Pulling the strings of the Russian mass media

Ever since President Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 2000, there have been numerous stories detailing a state crackdown on press freedom with references to a resurgent Soviet-era approach to relations with the mass media. However, are matters as simple as this? Why is the state trying to mobilise the mass media to carry out what are essentially public relations tasks? These are two of the questions that need to be asked to peel back the layers of rhetoric to gain a glimpse of the truth that lies underneath.

A history of the Russian media

From the time the first Russian newspaper, Vedomosti, appeared in 1703, the mass media has played a close and supporting role for the state. During the Soviet period, the mass media played the role of agitator and motivator of the people to achieve certain state-dictated goals and to provide models of behaviour for Soviet citizens to emulate. Journalism was the mechanism used to promote values, disseminate ideas and encourage the masses. In this respect, the mass media were the mouthpiece to broadcast the state's will. In return for their loyal service, journalists were granted job security and various perks.

During the later years of the Soviet Union, the mass media were used by the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev as a means to uncover "injustices" and wrongdoings committed during the reign of communism. They were also used as a means of mobilising support for reforms of the Glasnost and Perestroika era and to reduce political opposition. However, this situation put the media in a somewhat contradictory position, on the one hand supporting the Gorbachev administration while undermining the basis upon which the government was built and its source of legitimacy. A number of changes occurred in Soviet journalism during this period, which witnessed a departure from the 'traditional' Soviet model.

In 1990, the Media Law was enacted, which forbade censorship, although a number of issues connected to national security and a ban on fomenting any form of hatred or intolerance were off limits. The Soviet media became increasingly polarised, divided between those who supported Gorbachev and the reformers and those who aligned themselves with the conservative communist element. Mass media outlets sought political patrons who would protect them from any interference and in return would act as their patron's voice. This split became most apparent during the August 1991 coup. The split in the mass media along political cleavages is a feature that remains.

A period of a few years that spanned the late Soviet and early post-Soviet era (from 1991 to 1993) came to be known as the 'golden years' of journalism. The period was marked by a freedom of expression and freedom from political or commercial masters. It was during this period that some of the media outlets embraced tabloid journalism and the excesses of media freedom were witnessed.

But the lack of state sponsorship and the new realities of a market economy began to bite and this saw the disappearance of many media outlets from the scene. It was during this period that the rise of the business magnates - the oligarchs - made their impact on the media industry. Mass media outlets were bought up and incorporated into vast business empires by the oligarchs, who came to view media not as profit-making enterprises in their own right but as means of accumulating political capital. Influence was an essential part of the business strategy and flourished in an environment where the boundaries between politics and business were blurred. The oligarchs used their mass media outlets to increase their profile and to engage in kompromat (disseminate compromising material) against opposition businessmen and politicians.

The credibility of journalism and journalists became tarnished. They were seen as being the mouthpiece of a new master, albeit a commercial one. Their reputation was damaged even further by revelations of 'paid-for-advertising', where an outlet was paid money to run an advert as a news story. This practice has become quite widespread in post-Soviet journalism.

Controlling the uncontrollable

In the conditions of a vacuum of government power and control, the mass media were left with a free hand. However, it was not too long before various politicians and officials started talking of the need to halt the "flow of pornography and filth". There were various attempts at introducing legislation, such as 1999's Morality Bill, which failed as a result of presidential veto by Boris Yeltsin, who had a reputation as a protector of the press.

A variety of mechanisms exist that can be used to apply pressure on media content. The state still owns or controls some 80 per cent of newsprint production and printing presses across the Russian Federation, and in addition to this, some 90 per cent of television transmission facilities are state-owned or controlled. Various agencies and departments, such as the health department, fire department, tax police and security services, can be used as levers for controlling newspapers (there are some 30,000 registered print publications, although not all of them are active). There have been documented instances where newspapers have been threatened with closure for such infractions as using 'hazardous' ink, for not having footrests for journalists, tax violations and legal violations (such as the allegations that NTV was using illegal surveillance equipment). If newspapers print a 'negative' story, the price of newsprint or printing services can be raised overnight in retaliation. And the 1,200 registered television stations across Russia need to go through the second state channel, RTR, in order to transmit.

