov said to the students is incorrect.

The 2019 World Press Freedom Index puts Russia in the 149th place out of 180 countries ranked for media freedom.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which publishes the Index, attributes Russia’s ranking to website blocking, pressure on independent media outlets, the spread of government propaganda, and deployment of “draconian” media laws.

Top propagandist

Dmitry Kiselyov is CEO of the state news agency Rossiya Segodnya, which includes the outlets RIA Novosti, Sputnik and InoSMI. He also hosts his own weekly show on state TV Rossiya 1, where he is also the deputy director general.

He has earned himself a personal EU sanction as a “central figure of the government propaganda supporting the deployment of Russian forces in Ukraine”.

“The period of impartial journalism is over. Objectivity is a myth,” Dmitry Kiselyov told the staff at RIA Novosti and Sputnik when he became their CEO in 2013. But in the late 1990s, he held a different view.

Follow this link to see examples of disinformation in Mr Kiselyov’s TV programme, which have been included in the EUvsDisinfo data base of pro-Kremlin disinformation.

Spontaneous laughter

As one can hear in a video recording from Mr Kiselyov’s lecture, which was shared by the independent TV Rain, the spontaneous reaction of the student body was not to feel intimidated by the powerful man in front of them, but rather to laugh at his remark.

However, when TV Rain later approached the students, they were not keen to let themselves be quoted for critical comments to what they had heard at the lecture.

Maria Borzunova, who hosts TV Rain’s weekly programme Fake News, told in a tweet:

“We have now spent three days trying to talk to first year students from the journalism department of Moscow State University, who were present at the lecture by the great and terrible Kiselyov. Some will only speak anonymously, and the rest say: ‘I’m worried about school, I don’t want to find myself in trouble.’ It was not for nothing that Kiselyov told them that Russia is the world champion in freedom of speech.”

Maria Borzunova’s tweet.

As Ms Borzunova points out, the hesitance from the side of the Russian students to share their reflections does indeed suggest that Russia’s place in the World Press Freedom Index is not far-fetched, and that speaking freely and against the official disinformation narratives in Russia comes at a cost.

Top image: Dmitry Kiselyov, Rossiya 1 on YouTube