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Former Putin propagandist prefers not to return to Russia

A former leading employee of the Russian propaganda channel Sputnik, Marat Kasem (Marats Kasems in Latvian), has decided not to return to Russia after his release from detention, reported LTV's De Facto investigative show March 17. 

Born and raised in Latvia, Kasem was punished last year for providing support to Russia while he was working as editor of Sputnik's Lithuanian channel from inside Russia. In May 2019, Kasem was expelled from Lithuania, which declared him a persona non grata and banned him from entering the country for at least five years.

When he returned to Latvia in late 2022, he was arrested. He got away with a relatively light punishment – a 15,500 euro fine. In an interview with the LTV program De Facto, he disclosed the details of his work in the Russian propaganda apparatus.

Born and raised in Latvia, Marat Kasem studied and worked in Moscow before climbing the career ladder in the Kremlin media group Rossiya Segodnya. As previously reported by LSM in 2023, he was detained in Latvia by the State Security Service (VDD) on suspicion of violating European Union sanctions. After several months in custody, the prosecutor's office fined Kasem for helping a foreign country in an act directed against Latvia.

Since then, Kasem appears to have undergone a change in his outlook and beliefs. 

"What we were dealing with was nothing related to journalism. It was classic propaganda," now admits Kasem, who once told the Russian audience that a large part of Latvian society considers NATO an occupation force, and other lies. 

"I had an editorial office whose main goal was to destabilize the situation in Lithuania. By the way, I was not so closely connected with Latvia," he says. 

Kasem was the editor of Sputnik Lietuva. In addition, he hosted a weekly radio show with the notorious main spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova. He engaged in propaganda for money, not because of any ideological convictions and earned a couple of thousand euros per month. But there was also a service apartment and a car at his disposal to sweeten the mercenary journalism.

"I didn't think that a war will start. I honestly [say] – I didn't think it would carry on," says Kasem about his main reason for leaving Russia. However, he did not leave immediately when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, but continued working for Sputnik until the end of 2022.

After Kasem's arrest, the most prominent Russian media figures joined a campaign to rescue him, portraying him as a victim of state oppression and a case of stifling free speech. Zakharova addressed the topic. Rossiya Segodnya's Dmitrijs Kiselyov and the Russian agent deported from the USA, Maria Butina, even protested in front of the Latvian embassy in Moscow.

The prosecutor's office decided to impose a fine of 15,500 euros on Kasem. This caused some consternation in parts of Latvian society that had expected a prison sentence and even prompted President Edgars Rinkēvičs to invite the President of the Supreme Court and the Prosecutor General to a conversation about it.

At the end of last year,  the Saeima introduced harsher penalties for similar crimes. 

In an interview with Latvian Television this week, the head of the State Security Service (VDD), Normunds Mežviets, said that the judiciary is on the way to creating a new framework and that the service is trying to advise judges on modern security threats.

"Perhaps it would not be really correct and in line with the principles of democracy if I were to start criticizing the judiciary in the television studio now, as the head of the special service. But I must say that as the head of the security service, the decisions of the courts in some cases are very confusing," Mežviets said. 

Kasem himself does not consider that he received a mild punishment: "In my view, it was not so mild, because it was almost all the money that I had in SEB bank. (..) Of course, I regret [what I did], because if I did not regret it, after paying the fine I was free to go back [to Russia]. They also waited and offered it to me: 'Come back, here is all your money'."

However, Kasem's accumulated money in Russian banks – tens of thousands of euros – is now blocked.

According to Kasem, the main guidelines for Kremlin propagandists come directly from the administration of the Russian president, specifically from the first deputy head of the administration, Alexei Gromov:

"They have meetings every Thursday, where Kiselyov, Zakharova and other directors of propaganda agencies and TV channels participate. (..) Gromov is the kind of person in the administration who is responsible for the information space in Russia and abroad. He explains to them what needs to be presented and how it needs to be served."

After the meeting in the presidential administration of "Rossiya Segodnya", the chief, Kiselyov, drives to the editorial office, where instructions are given to lower-level managers: "For example, when there is something particularly important, he immediately says so openly, I am talking about Kiselyov, that you need to pay attention, because it was asked for – you yourself know where, where I came from." 

Kasem also revealed that he did not write the script for his weekly program with the press secretary of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Zakharova, but that the topics for discussion were sent the night before and that there were even pre-arranged moments designed to make Zakharova look spontaneous in her reactions. 

"It was also written there, for example, what kind of joke should be told, so that she [Zakharova] could answer wittily quickly," remembers Kasem.

In emergency situations, instructions were sent to Kremlin media workers by e-mail. For example, when the Russian army retreated from Kherson in Ukraine, it was forbidden to use the word "evacuation" because it could be translated as a setback. There were also instructions that the killing of Ukrainians in Bucha should be described as fake.

Kasem reveals that the editorial policy of Sputnik media even managed to be influenced by the leader of the Latvian Russian Union political party, MEP Tatjana Ždanoka.

At a banquet at the end of 2018, she was spotted meeting Kiselyov and complained to him that the "Saskaņa" (Harmony) party was presented in a better light than the Latvian Russian Union in the Kremlin's media channels. In 2013, in Latvia's municipal elections, Kasem ran for the seat of a member of the Salaspils Council from the Harmony list, but was not elected. 

After the meeting between Kiselyov and Ždanoka, a special meeting was called in the editorial office with the participation of Ždanoka at which it was agreed to take a more positive attitude to coverage of her party.

When called by LTV about this, Ždanoka refused to comment, and also did not answer questions by e-mail.

It is clear that Kasem is not particularly worried about his safety at the moment: "They usually take revenge on those people who are Russian citizens and who, in their estimation, are traitors. But I was always only a citizen of Latvia. I had a contract, which came to an end. After that I decided to return and I no longer have anything to do with them."

Kasem does not hide that in Latvia he is now called a traitor, but says he is not worried about that.  


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