How Partial is Media Coverage of Boris Nemtsov’s Murder?

Partiality and polarisation of opinion in Russian and Ukrainian outlets is disclosed in the context of the murder of Russia’s opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. Alexandra Sazonova-Prokouran analyses bias in information concerning Nemtsov’s death, as depicted in various media outlets

News of Nemtsov’s death spread like wildfire over social, online and broadcast media on Friday night. As Western, Ukrainian and Russian newspapers tried to make sense of why opposition leader was shot, subsequent analysis was predictably divergent.

Nonetheless, Russia’s independent and more openly critical news outlets – namely the business dailies Vedomosti, Kommersant, and Nezavisimaya Gazeta (‘Independent Newspaper) – differed in their outlook. The outlets shifted the focus of coverage from the underpinning motives of the murder to its larger implications for the socio-political landscape. The outlets avoided explicit analysis of any intentions behind the murder, a strategy adopted in order to avoid side-step censorship.

On the other hand, Ukrainian media, operating from an anti-Putin angle, predictably condemned Russia’s president for commissioning the murder. The Ukrainian news portal Obozrevatel (‘Commentator’) owned by a Ukrainian politician Mykhailo Brodsky, claims that Nemtsov was ready to release documents revealing Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Lavia and Estonia. The news portal also claims that Nemtsov had in his possession a list confirming the deaths of 7,000 Russian citizens during the course of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

Predictably, Russia’s pro-government news outlets formed an echo chamber, stressing that the murder constituted a political “provocation” against the Kremlin. Vzglyad blamed Ukrainian oligarchs for commissioning the murder as an act of dissatisfaction with Nemtsov’s efforts to trigger instability within the Russian government. Conveniently, the newspaper omits the fact that Nemtsov’s murder occurred only a day before his scheduled mass rally in support of Ukraine. Similarly, Russia Beyond the Headlines referred to the murder as a political “provocation” repeatedly.

In the Western hemisphere, The UK’s Independent, owned by former oligarch Alexander Lebedev, wrote: “there exists a second Russia, which refuses to blindly believe that which the Kremlin’s press calls ‘national interests’”. On a different note, The Washington Post analysed the potential triggering of Russian civic unrest: “the drive-by shooting had the potential to open a violent new chapter in Russian political life”.

Yet while the newspaper refers to Nemtsov as “one of the loudest voices condemning Russia’s sharp turn toward confrontation with the West” and “the highest-profile opposition leader”, many independent and pro-government news outlets in Russia beg to differ; Nemtsov’s official political career is thought to have reached a dead end for some time, indicating that Nemtsov posed a fairly insignificant threat to president Putin as a rival.

If pluralism and social activism lie at the foundation of many democratic Western states, they are considered a futile practice by the Russian media. Vedomosti and Kommersant remain skeptical about Russia’s future. They perceive the assassination as a signal of Russia’s return to Soviet practices, a mark of Putin’s re-institution of the iron fence carried out with the purpose of isolating Russia politically from the rest of the world. Russian mentality remains governed by a sense of disillusionment, which acts to prevent real potential for social upheaval and consequent change within the Kremlin’s political arena. This is evidenced by the low turnout at Russia’s previous mass rally in support of the arrested opposition leader Alexei Navalny, which saw less than 10% of the 18,000 supporters who had confirmed their attendance on social platforms.

Vedomosti describes the event as a turning point at the “the climax of a cold civil war”, claiming that it is the government’s means of mobilising nationalist supporters, by removing a political figure widely portrayed on television as a national enemy of the state. The same newspaper argues that at the start of the 21st century, an unofficial taboo regarding murders of political opponents with a prominent media presence was in place. Nemtsov’s assassination officially put an end to the aforementioned taboo, reflecting the government’s change in its political stance towards repression. The Kremlin’s logic rings clear, claims Vedomosti: “those who have physical force are always right.”

Both Kommersant and Vedomosti conclude that little hope is left of the murder destabilising the regime or triggering a potential revolution. Even foreign investment in Russia’s economy is unlikely to be disrupted by a political murder – the latter is now accepted as an act occurring in a country notorious for its corruption and power-grasping means, claims Kommersant.

The sole factor which might realistically destabilise Russia lies with steady domestic economic deterioration, claim the news outlets. The increasing financial burden endured by ordinary citizens might undermine any remnants of nationalism in the long-run.

Still, the West’s views on the murder’s social implications are treated as naïve, utopian thoughts by the Kremlin. “Just as in the Soviet times, Russian dissidents looked toward Western democracies as a source of hope…while imposing more sanctions on the Russian regime, the West must not stop its dialogue with the Russian people”, urges the Financial Times. The article is telling and lists a series of names of murdered dissidents; they range from “Sergei Yushenkov (2003), Anna Politkovskaya (2006), Stanislav Markelov (2009), Anastasia Baburova (2009) to Natalya Estemirova (2009).” Nemtsov’s name forms the latest addition to the list.

In spite of polarised coverage of Nemtsov’s murder, both Russian independent news outlets and the British press concede that the unpunished eradication of political opponents remains a long-standing practice in the country. Precedent is telling, since investigations into the last ten political murders have been left unresolved.  Strikingly, the pro-government news outlet Russia Today, is to be investigated for the sixth time by UK’s media regulator Ofcom over its anti-western and allegedly misleading coverage of events in Ukraine. Statutory sanctions after repeated breaches of broadcasting regulations on impartiality last year are currently being applied. Evidently, the Kremlin’s treatment of opponents, be they dissident politicians or media outlets which don’t favour the regime, reflects a society which does not tolerate diversity of opinion.

Alexandra Sazonova-Prokouran


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