A mix of formal and informal rules are also used as a lever against the mass media. Currently, it is possible to close a television station for a period of up to six months on the suspicion that it has broken the law. Another means of silencing the media is the use of the court system. Article 151 of the Russian Civil Code (in defence of honour and reputation) allows individuals to sue the media, with many cases being decided in favour of the plaintiff. The usual penalty under Article 151 is a fine, some of which can run into very large sums of money. The threat of this hanging over journalists can make them think twice before covering a story.

According to the Russian Union of Journalists, since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, some 250 journalists have been killed. This is compared to 433 journalists killed since 1991 in territory of the former USSR, except for the Baltic countries.

Sometimes the journalists were deliberately targeted by various interest groups and sometimes they were the unfortunate victims of violent crime. The level of conditions for the press is unequal across the Russian Federation and, as a rule, conditions in Moscow are better than in the provinces.

The present demands

One of the initial indicators which reveals that social change is about to take place is the creation of new names and concepts. The prelude to, and the beginning of, the Putin era saw a rapid succession of such activity. This included: 'the Single Information Space' - a term used by President Putin in 2000 describing the need to enable society to progress by filtering out disinformation; the 'Great Russia' concept - the idea of recreating a powerful state, the basis of this being a belief and pride in one's country; patriotism programmes - introduced in the school system as a means of fostering pride in Russia by highlighting periods of success and glory in the country's history; the 'Basic Social Concept' of the Russian Orthodox Church, which outlines its plans and views on contemporary issues; and the 'Doctrine of Information Security' - a doctrine on what were seen as informational problems facing the Russian state and ways to solve them.

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a desire and a concerted effort to turn the situation around in Russia. The mass media are seen as essential elements in realising the transformation of Russian society by influencing values and attitudes. The Doctrine of Information Security, although not a legal document which indicates what is expected of journalism and journalists, speaks of ensuring the flow of what is termed by the authorities as being 'correct' information. Putin's mention of a single information space is likewise another cue for the media, which were linked to the need to successfully build a better society. These ideas are epitomised in the Great Russia concept of rebuilding a strong state. The importance of the media is also understood by the Russian Orthodox Church, which mentions it in its basic social concept. Key political and social figures' speeches and quotes send an informal message, which is one of creating a partnership between the state and the media in order to 'better' society, with the media being the junior partner.

The current threat of terrorism in Russia has provided the authorities with both a problem as well as an opportunity. Threat comes primarily in the forms of a challenge to the authorities and their legitimacy (if they are unable to control it), and disruption to the 'normal' functioning of society. However, the opportunities that it provides come in the form of the ability to impose restrictions and controls on society and institutions in the name of security, and, internationally, pursue various policy agendas and reduce world criticism of domestic events. As the 'hot' war in Chechnya began in 1999, the authorities reminded journalists that they could not quote Chechen rebel sources, even though no such formal law existed at that stage.

In the international arena, the authorities have been successful in mitigating international criticism by becoming a perceived part of the international war on terrorism. However, some sources of irritation remain, namely the issue of exiles being granted asylum, especially in the UK, and the existence of the Chechen rebel website Kavkaz Tsentr. The Russian mass media have been at the forefront of the war of rhetoric, accusing countries of having double standards and the need to unite in the face of a common threat. So far, this has generally been unsuccessful. But the case of Kavkaz Tsentr has proved different: Russia has managed to successfully pressure countries hosting the website - the US, Turkey, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Sweden and Finland - to shut it down. This is in spite of the fact that the site was hosted on private rather than state internet service providers and the fact that no international law currently exists which requires them to comply.

Lessons to be learned

What lessons can other countries derive from the Russian experience? Probably the most glaringly obvious lesson is that of sender credibility. If the sender of the message has little or no credibility in the eyes of the intended audience, then the effectiveness of the message is lost, regardless of its validity.

Another key lesson is that credibility can easily be lost. The mass media have fallen from their position from being perceived as opposition to communism. They are now seen as puppets of another master. This has left them vulnerable as public support has dried up and the authorities are using the apparent public support for censorship to suppress editorial freedom.

Special thanks to Oleg Panfilov, director of the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

Greg Simons is the editor of the English languages volumes at Crismart (Crisis Management Research and Training - www.crismart.org) based at the Swedish National Defence College. He is also a guest researcher based at the Department of Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University (www.east.uu.se). His research focuses on Russian mass media, especially how they tackle the problem of reporting on Russia's war on terrorism. Special thanks to Oleg Panfilov, director of the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

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