Putin's Press: How Russia's President Controls The News

Russia may soon lose some of its last free media.
A Russian TV reporter on state-owned station Rossiya24 outlines the weather conditions in Syria days after Russia announces bombing campaign.
A Russian TV reporter on state-owned station Rossiya24 outlines the weather conditions in Syria days after Russia announces bombing campaign.
Rossiya 24 via YouTube

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Nataliya Rostova, a chronicler and critic of the Russian media.

Days after Russian President Vladimir Putin committed his air force to a bombing campaign in Syria in support of President Bashar Assad, a weather forecaster on Russia's state-owned Rossiya24 TV channel positioned herself in front of a massive screen showing Russian fighter planes.

Analyzing wind speeds and cloud formations, the woman reassured viewers that Syria's weather in October was perfect for Russia's aerial assault. "Experts note the time for the start of the air operation [in Syria] is chosen very well," she said, reported Agence France Presse.

The Oct. 5 broadcast was just the latest example of the way the Russian government uses the mass media to sell domestic and international political decisions to the public, a trend exacerbated since the start of the conflict in Crimea last year.

Freedom House, which publishes the annual Freedom of The Press report, noted of the press in the country that:

Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine helped to drive an increase in propagandistic content in the Russian news media and tighter restrictions on dissenting views in 2014. Media outlets became more firmly incorporated into the Kremlin’s policy efforts, moving from supporting the government with biased news to actively participating in an “information war” with its perceived adversaries. Ongoing insurgencies, corrupt officials, and crime within Russia continued to pose a danger to journalists who reported on them, and the remaining independent media outlets in the country came under growing pressure from the authorities.

"The Russian media portrays anything going on from the point of view of Vladimir Putin," Nataliya Rostova tells the WorldPost.
"The Russian media portrays anything going on from the point of view of Vladimir Putin," Nataliya Rostova tells the WorldPost.
Vladimir Kondrashov/Associated Press

The WorldPost spoke with Nataliya Rostova, a visiting scholar at the University of Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a senior correspondent at Moscow-based online magazine Slon.ru, about Putin's control of the press. Rostova is also the author of Gorbymedia.com, a research project about the birth of the Russian media in the era of former President Mikhail Gorbachev.

How has the Russian media portrayed the Russian intervention in Syria?

In general, the Russian media portrays anything going on from the point of view of Vladimir Putin. He has unlimited access to the media and they explain everything that's going on according to his official statement. It doesn't really matter if it's a war in Syria or any other topic.

How does the Russian president manage to control the media with such great success?

After Putin came into power in 2000, he established control over the three main TV stations. In 2001 and 2002, he took control of the two biggest TV channels, ORT (now First Channel) and NTV. The state broadcaster, RTR (now Rossiya 1), was already under his control.

“The Russian media portrays anything going on from the point of view of Vladimir Putin.”

During his subsequent year in power, Putin moved more and more outlets under his influence until he controlled most of the major mainstream media. He appoints editors and general directors, either officially or unofficially. The director of VGTRK, the biggest [state] media holding, which owns Rossiya 1, Rossiya 2 etc., is appointed by presidential decree, for example. When it comes to so-called independent media, which are smaller and not owned by the state, there's often an agreement between the Kremlin, the owner and the editor-in-chief. Even Aleksey Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Echo Moskvy, which is sometimes called the last remaining independent radio station in Russia but in reality isn't independent, says publicly that Putin is the only person who can fire him.

The editors and directors have so-called weekly meetings with the presidential administration to talk about the upcoming events, what will be significant in the next week, what the administration wants to cover.

Additionally, media outlets are dependent on state funding and the TV advertising market is almost monopolized as well.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a strong grip on mass media in the country.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has a strong grip on mass media in the country.
Sasha Mordovets via Getty Images

Do Russian citizens in any way ask for more objective coverage?

We all - journalists, the state, and society - failed in terms of media freedom, because when you ask an average Russian if freedom of the press is important to him, he'll say no. In general, they're ok with the idea of censorship. They're ok with the idea of state-owned media.

Until Mikhail Gorbachev opened up the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s and started to allow TV and newspapers to report critically, Russian media was completely state-controlled. Does that history of censorship help explain the situation today?

In my opinion, it's related to the fact that we got this freedom from above. Because it was given from above, people don't value it. We didn’t really fight for it. We didn’t demand it. It was just given to us and "so what" if it's taken.

Journalists also really failed the people’s trust. It is a complex story, but to keep it simple: In the beginning of the 1990s journalists were considered messiahs, praised for telling the truth. Many of them even became deputies in parliament. But they turned out to be either biased or corrupt. During the oligarchs' information wars under the Yeltsin presidency, entire editorial staffs were taken and bought. Journalists were taking sides in a number of political events. A lot of people just saw that it was easy to buy them.

“We all - journalists, the state and society - failed in terms of media freedom.”

Can social media play a role in critiquing the state version of events?

On a personal level, sometimes, but in general, it’s not a trend. It doesn’t influence anything. The number of readers that receive information from media outlets that are critical to the state is no more than five percent and only a minority receives critical news through social media.

You don't seem very optimistic about the future.

I think that I’m realistic. I've been covering media since 2002 and I saw the landscape change step by step. I didn't want to believe it every time they'd take one more channel, every time another outlet lost its integrity. But I witnessed it anyway.

Now, the last option for editorial integrity has been taken as well. A new law which takes effect next year will restrict foreign ownership of media outlets to no more than 20 percent. It was the last resort for independent journalism in Russia, being owned by foreigners.

For example: Forbes Magazine, which is distributed in Russia by the German company Axel Springer, is a very good source for independent journalism. The magazine was founded in 2004 by Paul Khlebnikov, an American with a Russian background, and he was its first editor-in-chief. He was shot and killed a few months after the launch of the magazine, and the case still hasn't been fully investigated. Forbes remained an excellent media outlet, even after Khlebnikov's death. However, now it has been bought by a Russian owner. A few days ago he admitted publicly in an interview that Forbes readers are not interested in the information of officials running state-owned companies. Where will this situation lead? Most likely, honest journalists will have to quit their positions. I'm sending my deepest condolences to colleagues. They are not the first ones though, they are one of the last ones.

The same fate awaits the best quality newspaper Vedomosti, which comes together with the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Russia is the only place where two competing companies issue one product together. But they won't be able to do that anymore. It means we may lose some of the last free media.

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