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Baltic countries mull joint Russian-language television channel to counter Kremlin propaganda

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PALDISKI, Estonia - The Russian news broadcast takes broadsides at Ukraine, trumpeting claims that Ukrainian democracy has degenerated into fistfights between right-wing nationalists in Parliament.

Aleksander Danilov isn't watching the show in Vladimir Putin's Russian heartland. He's in Estonia, an EU country where there increasingly are fears that Russia may turn its sights next to the Baltic states after grabbing a chunk of Ukraine.

Danilov can choose from at least a dozen Russian TV channels via cable — and scores more if he could afford a satellite dish. Like many other ethnic Russians across the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the 55-year-old retiree doesn't speak the local language and prefers watching broadcasts from Moscow to the smattering of news shows and programs provided in Russian by national Baltic broadcasters.

The three Baltic nations watched with alarm as Russia took over Crimea and mobilized its military along Ukraine's eastern border, pledging to protect all Russians abroad.

Now the Baltics are moving to curtail Moscow's influence through the airwaves, heedful of the need to prevent pro-Kremlin agitation among the million Russian speakers who stayed after the Baltics regained independence following the Soviet collapse.

Latvia and Lithuania have temporarily banned some pro-Russian TV stations, including Moscow-based RTR Rossiya and RTR Planeta. They are now planning with Estonia to set up a joint Russian-language channel to counter Russian propaganda, hoping for financial assistance from the European Union.

Estonian Education Minister Jevgeni Ossinovski, of ethnic Russian background, said the project is "a matter of national priority" in a nation where Russian speakers make up around 28 per cent of the 1.3 million population.

"It's a full-scale information war. The facts are portrayed in the way that Russia's administration wants to," Ossinovski said in an interview with The Associated Press. "In the end, it's a strictly national question how we build up communication with our own people in our countries."

Ivars Belte, a Latvian state TV chief described as the mastermind of the plan, says a joint Baltic channel would be preferable to three separate channels to save costs and could be operational next year or in 2016. It was not clear whether the EU would co-operate.

Although dissenting Russians have tuned to online sources for alternative viewpoints, television remains a powerful opinion-shaping tool in Russia, where less than half the adult population uses the Internet daily. The same is true among Russian-speakers in the Baltic countries, where TV remains a main source of news. In Ukraine, the new authorities have blocked Russian TV broadcasts, seeing them as an instrument of the Kremlin propaganda war against Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Danilov continues to watch news from RTR Rossiya and PBK, a popular Baltic-operated commercial channel that takes its news from Russian state broadcasters, rather than tuning into Estonian TV's one daily newscast in Russian.

"I do trust Russia's television more than stories I see coming from the West," Danilov said, referring to media coverage of Ukraine events. "What is propaganda? I think it exists everywhere. But I have my doubts over how Western media is showing the situation in Ukraine."

Latvia, where a third of the 2.2 million people are Russian-speaking, hosts the headquarters of PBK, which has 4 million viewers across the Baltics. Little is known about the broadcaster and who owns it, but local media observers say its programs are distinctly pro-Moscow. NTV, a channel loyal to the Kremlin, is another popular choice for Russian-speakers.

Lithuania, where only six per cent of the population of 3 million is Russian-speaking, last year accused PBK of "offensive and untrue interpretation" of the events leading to Lithuania's independence in 1991. The Latvian government says it is keeping a close eye on the news content of the channel. PBK was Latvia's most watched television channel in April, according to local research agency TNS Latvia.

Russian-speakers tend to live in their own communities, separate from ethnic Balts. They have generally kept a low profile and are not perceived as a threat, despite Moscow's increasingly strident claims that they face discrimination and — with ominous echoes of the Ukraine crisis — need Moscow's "protection."

Belte, an ethnic Latvian, agrees that Russian speakers have been ignored too long and been made to pass unnecessarily stiff Baltic language tests as a condition for Latvian nationality.

Many Russian-speakers who remained in the Baltics after independence — mainly ethnic Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians — have qualified for local citizenship. But around 380,000 residents in the region remain in the nationality limbo. Most are ethnic Russians, and Russia has willingly offered them passports — but it's not clear how many have taken up the offer.

"We had a policy of integration that happened solely on the basis of the Latvian language, which in my opinion was wrong," Belte said. "That part of the population has lost its own platform of communication; they don't have it and we are not providing it."

During a recent visit to Estonia, Victoria Nuland, the top U.S. diplomat in Europe, expressed concern about the "extremely aggressive Russian state-sponsored propaganda," urging the United States and its allies to come up with new, innovative ways of reaching out to the numerous Russian-speaking communities worldwide.

"It's very clear that the Russian-speaking population of Europe — and frankly also the United States and Canada — need objective, truth-based news," she said. "We have to do more together to support those independent actors, who are trying to get the word out accurately."

Belte from Latvian TV welcomed the initiative.

"This is the right place to begin," he said. "The percentage of Russian-speaking audiences in our countries is the highest in the whole of Europe, so if it's successful here why not in Europe?"

Ainar Ruussaar, a senior executive with Estonia's public broadcaster ERR, is more skeptical, saying any new channel faces an uphill battle for prime-time viewers. Polls show Russian-speakers prefer to stick to one channel, such as the popular PBK.

"I don't see any future in establishing a counter-propaganda channel against the Kremlin. That's never going to work," Ruussaar said. "The channel must be fully independent to decide what kind of journalism it makes and what kind of programs it shows."


AP reporters Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki and Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.

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