You may have seen via social media today that the Moscow Times is reporting that Vladimir Putin has hired Boyz II Men to play a concert in Moscow as part of a campaign to encourage Russians to procreate and raise the country's flaggin birth rate. This is not true. More precisely, it may or may not be true but it hasn't been "reported" by anyone.
Here at Passport, we love a good wacky Vladimir Putin story as much as the next guy (Okay, probably more than the next guy) but when people are just making things up about the Russian president, we have an obligation to call bullshit.
It all started when Moscow Times reporter Lena Smirnova decided to put a cheeky lede on her interview with the '90s-era slow-jam masters, who have an upcoming concert in Moscow:
President Vladimir Putin's crusade to raise the country's birth rate is set to get the support of three powerful voices on its behalf.
A baritone and two tenors, that is.
The stylish trio of Boyz II Men, the most successful R&B group
of all time, is coming to Moscow on Feb. 6. The group will perform
a selection of their classic and new romantic ballads, hopefully giving
Russian men some inspiration ahead of St. Valentine's Day.
Very clever! But it's obvious from the context, and the fact that it's never mentioned again, the Smirnova is in no way suggesting that Putin actually hired Boyz II Men for this purpose. Boyz II Men and many other groups frequently perform in the Russian capital without the president's involvement.
But one blogger at MediaBistro read it a bit differently, writing:
the Boyz claim to be very busy working on their Las Vegas hotel
residency and their upcoming tour with New Kids on the Block and 98
Degrees (stay out of it, Nick Lachey!), they still managed to find time to headline a February show in Moscow’s Crocus City Hall which–according to The Moscow Times–will serve as part of Putin’s ongoing PR campaign urging Russians to have more kids so the country can be more “influential.”
No! The Moscow Times didn't say that at all! A blogger for Britain's Telegraph then got a hold of the story, writing that "The Times insists that the band will be lending their “powerful voices” to Putin’s fertility campaign". It was off to the races from there.
Vanity Fair cites both the Telegraph and the Moscow Times, writing that "the group will support Putin’s crusade just before Valentine’s Day by
performing a February 6th concert of romantic ballads in the capital
city" and comparing it to other Putin fertility schemes.
"One assumes that the aim of the concert is to help childbearing seem
more appealing among Russians who take their cues from popular culture. I
doubt, though, that it will be even narrowly helpful.....If Putin really wants to raise Russia’s birthrate, then, he should
start by battling corruption and fostering open, transparent markets.
Boyz II Men can come second."
I would completely agree if this story were actually something more than "Boyz II Men is playing a concert in Russia and a reporter made a sex joke."
Guys, if we make up fictional Putin stories, it only diminishes the real ones.
(Thanks to my colleague Neha Paliwal for the tip.)
Last night, the new documentary Stolen Seashad its Washington D.C.
premier. The first feature-length film by director Thymaya Payne is an in-depth, and often surprisingly sympathetic,
look at Somali piracy. The movie is notable for featuring interviews with actual pirates,
former hostages, and shipowners, and footage from on board pirate-occupied
vessels. The film's drama centers around the 2008 hijacking of a Danish-owned,
Russian-crewed cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden, and features gripping audio
recordings of negotiations between the owners in Copenhagen and pirates as well
as larger explorations of Somalia's recent history.
The central character in the movie is
the pirates' translator, Ishmael Ali, who returned to Somalia -- actually the
semi-autonomous region of Somaliland -- after years of living in the United
States and finds that his perfect English makes him a valuable asset for pirate
crews who need to negotiate with foreign ship-owners. Ali, a single father
looking to provide for his son, speaks candidly about his role in multiple
hijackings and sees himself as more of an independent contractor than a pirate.
After the film was completed, Ali - who speaks frequently to the media -- was
arrested while trying to enter the United States to attend a conference on
I spoke by phone with Payne about the
making of the film. The transcript has been edited for length:
Foreign Policy: What's the latest on Ishmael Ali's case. Are you
still in touch with him?
Thymaya Payne: I haven’t been in touch with
him since he was arrested just because I didn’t really think it was my place to
get intertwined in that whole thing, and also because the FBI had called me at
one point and wanted me to testify.So
I just sent a note to his lawyer and asked about his son and wanted to make
sure his son was being taken care of because he was a single dad.
My understanding is that his case was thrown out last summer but the prosecutors are currently appealing for a retrial.
FP: So it's pretty rare to see interviews
with actual participants in piracy. Was it difficult to gain the trust of
Ishmael Ali and the other pirates you talked to?
TP: Ishmael Ali, first of all, isn't really
a pirate. I think the government says that he is, but he was just an in-between
negotiator, so he was very easy to contact. I just emailed him. He wanted to
talk all that he could about piracy because he sort of saw himself as a
spokesperson for how to actually deal with piracy, which in many ways he was.
So that was pretty easy actually.
In terms of getting in touch with actual
pirates -- what I found out when I went to Somalia was that I was the biggest
problem in that, when I would talk to people, a lot of times, if we did get to
a pirate -- like, say we'd get to a pirate in jail, or we'd meet someone at a
wedding or something, they kind of just -- the minute the camera was on, gave
me the same spiel over and over again. It was like a press release had gone out
about what to say to Western press.
