Media in Russia: A Closed Circuit

by Anton Palladin

Despite government claims to the contrary, the media in Russia is deceptively and decidedly pro-government. Frequent cases of disinformation, self-censorship and killings of journalists characterize the Russian media space. Nevertheless, by presenting Russia in a consistently positive light, state media arms adroitly mask such bias. Because many uneducated Russians cannot access wider media through English and other Western languages, balancing this propaganda against alternative views is difficult, if not impossible, for the average viewer. In this way, freedom of speech, a basic democratic value, has been undermined, and the freedom of independent opinion has been virtually removed.

Since the eighteenth century, the news media have been considered the “Fourth Estate,” or power, in society. Their role has been to provide information on public affairs and to boost awareness about current events, which take place both domestically and internationally. This double-edged sword may either consolidate democratic changes or promote autocracy, depending on who controls it. In Russia, the result has been state censorship. According to the Washington DC-based think tank, Freedom House, Russia is in the category of non-free states, on a level with India and many African nations. The French media watchdog Reporteurs sans frontiers (“Reporters Without Borders”) ranked Russia #152 for freedom of the press in 2015, down from #148 in 2013 and #140 in 2010.

At first glance, the huge variety of Russian media outlets would suggest an open landscape and wide range of opinion. Currently there are more than 93,000 media outlets in Russia, including 27,000 newspapers and magazines and 330 television channels. If one takes a closer look, however, at the relative weights of the government-controlled media, this perception changes. In terms of preferences, television is the most important source of information followed by the press, radio and the internet. There are about 106.2 million Russian viewers watching national channels and 84.7 million watching regional channels. The biggest TV channels, First Channel (14.4% in 2013), Rossiya (13.4% in 2013) and NTV (13.3%), have the broadest reach, encompassing more than 98% of the territory. They belong either directly to the state or have mixed ownership with private shareholders loyal to President Putin.

“… Russia is still a highly vertically integrated country, where almost nothing happens without regime approval and/or instruction.”

By contrast, the opposition channel Dozhd is under attack from pro-government forces. After it conducted an “inconvenient” questionnaire in early 2014 about whether or not it had been necessary to impose the Leningrad blockade during World War II, the channel was taken to court by the Pensioners Association. Apart from the proceedings, which resulted in a 200,000 ruble penalty, other obstacles, such as the occasional spontaneous shutting-down of internet connections, public sanitation services or accusations of tax avoidance, had the channel teetering on the near-constant edge of closure.

©Stuart Crawford, flickr

The print press is another important information source in Russia. Newspapers total around 8,978 with an annual circulation of 8.2 billion copies. There are also 6,698 Russian magazines and periodicals with a total annual circulation of 1.6 billion copies. The Russian press remains perhaps the most polarized media outlet. Although it enjoys more freedom and breadth of opinion than other outlets, people who are close to the Kremlin directly or indirectly influence many of the newspapers. This, of course, implies that the vast majority of print media is also heavily pro-government. As of 2009, the Russian government owned 60% of all newspapers.

On the other hand, opposition newspapers are more abundant than both television channels and radio stations combined. The print media’s reach is, however, quite limited and naturally lacks public popularity. By comparison, Argumenty i Fakty, the most popular opposition newspaper, circulates approximately 2.75 million copies per day and enjoys around 8 million readers, while Nezavisimaya Gazeta, another strong opposition paper, distributes only 40,000 copies.

Yet, even Nezavisimaya Gazeta is not free from regime pressure. In September 2014, Anonymous International, a hacker group, published correspondence containing what they claimed were letters from Moscow Information Technology state company officer, Anton Bushuev, to various media outlets. In a letter dated September 8, 2014, Bushuev targeted Nezavisimaya Gazeta for the distribution of an article supporting the cleanliness and transparency of the upcoming Moscow City Duma elections. In due course, Nezavisimaya Gazeta published such an article. Konstantin Remchukov, the editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, when pressed, declined to comment.

International experts on Russia, such as Gerhard Mangott from the University of Innsbruck, confirm that Russia also suffers from a high degree of self-censorship. This includes direct assaults on journalists themselves. Between 1993 and 2015, the number of journalists murdered varies from 56 (reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists) to more than 313 (according to the International Federation of Journalists). The case of Anna Polytkovskya, a journalist for Novaya Gazeta, represents the apogee of the state’s hostility toward freedom of expression. While writing on the events in Chechnya, Polytkovskya expressed an opinion quite critical of the regime. On October 7, 2006, coincidentally Vladimir Putin’s birthday, she was found dead in the elevator at her block apartment building. This case was to set an example for other journalists who may “know too much and cannot keep their mouth shut.”

©Maxime De Ruyck, flickr

Manipulation of public opinion and one-sided presentation of information yields results. According to the Levada Center, public support of the regime in Russia was 88% in October 2015. At the same time, the attitudes of the Russians toward the Ukraine have changed dramatically over the last two years. In the past, the majority of the Russian population treated the Ukrainians as brothers. After the beginning of the conflict and the Russian intervention, this attitude diminished. In July 2015, when asked, “How do you view Ukraine?” over 60% of the respondents answered “badly” and only 29% “well.” For example, the pro-government TV station First Channel claimed that a group of Ukrainian nationalists known as the Banderivcy (the followers of Stepan Bandera) crucified a newborn in Donbass. The story later proved to be a complete fabrication, but it demonstrates the lengths to which the Russian media are willing to go to drum up anti-Ukrainian sentiment.

Critics contend that the ownership structure of the media is insufficient to demonstrate that it is controlled to such an extent that it manipulates people’s minds. Moreover, the Pensioners Association and internet providers are certainly not the Russian government, and consequently do not have the direct power to restrict media freedom. Nevertheless, one ought not to forget that Russia is still a highly vertically integrated country, where almost nothing happens without regime approval and/or instruction. What is more, the country lacks strong democratic institutions and separation of powers. This implies that the regime is in a position to use a variety of formal and informal channels to reach its goals.

Thus, the lack of alternative views and freedom of expression pose a danger to any meaningful democratic consolidation in Russia. Despite different interpretations of statistical information, the degree of politicization of the Russian media is huge, and its influence on public opinion is clearly felt. Such developments sound a clear alarm that the country is headed increasingly in the wrong direction. Yet, as attacks on journalists reveal, it seems to be the last thing the political leaders want to hear.

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