The rise and fall of LifeNews

Mon 04 September 2017 06:39 GMT | 10:39 Local Time

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News.Az reprints from Vestnik Kavkaza the article titled 'The rise and fall of LifeNews' by Mikhail Belyayev.

Lately people call media in Russia the "fourth power" less and less, considering the existing bias of media resources. 

Meanwhile, all media often have political background. One of the examples is LifeNews TV-channel, which, while receiving state funding, did not always work in the interests of the state, often violating basic principles of journalistic code and publishing fakes. And everything began so well! It was informational multimedia service, which had a news portal and radio, as well as 24-hour news TV-channel with very high ratings. LifeNews had a real opportunity to cover all topics and become more popular than all Russian channels. However, the methods that allowed Life to rise eventually brought its end. Despite its previous popularity, the channel was never able to reach federal level, to become respectable media resource, because it failed to get out of narrow nationalist framework, which can be explained by position of its managment. Vestnik Kavkaza's columnist Mikhail Belyaev analyzed reasons for the fall of LifeNews.

On August 18, LifeNews television channel, one of the most odious and scandalous Russian media projects of recent years, has stopped its broadcasting. Let's try to understand why it happened, as well as analyze ambiguous role it played in Russian media space and how it was perceived inside and outside the country.

There are several different versions about the real background of rather unexpected end of the TV channel. Owner of its license, "Media Content" company, sent letter about the termination of LifeNews channel to cable and satellite operators just a day before it actually happened. Workers learned the details on August 18 at an editorial meeting - all members of the broadcasting staff were fired. In this context, statements of director general Aram Gabrelyanov that the closure of Life News was a planned measure as part of transition to "streaming" broadcasting format are not very convincing.

After all, according to director general of the channel Ilya Melekhin, Life could have "survived for another 5-7 years". In other words, he was talking about profitable project, and it was quite illogical to get rid of it in a hurry in favor of new formats that had not proven themselves yet. Even if we Gabrelianov's new projects can bring high profit, it remains unclear why Life TV channel won't be used as an effective instrument for advertising new projects and media formats, considering its pretty high audience. The fact that recently launched SHOT project has also ended, shows one thing: the decision to close Life television channel was not made in advance, and commercial reasons probably didn't play the main role in this decision.

Sources of Znak publication, which is close to the holding, point out several possible causes of the problems that LifeNews had. One of them - the loss of influential friends in power elite in connection with personnel reshuffles in the presidential administration. According to another source, quoted by the publication, "in its current form Life is just not needed in the media system that exists in Russia. It's a pretty expensive resource, and government's tasks can be resolved at much cheaper cost." Finally, Znak also has a version about "opponents within Russian elite," which LifeNews made during many years of its work. Over the course of its activity, TV channel has repeatedly broadcasted materials that threatened the interests of the Russian Federation and Russian authorities, both inside and outside the country. We will name a few examples of those cases that led to channel's end below.

First story - Putin's "dismisses" Cabinet of Ministers

Perhaps one of the most serious TV channel's mistakes was "leaked" video from meeting between President Vladimir Putin, officials and heads of regions in Kalmykia in 2013. Ignoring president's request to turn off the cameras, LifeNews crew continued to film it, and later channel published "exclusive" president's statement, in which he allegedly threatened to dismiss the Cabinet of Ministers. This event caused extremely negative reaction, especially from president's press secretary Dmitry Peskov, who was obviously stunned by such shamelessness. As a result, journalists of the television channel were kicked out of Kremlin's press pool. "I understan the reaction of presidential administration, but it is our job to show the truth. Even if we have to pay for it," Aram Gabrelyanov wrote on his Twitter page at the time. However, Gabrelyanov's "truth" turned out to be a blatant lie in order to get better ratings - after all, Vladimir Putin did not threaten to dismiss the Cabinet of Ministers, but hinted at possible resignations among the heads of regions. LifeNews put their commercial interests above wishes (and legal right) of president Putin for confidentiality of certain details of the working meeting. Kremlin does not forgive and does not forget such missteps. Aram Gabrelyanov, a fan of Moscow-Armenian "Ararat" football club received the first "yellow card".