So I started working with younger Somali
reporters and stringers, who grew up with a lot of these guys. I started to
realize that the best thing for me to do was actually just to give them a
camera and get out of it - out of the way - and get my ego out of the way
because the story wasn't so much about me going and getting on a pirate ship. So
I actually trained this young Somali guy how to like shoot a documentary film
in two days at a hotel in Somaliland and then said "okay, well keep in touch."
And it was funny, I was actually in a
meeting in Beverly Hills of all places talking about the film, and I got this
phone call, and it was from my stringer, and he was like, "I'm on a boat", and
I was like "what?" He's like "I'm on a boat." And I was like "Okay."
He ended up getting some of the best
footage of the Somali pirates, and then sometimes I'd be on the phone with him,
or I would send him a text of what specifically I wanted him to ask the guys or
get the conversation going about, and he would ask them that.
It's the candor of that footage that
people are reacting to because they're like "Well how did you do that?" I'm
like "well, you know, I outsourced it. I gave it to a young Somali guy because
I wouldn't have gotten it." Even if I had gotten on the boat, I wouldn't have
gotten that, and I knew that from my first trip, and so it was a pretty
strategic decision to do that.
FP: How is the film you ended up with
different from what you had in mind when you started?
TP: It was completely different than what I
started out doing. I was very naïve. I thought I was going to jump on a plane
to Kenya with my partner Andre, and we were just going to, I don't know, film
ourselves being crazy in Somalia and go interview a pirate and that's it. I
just thought that would be enough and that would be exciting. And there are
some films out there like that.
What I realized was that when you meet
these people, and they open themselves up to you, you have this responsibility
to tell the real story and to tell --not just what the story you want to
tell--but actually what the story wants to be. So one of the great challenges
of making a film is learning patience and learning to listen and to sort of let
the film become what it wants to be
When it started out, we wanted it to be
this sort of snappy, cool movie about pirates, and then we realized probably
about six months into it, it was really a movie about the world we live in
today, and pirates are just sort of a metaphor. And I think, still to this day,
when people ask me what the movie is about, I almost pause and say "you know
it's not really about pirates."
FP: Right. I guess one sort of theme of the
film was that both the Somali pirates and the shipping companies are operating
outside a traditional nation-state framework.The pirates, because they operate in the midst of a failed state, and the companies, because they're flying under flags of convenience outside the authority of governments. Was that something you had in mind when you came into the project?
TP: No, not at all. It was funny because you
get a bunch of really smart people together -- you know from left and right on
the spectrum of political thought -- and you get really interesting -- a really
interesting discussion. You have a sort of libertarian point of view of what
the maritime industry should or shouldn't do, and then you have a more leftist
idea of what the government should be doing. I showed the film in Palm Springs,
which is a place where you have right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats
living in the same place, and I found that both thought that I was taking their
What I was really just trying to do was start
a discussion about whether or not the nation-state is relevant in terms of
really dealing with piracy. I don't really know if it's true or not true, but I
really like documentaries that just raise questions, without necessarily giving
you tons of answers.
FP:So some of the experts you were talking
to in the film seem very critical of the international naval efforts to combat
piracy and question whether combating piracy with the military is useful or
even possible. Yet recent statistics show that piracy has dramatically
decreased off Somalia. Do you think that these international efforts are
working or do you think it's just temporary and the problem will come back?
TP: I had someone else ask me
this, and I go back to the film, and I don't really know if the film is
actually critical of the naval response. I don't think we've ever stated that
if the navy didn't want to it couldn't suppress [piracy]. In fact, I think we
said the exact opposite.
I think the question we're really asking
is, "Is this the most efficient usage of resources?" Of course the U.S. Navy
and the CTF 151, if
we wanted to, could suppress a bunch of guys in boats -- you know? The question
at the time I was filming was, "do we have the will to do it?" Since then, we
seem to have decided that we do, and have succeeded in suppressing it.
Then the next question is: how long will
we have the will to do this? How long are we going to be policing the seas,
spending billions of dollars policing the seas off the coast of Somalia? Is
this interminable? We're just always going to have a presence there? And is
that really dealing with the problem? And I think that's my larger message.
Which is: Is punitive measures and flying pirates to trials abroad in America
or in Italy or in Denmark and all these different places is that really solving
-- not just the problems of piracy -- but really the underlying issues which
piracy is just a symptom of?
If I was going to put a coda on the
film, I'd say, "Okay, yeah the numbers are down, but you know what? Every
single military person who gets quoted says ‘yeah, they're down right now, but
the minute we let off they'll come back up.'"
FP: One of the more provocative suggestions in the film is that something positive may actual have come out of all of this since the pirates put Somalia back on the international agenda.
TP: Yeah, I mean how much press is there
really on Dadaab
verses the pirates? There's five hundred thousand people living in permanent
refugee camps in Kenya, destabilizing that region of Kenya and basically having
no way out for their entire lives, and that doesn't make such a great story,
and I understand why, but it's not such a big part of my movie for the same
reason. It just isn't as dynamic as the pirates, but I think --I don't know--I
feel like there's a way for us to learn from the pirates, to then relook at-take
another look at Somalia, and say, "Okay, this is what happens when we ignore
it. Something like piracy occurs. And what I fear is that if we keep ignoring
it, or it doesn't get the attention that it sort of needs something else will
come out, and it will be worse than the pirates.