Media as Mouthpiece

By Alexei SIMONOV (2005)

After a decade of freedom, the government has taken the national media firmly back under its wing.

By 1991 the journalism that I was immersed in had become extremely outspoken: by today’s standards, unbelievably so. But its outspokenness was all directed towards the past. Its treatment of contemporary life and politics was censorious rather than intelligent. It was trying out the mantle of the ‘Fourth Estate’, then new to Russia, without realising that the Fourth Estate is public opinion and not the press. 

Since 1990, the press has had its own law: a sound, balanced legal document that, juridically speaking, was almost flawless for its time. The press had arrived as a component of public life. But for a long time, journalists saw the law as something that gave them rights and paid no attention to the part that talked of responsibilities – as though this was not part of the ‘compulsory programme’. 

By October 1993, journalists confronted a major dilemma: Mayakovsky’s old challenge: ‘Whose side are you on, Masters of Culture?’ Did they side with the reactionary Supreme Soviet or with a president who supported press freedom and was democratically elected? Journalists fell into two camps and began to feel that unity was a handicap. They failed to realise that affirming the shared aims and interests of the press was far more important than winning a political spat. 

The Glasnost Foundation, which I directed, became aware of its isolated position for the first time in late October 1993. Part of the communist press was closed to it and at the same time it could not make itself heard in the democratic press. Partisan journalism ruled. If you picture society as a ship where the captain – the government – changes shift at the wheel, while the press provides crucial ballast against the storms and buffets of the day, then 1993 showed us that the press was prepared to do almost anything to be at the wheel, clean forgetting about its duty to provide ballast. 

All this brought us to 1996, when the time came either to go with the flow and accept a communist election victory, or to make a concerted effort to upset the electoral consensus and get people to vote for Boris Yeltsin. No other options were considered. The press put the question to the public: it’s either the communists or Yeltsin. Then it did all it could to persuade the public to choose Yeltsin. I see this as the point when an independent democratic press with a more or less civic profile ceased to exist. 

Statistically speaking, between 1995 and 1996 the media achieved astounding successes. Hundreds of new television and radio companies opened in the heartlands. Thousands of new newspapers appeared. But these new titles were not matched by a rise in circulation figures: they were a redistribution of readers rather than a quantitative break-through. 

The circulation figures of federal newspapers notably fell and their readers repositioned themselves across new titles with new profiles, among whom the most successful were newcomers to the scene – the tabloids, the gutter press and plain pornography. A second redistribution of readers took place between regional and federal newspapers. In the areas where they were published, regional papers came out ahead of federal ones in the circulation battle. 

Four main news categories emerged: federal TV and regional TV; federal newspapers and journals; regional newspapers; and the local press. At federal level the most noticeable phenomenon was the rise of the private NTV television channel, which, by the quality of its programming and its aggressive regional marketing, soon began to rival and overtake other federal TV channels. 

This objectively positive development had one unpleasant downside. The licence for Channel 4, which broadcast NTV at that time, was granted exceptionally by direct presidential decree, as a reward for its contribution towards Boris Yeltsin’s successful presidential campaign in 1996. The economic crash in 1998 dealt the media a powerful blow. Advertising revenue shrank and the population’s buying power was seriously curtailed. For many newspapers the question became one of survival, not growth. Significant numbers of regional papers had to decide whether to close down, or to make overtures to their regional government for support – and, as we all know, cheese in a mouse-trap does not come free. 

Another digression is called for at this point: what is a ‘normal’ relationship between politicians and the media? Governments do not like the media and should not like them, in the same way that the media should not like governments. But maintaining this relationship in a situation where the press depends financially on the powers-that-be is uncommonly hard, not to say impossible. 

The first ones to discover this were the several thousand local newspapers with circulations of between 3,000 and 10,000 that are one of the mainstays of the Russian media. They underwent a whole series of changes to their editorial contracts. It reached the point where local journalists gave in and asked for only two things: to get their money straight from higher agencies without going through local politicians, and to keep the statutory right to elect editors-in-chief that was given to them when democracy was in its heyday. 

The federal press evolved differently. Most federal papers became part of large faceless holding companies, and later were bought up by separate media companies owned by big players in the stock exchange, oil and gas industries and other large industrial concerns. 

Later, when Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, it turned out that putting federal newspapers under the wing of oligarchs was to have a powerful impact on their content. The oligarchs depended directly on government policy, which made them both vulnerable and extremely malleable: no oligarch would risk jeopardising his capital by challenging the government in the press when, at any moment, the government could confiscate the property he had acquired by dubious means, even if the means were legal at the time he acquired it. 