Second story - high journalistic standards

In the following years LifeNews tried to restore its credibility with varying success by actively covering the events in Ukraine, presenting itself as an effective instrument for influencing public opinion on the Ukrainian issue, which, considering LifeNews' huge audience, made certain sense.

At first, authorities were satisfied with what channel does, so on April 22, 2014, by presidential decree, its director general Ashot Gabrelyanov and his father, director general of the holding Aram Gabrelyanov received Order "For Merit to the Fatherland" of first degree - for high professionalism and objectivity in coverage of events in the Republic of Crimea. However, they could not keep the bar high for too long: during uncompromising struggle for ratings, television channel made a mistake, which was unforgivable for Russian national interests and had a long-term consequences, by broadcasting a material on a very sensitive topic. On July 17, 2014, LifeNews reported about "another victory of the rebels", who allegedly shot down Ukrainian military transport aircraft AN-26. They quoted militants, but did not specify their source. LifeNews often makes up its sources in order to confirm certain information. Perhaps that's what happened in the case of ill-fated report of July 17, 2014, which disappeared from the website of TV channel an hour later. LifeNews journalists obviously didn't bother to check information from several independent sources before broadcasting it. After all, the downed aircraft was not Ukrainian military transport, but Malaysian Airlines' civilian Boeing-777, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. An informational war around this terrible tragedy that killed 298 people broke out in the world. Russia's opponents are still trying to blame the country and pro-Russian rebels in Donbas for this incident without strong evidences. LifeNews' failed report played its role in this war - it didn't help, it just hurt Russia. Only one question remains - how did it happened: was it an editorial error, or betrayal in the guise of an editorial error?

Third story - lobbying foreign interests, hurting national interests

Another aspect of LifeNews' work was the promotion of Armenian nationalists' interests in the Russian informational space. It's no secret that director general of "News Media" media holding Aram Gabrelyanov always tries to highlight his Armenian origin - you can just look at what he posts in social networks. It could be regarded as a manifestation of attachment to his historical homeland, but the problem is that his work on the issue of Russia's Caucasian policy is not aimed at promoting the interests of Russia, but at promoting the goals of Armenian ultranationalists. And while Moscow tries to turn Caucasus into a stable region, ultranationalist forces within Armenia and abroad pursue completely different interests. In particular, if we take the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia as an example, they are trying to ensure that Russia fully supports the position of latter, turning from mediator into direct participant. This would be beneficial for Yerevan, which occupied territories of its neighboring country. But why would Russia damage relations with Azerbaijan? Both countries are connected not only by deep cultural and historical ties, but also by active political and trade-economic ties, profitable cooperation in the military-industrial complex, regional infrastructure projects (like "North-South", built thanks to the efforts of Moscow, Baku and Tehran, which will be commissioned in the near future). Azerbaijan is the only (!) country in in the South Caucasus, whose state schools and universities still teach in Russian - something that Armenian authorities and especially Georgian authorities do not allow. Azerbaijan became a target of LifeNews' propaganda machine.

Let's look at some specific examples of LifeNews's bias in the coverage of events that concern Azerbaijan. In April of 2016, when the Karabakh conflict escalated and the most bloody clashes since 1994 ceasefire occured, TV channel correspondents went to the front-line zone. Journalists met with residents of Azerbaijani frontline villages, who told journalists that they are not going to leave their homes and are determined to fight for them. Obviously, LifeNews had different orders. Azerbaijanis were very surprised, when they found out that their words had been translated incorrectly and it looked like they said exact opposite things. This fake was uncovered pretty quickly, but it already inflicted some damage. 

There was another fake about participation of Daesh terrorists in April battles. Those who came up with it didn't care about the fact that population of Azerbaijan, according to a recent study by Pew Research Center, is the most non-religious among all Muslim countries in the world. Just like no one thought about the fact that the overwhelming majority of Azerbaijani population are Shias, who Daesh fights against. 

Azerbaijani side finally had enough, and journalists were simply expelled from the country. Russia's protest was pretty sluggish - perhaps Kremlin also understood that LifeNews' journalists had crossed the line of what was permissible for a friendly state. "Editorial policy should not be the cause of some actions, but on the other hand, compliance with legislation is very important," Dmitry Peskov commented on the incident.

