Süddeutsche Zeitung Süddeutsche Zeitung Panama Papers
Putin's Propaganda

Putin's Propaganda

A commentary by Wolfgang Krach, Editor in Chief

Vladimir Putin once again, has made some notable remarks. More than three weeks ago, Süddeutsche Zeitung sent the Russian president a request for comment on the results of its research regarding the astonishing wealth of some of his closest friends. Instead of answering the questions, he had his spokesperson Dmitry Peskov publicly announce that Western media outlets were preparing an “information attack” in the next few days. Peskov's words were replete with the language of war. He contended that intelligence agencies were behind this oncoming “smear campaign”, asserting that their aim was to destabilize Russia and discredit Putin.

This week, Putin continued in the same contemptuous vein. On his annual live televised call-in to the nation, the Russian president repeated to an audience of millions that employees of American institutions – in other words, American intelligence agencies – were behind the Panama Papers. To prove his argument that the reports were the product of dark forces, Putin explained that Süddeutsche Zeitung, the newspaper that published the articles at first, was owned by a media holding in the hands of Goldman Sachs, an American investment bank. The logic behind that: an American owner, American money, American interests, anti-Russian agenda.

Putin should have known better

Putin could have known that the Goldman Sachs story wasn't true. In fact, it is fair to argue that he should have known. It is common knowledge that the questions Russians ask the president during his annual call-in are submitted and selected beforehand. His answers are also prepared in advance. This means that Putin’s staff also compiled information about Süddeutsche Zeitung, as Peskov confirmed on Friday. Given the Kremlin's otherwise meticulous attention to detail in keeping its president informed, it would be surprising if such glaring errors had been made in this particular instance.

Whatever the case may be, Putin told a falsehood and used this fabrication to defame the newspaper. On Friday morning, Peskov, the president's spokesperson, retracted the statement about Goldman Sachs' supposed ownership and apologized. This is as a good move and a positive development.

Despite that, the fact remains that millions of Russians heard the claim on radio and television that Süddeutsche Zeitung is owned and controlled by big American business interests intent on portraying Putin as evil. In contrast, the rectification was not broadcasted on television to millions of people, but was instead issued only to the press. The corrected message will therefore stay largely unnoticed in Russia while German media organizations will pay attention to it. This is probably in the president's interest, as his target group is the domestic public. Putin has been trying to damage the credibility of media outlets involved in researching the Panama Papers in recent months. To this end, he has used the classic tools of propaganda and disinformation.

It was interesting to note that Putin confirmed for the first time that the information SZ had published was “truthful”. Nonetheless, the Russian president contended that the articles were “provocations” with intelligence agencies behind them. This assertion is every bit as false as Putin's claim that Americans own the SZ.