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Picture: BLOOMBERG
Picture: BLOOMBERG

When MultiChoice dropped RT, the television voice of Vladimir Putin, earlier this year there was debate about whether it was a good thing. Was it valuable to get Putin’s perspective on the Ukraine war, or was it just misleading propaganda?

Now RT is gearing up to open an African headquarters in Johannesburg, having shifted its plan from Nairobi. It will be headed by South African Paula Slier, a familiar television face and radio voice. Slier ran the RT bureau in Jerusalem for some time, and has more recently worked for RT in Moscow.

When many of her Western colleagues at RT, not comfortable to be promoting Putin’s line, left the broadcaster early in the war, Slier stayed at her post. She wrote that she was “conflicted” but believed there was “value in hearing the [Moscow] government’s perspective and justification for the war”. She said Western media was presumed to be “objective, free from manipulation and truthful”, but it was also subjective and at least RT was upfront about it.

RT describes itself as “an autonomous, nonprofit organisation that is publicly financed from the budget of the Russian Federation”, but in reality it operates as a megaphone for the Russian leader, who has ruthlessly outlawed critical media at home and jailed his opponents. So SA will be giving Putin the space he denies others.

RT intends opening up bureaus across Africa, run out of the new Joburg HQ. It appears to be part of a concerted effort to consolidate Russia’s diplomatic influence in a continent that has been more open than most to Moscow’s position on Ukraine.

While we want as many views as possible to be aired, particularly when the story of the invasion of Ukraine is so contested, we have to ask whether the propaganda voice of a dangerous authoritarian does more harm than good.

Others thought so. RT was banned in Europe, the UK and Canada shortly after the Ukraine invasion so that, according to EU president Ursula von der Leyen, they “would no longer be able to spread their lies to justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our union”. YouTube, Twitter and others blocked RT’s streaming.

Of course, hosting a bureau is different from broadcasting from here. RT will not be subjected to SA’s broadcasting regulatory regime, which would bind it to a code of conduct. Like the journalists from CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera, it will just be operating from here.

We lived through a period when the apartheid government would not tolerate journalists who it felt were too critical or who covered things they did not want covered, and expelled a number of them. We don’t want to go back to that.

We watch Zimbabwe and other neighbours making it difficult for the international media — including South Africans — to get visas to cover their elections freely. We want Joburg to be a media hub, where journalists from around the world feel able to do their work and keep an eye on this place, whatever we think of their output.

We want them to spend their money, create jobs and write about what a great city Joburg is (and even Cape Town). For this, we have to welcome and treat all foreign correspondents the same way, and cannot pick only those we like. Putin does that. Not us.

We don’t want to be reliant only on a Washington-London-Brussels perspective on the war. We want to weigh up for ourselves the competing narratives. It is healthy that whereas for many years Africa depended on the BBC, CNN and other Western channels to cover its own continent, now there is growing competition, with Al Jazeera and Chinese and Russian stations. More is better.

Yet we also have to be aware of how dangerous propaganda can be when there is no regard for facts, and many do not watch with a critical eye. You  have only to think about how much harm Fox News has done to American society and people’s faith in democracy and elections by its willingness to perpetuate the “stolen election” lie.

If you want to be reminded of how malicious and harmful disinformation can be, Google the YouTube video of the plaintiff attorney’s opening statement at the Alex Jones defamation trial.  Jones said for years that the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 was entirely fake, set up by the Obama administration to give them a reason to crack down on guns. He was stopped only when the parents sued him for damages. It is chilling.

We have to be careful.

• Harber is executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton professor of journalism at Wits University.

During his opening statement Tuesday, the plaintiff's attorney Mark Bankston said Alex Jones had a choice the day he decided to make claims about the Sandy Hook shooting being a hoax. "Mr. Jones decided he was going to go on the air that day," Bankston stated.

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