Regional television had developed a very successful format of ‘structured’ free speech. This permitted criticism of federal government, but was extremely canny about criticising its own regional authorities. But this degenerated into a series of mediocre business deals designed to bring the owners profit and at the same time avoid frightening consumers. When the press began stirring again after the stagnation induced by the crash, the people who had devised regional media policy were surprised to discover that the landscape was now a curious strip of land occupied by people, subjects and whole areas that were out of bounds.

 Since 2000, a vertical chain of authority has been in the process of creation. Gradually, the Union of the Federation and the State Duma have lost their independence and become totally compliant with the president and it has turned out that the media is ready to do the same. Some attempts were made to separate conformist journalists from non-conformists by setting up alternatives to the Union of Journalists in the shape of a Media Union, an Industry Committee and other bureaucratic innovations. They played their part in transmitting signals from above, but once people found out how much easier life could be if they cooperated with the government instead of fighting it, the new committees became redundant. Nowadays they lead a miserable half-life. 

The new regime naturally had the urge to use these willing tools to tighten its screws on the media. It wanted to turn it into something that, first of all, looks to the government as its prime source of information, and second, is stripped of what the government considers its most loathsome players. 

So by 2002, first the owners of NTV, then its journalists, were sacked. Finally the whole TV6 company was wiped from the screen, after it became home to most of the NTV team minus its ‘fighters’. The new regime has mastered democratic terminology and does a good line in double standards. It says it advocates pluralism, diversity and freedom of the press, but brings owners into line using a battery of more or less legal techniques, from civil suits to other complaints that bear no ostensible relation to freedom of speech or self-expression. The government has played on the media’s genetic fear of a return to the ‘Great Terror’ of Soviet times. From time to time, it touches that chord, which is now becoming increasingly real to people, and hears in response the tune it wants to hear. 

Consequently, what do we have? At federal level, only one channel that does not slavishly follow instructions – or to put it more mildly ‘signals’ – from the government. Three channels – the First, Russian and NTV – are all state-owned or owned by the private-state company Gazprom, and operate under precise government control, exercised as a rule in weekly meetings between the channel heads and representatives of the Presidential Administration. The ‘Third’ channel, which is financed and controlled by the Moscow city government, periodically bristles against national policies, but is touchingly loyal to the Moscow government, which long ago lost its rebellious streak and no longer has serious misgivings about running along the official national track. News on these four channels is all very similar. If not as close as identical twins, it is like brothers and sisters who were born and brought up in one home with the same clear, unambiguous values and day-to-day codes of behaviour. 

There is also a fairly influential channel that does not have the highest viewer ratings: REN-TV. It is known to maintain an element of independence, but circumstances force it to look over its shoulder at its siblings and not run too far ahead. Live TV has to all intents and purposes been abolished on all channels and any broadcasts on social issues that are likely to involve a clash of wide-ranging opinion pass through a censorship process, politely but invariably called editing. Federal publications allow themselves to express individual opinions that diverge in this way or that from the official government view, but they do it so politely and shyly that they hardly make a ripple. 

The independent media has shrunk, like Balzac’s shagreen leather finger, down to the newspaper Novaya gazeta and the radio station Ekho Moskvy at federal level, and three or four dozen regional publications with a collective print run of up to 500,000 copies: a drop in the ocean for Russia’s 150 million population. The distinguishing feature of Ekho Moskvy, and to some extent the price of its independence, is that it offers air space to the most die-hard reactionaries as well as people with democratic views. But at most it has 3 million or 3.5 million listeners, not a critical mass that could significantly influence public opinion. 

Some regional publishing ventures inspire hope. They have their own print capacity and doggedly pursue their own regional policy, step-by-step. The never-ending stream of civil suits brought by politicians against journalists across the Russian Federation is a sign that gaps in the information shield are still being plugged. The state – that is to say all echelons of government intent on creating a vertical chain of authority – is still on the attack. But now its victims are not editorial teams as much as individual journalists who speak out against the party line and still have a platform to do so. 

Our research has shown that up to 70 per cent of material printed in the press or broadcast on TV and radio is about the government and its representatives. Society, with its range of views and civic initiatives is on the periphery of what journalists care about. In conditions like these, it cannot play the slightest role in deciding questions that are vital to the country. It is perhaps premature to draw any conclusions from this, but the implications today, I think, are self-evident. 

ALEXEI SIMONOV is the founder of the Glasnost Foundation, which monitors journalistic freedom throughout the Russian Federation.

Translated by Marjorie Farquharson

“Reinventing Russia: the Media”, Index on Censorship, 4 April 2005