Culture / Politics

Censorship and ‘extremism’: The state of modern Russian media

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by Andrej Martirosjan

Freedom of Speech in Russia: Russian media

The freedom of the Russian media is currently a very frequent and important topic especially in the West. Given that to many it appears that Russia is basically waging an “information war” against the West, on topics including, for instance, the Ukrainian crisis, this is understandable. In general, organizations like Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, which officially measure freedom of the media in the world, regard Russia as very non-free country in terms of the media. Russian media is often accused of not being objective and also of serving as an instrument of the state to manipulate the masses and shape public opinion in its own favour. Nevertheless, this is not the only aspect of Russian media which attracts the world’s attention. The number of murdered journalists in Russia such as Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov is also very alarming, to say the least, and many of these murders are believed to be politically motivated. Is there, however, any extent to which Russian media can be considered free?

Television: Takeover, censorship, and propaganda

Television has a huge role in influencing Russian society, and Vladimir Putin is perfectly aware of this. In the beginning of his term in 2000, he initiated several eventually successful attempts to increase state control over television, consequently strengthening the power of the state. His first step to reach this goal was the notorious clash with the oligarchs, who owned the media, which were criticizing the Kremlin’s policy and thus, could be politically influential and dangerous for Putin. For instance, Boris Berezovsky owned ORT (today’s Channel One) and when he became critical towards Putin, he was suddenly accused of many ‘issues’ related to his business. He was forced to sell his shares in ORT and he migrated to the United Kingdom. This channel was later overtaken by the state (Rosimushchestvo) and is today completely pro-Kremlin, with its editorial policy being discussed weekly between the CEO of Channel One and Kremlin officials. After Berezovsky left Russia, he financed the channel called TV-6, which was providing the Russian public with an alternative point of view, but it was shut down by the government in 2002.

The next targeted oligarch was Vladimir Gusinsky, the owner of NTV, which was the second most popular channel after ORT. NTV had a very critical stance towards Putin’s policy and especially Russian involvement in Chechnya. Consequently, the offices of NTV were raided on May, 2000, and Vladimir Gusinsky was imprisoned for four days. This action against this channel demonstrated a grave assault against press freedom in Russia. The ownership of this channel was transferred to Gazprom’s media branch. It should be emphasized, that the majority of Gazprom’s capital is owned by the Russian state. Thus, NTV fell under the states’ control exactly as same as ORT. Some would argue that Gusinsky’s Media-Most actually owed a lot of money to Gazprom and that is the reason why Gazprom rightly took over the NTV. Essentially, this is what the official version in Russia is. However, how can we explain the fact that many other companies also owed Gazprom hundreds of millions of dollars, but they never had to face such an aggressive approach as that to Gusinsky’s Media-Most? The logical explanation is that this takeover was politically motivated.

Considering the fact that the next largest television channel is the Russia Channel which is directly owned by the state, it could be argued that by 2003, the Kremlin had established control over national television. Other important channels, which were either owned or at least controlled by the Russian state also included TV-Center and Ren-TV.

It should be highlighted that some programs like political debates on these channels are often censored and all panel discussions are being pre-recorded since 2004. This leads to one actually independent TV channel, TV Rain, which was launched in 2010 and still exists today. The most important thing about this channel is that it broadcasts many of its programs live and thus does not give any room for any kind of censorship. This brings a positive perception that there is still some independent media in Russia. However, Committee to Protect Journalists reported several times, that Russian authorities harass this television and creates obstructions for its work and existence.

In terms of the so called “propaganda”, the state significantly influences the information which is shown to Russian public through the media. It is worth saying, that Russian propaganda is not a pure lie, it is just picking, choosing and twisting information in favor of Russian authorities. For instance, coverage of Chechen and Ukrainian conflicts was a very glaring example of an area in which Putin’s media policy affected the content of news reports. Also, to demonstrate how far this can get, the example of the Russia Channel’s report about the Czech Republic should be mentioned. When the Czech government allowed the American military convoy to go through the Czech Republic to demonstrate Czech support for the United States and NATO, this decision was supported by the vast majority of people. However, the Russia Channel created a report which described how the Czechs were dissatisfied with the American presence there by recording a few protesters and totally ignoring the presence of thousands of people cheering and welcoming the American military convoy.

The press: Criminalizing “extremism”, self-censorship, murdered journalists

After having described freedom problems of Russian television, the fact that Russian printed press has to face freedom violations too should not be surprising. The model of taking over the “uncomfortable” independent media, which was used by the state and state companies in case of the television, was also applied in case of printed press. This model is very simple: Gazprom or a businessman somehow linked to the Kremlin buys the media and it suddenly stops being critical towards Kremlin or it ceases to exist. Papers like Izvestiya, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Novye Izvestiya, and Moskovskiye novosti were all taken over using this particular method.

Apart from taking over the media, there is the second tactic used by the state to silence its opponents: the law criminalizing extremism. The problem is, that nobody really strictly defines what this “extremism” is actually supposed to be. It’s open to exploitation, in order to legally charge or discredit certain innapropriate journalists or newspapers. Also, insulting very high state officials, like Vladimir Putin can be legally prosecuted. In the majority of times it means, that the accused journalists are fined. This leads to the so called “self-censorship”, which is recently very proliferated among Russian journalists. They do not usually write about controversial topics and do not criticize the government due to the fact that they are simply afraid of being discredited, losing their job, being fined, or even worse, being murdered.

The murders of journalists is a very grave problem in Russia. The most prominent examples are Anna Politkovskaya (Nezavisimaya gazeta), who was writing about atrocities carried out by Kremlin-backed Prime Minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, and Paul Klebnikov (Forbes), who wrote few works about corruption in Russia. These murders are often being connected to the Putin’s government. However, there is no actual evidence that the Russian authorities were involved in these killings and thus the public is only left with speculations. Be that as it may, the Russian state does not try sufficiently enough to find and punish the murderers.

The emergence of new media: new hope for Russia?

The emergence of new media and increased number of people using the Internet in Russia was giving hopes, that it will contribute to certain freedoms. It actually did in some senses. For instance, people could finally visit websites of various Russian parties, which do not usually receive any attention on television. Also, it was the Internet, what provided Russian citizens with an access to alternative news websites such as newsru.com and grani.ru established by the exiled oligarchs Berezovsky and Gusinsky. Furthermore, the Internet provided various politicians and activists with an opportunity to actually be heard. There are many Russian blogs registered at livejournal.com and a large number of them help to organize growing youth organizations against Putin. However, the Kremlin already understood the danger of new media and Internet and took certain measures to combat it such as creating counter-forces to youth organizations against Putin in the form of pro- Kremlin youth organizations like Nashi. These forces grow every day and again cause a problem for the freedom of the media in Russia.

Andrej Martirosjan

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