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You Pay, I Say: Website Says It Exposed Russian TV Fakery

Tom Balmforth
Is Russian state television making use of paid, Russian-speaking interview subjects to paint a picture of an out-of-control migrant crisis in Germany?

In the video, a woman who identifies herself as Viktoria Schmidt says she may soon be forced to flee dangerous, migrant-swamped Germany for the safety of homeland Russia. But does Viktoria Schmidt really exist?

MOSCOW -- If Viktoria Schmidt is to believed, panicked women in Germany are cowering in fear of migrants, and preparing for the worst.

“The girl was cleaning in the place where the migrants live, " the Russian speaker, voice trembling, tells Russian state TV. "But something horrible happened. Not only did they kill her, but first they raped her.”

Her German husband, the Hannover resident says, only lets her leave the house if she is armed with the pepper spray she pulls from her pocket. She says she may soon be forced to flee dangerous, migrant-swamped Germany for the safety of homeland Russia.

Cut to clips of masked migrants firing guns above their heads into the night air, running roughshod past police, and harassing and physically abusing women. It’s a terrifying portrait of Europe’s migrant crisis, aired recently on Moscow’s Zvezda TV in a 26-minute clip called Europe: The Paradox Of Tolerance:

But who is Viktoria Schmidt? And can her story be believed?

The Insider, a Moscow-based investigative website run by Editor in Chief Roman Dobrokhotov, says "no." In a story published on January 26, the publication accuses a woman named Natalya of posing as Viktoria Schmidt and of helping “fabricate” news for a raft of Russian state TV stations in exchange for money.

The Insider posted recordings of conversations with two Russians in Hannover -- Natalya and a cameraman named Oleg Cherkasov -- to support its allegations. According to the website, it tricked Natalya into admitting to voicing false reports scripted in Moscow when it spoke to her under the guise of a Russian state TV station preparing a report on migration in Germany. 

In the first recording, The Insider asks Natalya: "We can write the rough text and your person will voice it, right?” She replies in the affirmative: "No problem. If you want, I can voice it. I’ve lived here for a long time. I’m married to a German citizen. I can voice whatever you want."

The woman explains that she has her own cameraman and charges around 500 euros ($550) for a video package that Russian state TV can edit as it sees fit. 

A photograph of Natalya that accompanies the audio recordings embedded in the text does resemble the Viktoria Schmidt who appears in the Zvezda TV documentary, although it is not clear beyond a doubt if they are the same person. But Dobrokhotov tells RFE/RL that The Insider verified Viktoria Schmidt’s real identity through interviews with others Russians in Hannover. He said Natalya also cited the Zvezda piece aired on January 14 as an example of her professional portfolio.

“I’m sure if we continued looking in different cities, we would have found these kinds of people in every German city, " Dobrokhotov says. “We proved that these things happen, and now we have moved on to different topics.”

It is unclear what death and rape Schmidt is referring to in the interview with Zvezda. She gives no clues as to when it allegedly occurred and the incident has not been widely reported in Russia. Dobrokhotov said of the claim: “We didn’t verify this, but it is 99 percent likely that this didn’t happen.”

’Political Propaganda’

The Insider’s allegations came one day before German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on January 27 accused Russian media and officials of “political propaganda” and attempts “to inflame and influence what is already a difficult debate about migration within Germany.”

Steinmeier made the warning after Russian state TV reported the alleged abduction and rape by migrants of a 13-year-old Russian girl in Berlin in mid-January. The allegations, fueled by claims that police were trying to hush up the victim, sparked outrage and street protests among Germany’s sizable Russian minority. And Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, were prompted to make calls for “truth and justice” and expressed the hope that the German authorities would not “cover up reality for some domestic, politically correct reason.”

The outrage died down, particularly after a spokesman for the prosecutor in Berlin said the girl admitted upon questioning to fabricating the story, but real damage was done.

The Berlin case fueled antimigrant protests in German cities attended by many in the country’s Russian-speaking community. 

The Insider spoke to Russians in Hannover about the protests and was told by one that he received six Facebook messages written in Russian calling on him to participate. “To those who ignore this, let this rape be on your conscious, ” read one of the messages.

Dobrokhotov believes that Russian state television is targeting Germany in particular of late, having moved on after having concentrated on coverage of the bombing campaign in Syria in the last few months of 2015.

"The situation has changed. Now that Russians have gotten fed up with the Syria issue and material about that has been shown less by Russian TV stations, they have switched to the subject of Europe -- about how everything there is bad, " Dobrokhotov says. "The material is primarily about migrants. It is a powerful propaganda campaign when every day there are several subjects about Germany, migrants, and violence.”

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