Some time later, by chance, the fact that LifeNews editorial board had specific task to destroy Azerbaijan's reputation was confirmed. As a result of cyber attack, Gabrelyanov's sms-correspondence with his subordinates, including during April clashes, became avaiable for public. It showed very interesting details, shedding light on television channel actions behind the back of Russian leadership.

On April 2, 2016, Gabrelyanov sent a message to his employee Arthur Kebekov: "Check out if Daesh or people close to them say that they are sending troops to help Turks and Azerbaijanis in the war against Armenians. He specified in his next message: "By the way, there are Azeri soldiers in Daesh, they are Sunnis, but it doesn't matter." Although he doubted that Daesh would help Shiite Azerbaijan, Kebekov wrote in response that he understood everything and that he will say about this to certain "informers" (obviously, he was talking about sources that TV channel actively used in its activities). Then Gabrelyanov, in order to make sure that his employee understood how to cover the events in Karabakh, once again wrote to Kebekov: "You must highlight that Daesh is coming to help them". Two days later, on April 4, Kebekov asked Gabrelyanov whether he liked how they reported about "the flow of Azerbaijanis-Jihadists from Syria coming to Karabakh". Gabrelyanov responded: "Yes. The most important thing is to write that they passed through Turkey". 

This moment is especially interesting. Why Gabrelyanov wrote the last bit? The thing is that as the head of large mass media, Aram Ashotovich initially received an order from higher authorities to write about battles in Karabakh neutrally and maintain balance - which corresponds to Russia's official position in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. 

On the other hand, at the time of April clashes, Russia's relations with Turkey were completely ruined after the incident with Russian plane downed over Syrian-Turkish border, and as Russian readers remember, Russian media were extremely angry over Ankara's actions. So Armenian director general of "News Media" holding decided to use bad relations with Turkey to attack Azerbaijan. In other words, while making up a story about Daesh fighting in Karabakh, he had an "insurance", since he wrote that terrorist group allegedly passed through Turkey. And since he could attack Turkey, the article did not go beyond limits that were set for him. He outsmarted Russian government in order to complete the orders of third state and Armenian nationalist circles. But now we can see the result.

The death of LifeNews

Channel did to many mistakes, both small and local, as well as more serious, political. And that's the reason why Gabrelianov's creatin has failed after finally losing support from the top. The story with "leaked" statement of Vladimir Putin became, in our opinion, a fatal mistake for the future of this project, because it showed that LifeNews management can put their own interests above the state, violating all public and private rules of coverage of activities of president. The story of with Malaysian Boeing, which was shot down over Ukraine, once again confirmed one of LifeNews' defects: in an attempt to get better ratings it showed a badly prepared reportage. It did not verify information on such a key topic for Russian foreign policy as conflict in the east of Ukraine. As a result, pro-Russian rebels of Donbass and Russia itself suffered. Finally, biased coverage of April clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh in order to help ethnic nationalists, organized by the head of media holding Aram Gabrelyanov, once again clearly showed systematic mistake of LifeNews' actions: personal interests (in this case, ethnic interests) are being put above Russia's state priorities in the region. The fact that this event was a planned policy of TV channel, not an incidental episode, is also demonstrated by fake news spread about the alleged intention of Chinese Prime Minister to recognize "Nagorno-Karabakh Republic" as an independent state.

In the conditions of economic crisis, LifeNews proved itself to be politically inadequate, untrustworthy, and dishonest project to its country. Mmost importantly, TV channel could not withstand competition with state media holdings, in particular VGTRK, which promotes Russian national interests and support state policy on all sensitive domestic and foreign issues. Numerous scandals, involving LifeNews' journalists, showed true colors of this channel. It's unknown what exactly became the trigger for its end, but perhaps it was another failed report about the opposition blogger Navalny. The list of LifeNews' fails is so big that unforgotten "yellow card" it received in distant 2013 turned into "red card" in August of this year, and TV channel was finally removed from Russian media space.

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