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Life on an Island

Russia may be a huge land mass, but Maksim Trudolyubov believes it is better to think of it as a pattern of islands, divided not by geography but by a host of other factors. Here he looks at the island group he himself inhabits – the independent media – as it battles against the waves.

Russia is an archipelago. Of course it’s not an island state. But Russia is nevertheless not a single territory; it is a gigantic ocean of a state containing numerous islands, each with its own social, political, economic and value system.

In the part of the ocean filled with old academic institutions there are also islands of cutting edge science and scholarship, integrated with their counterparts around the world. In the business sector, composed mostly of structures dependent on the state, there are nevertheless vigorous, thriving global level companies. Among public servants, renowned as a body for their cynicism and corruption, there are some honest bureaucrats as well. The same goes for the media. One can find examples of innovative and independent activity in the ocean of servile and low quality propaganda organs known as the Russian media.

The independent news island...

The first, and for me the most important, media island comprises the independent mainstream news organisations that work on more or less the same principles as their counterparts in more developed markets – the newspapers Vedomosti, Kommersant and Novaya Gazeta; the weekly New Times; the online Gazeta.ru; Forbes, Esquire, Bolshoi Gorod, Afisha and a few other glossy publications with an independent editorial policy; the Dozhd TV channel, Ekho Moskvy radio and a few other radio stations. Adjoining it are internet platforms producing material of the same high quality as the mainstream media: Slon.ru, Snob.ru and Lenta.ru. It is important to stress that these all work in a competitive market and follow strict ethical rules. Altogether we are taking about 1000-1500 journalists servicing several million readers, listeners and viewers. A potential audience for independent media can be estimated at up to 50 million people living in the ever-expanding large cities. Most of these cities (except for Moscow, St.Petersburg and very few others) lack any alternative to state-sponsored media.

This island has a direct bridge linking it to the enormous social media archipelago that is home to social networks and the blogosphere. These rely on the professional media for information on public and political developments and events. According to a recent article [Russian link] in Vedemosti, direct re-postings of independent press material account for 38% of all the re-postings of politically orientated Facebook groups, and more than half of re-postings on VKontakte. (Another island, which I won’t go into in this article, is the many entertainment media, including the tabloid press; the glossy magazines; the state owned TV channels, such as Kultura, where all political material is banned and non political websites such as gismeteo.ru and lookatme.ru.)

...and the ocean around it

These all have to contend with the vast ocean of state controlled TV and other media. The Putin regime regards TV channels as strategic forces; they are strictly controlled and essentially mere conduits for official propaganda. They employ tens of thousands of people and cost billions of pounds per year, and their main job is to entertain and indoctrinate the Russian ‘masses’ – the people who provide the ruling clique with its majority, come election time.

While the independent media have a collective income of roughly £130-200 million a year, those bankrolled by the state operate in billions. In the 2012 Budget RUB75.3bn (£1.5bn) per year was allocated to the media, most of it going to television. RUB5.5bn (£115m) was allocated to print media, including official government publications. The state run news agencies RIA Novosti and ITAR-TASS receive RUB2.5bn (£55m) and RUB1bn (£21m) respectively. On top of that regional governments have in 2012 collectively spent about 90 billion rubles ($2.9 billion) to support all kinds of local media, estimated Vasily Gatov of RIA Novosti's Media Lab.

The Putin regime regards TV channels as strategic forces; they employ tens of thousands of people and cost billions of pounds per year, and their main job is to entertain and indoctrinate the Russian ‘masses’ – the people who provide the ruling clique with its majority, come election time.

The official media are also major players in the monopoly advertising market. According to the Association of Communication Agencies, advert revenue of all TV channels reached 131 billion rubles ($4,2 billion) with the bulk of it going to Channel 1, the Russian State TV-Radio Company and NTV. The company Video International, which has a monopoly on TV advertising, is a subsidiary of the Russia Bank, whose majority owner is Yuri Kovalchuk, a friend of Vladimir Putin. Kovalchuk’s company, National Media Group, is also the largest shareholder after the state in TV’s Channel 1 (the state holds 51%of its shares, Kovalchuk 25%), as well as owning St Petersburg’s Channel 5, the PEN-TV television company, Izvestiya newspaper and Rusnovosti radio station. Another, even larger consortium, Gazprom-Media Holding , owns the NTV television company, the Ekho Moskvy  and Citi-FM radio stations, the Seven Days publishing house, and numerous other publications and radio and TV companies, as well as the RuTube video site (equivalent of YouTube).

RIA Novosti, a state run news agency, is allocated a significant budget every year. Photo: (cc) Flickr/maial.info

The Russian state’s massive presence in its country’s media is the result of a systematic policy which began as soon as Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.  Putin started his first presidential term by bringing ORT (now Channel 1) and NTV under state control. The process then continued, less by increasing direct state holdings in existing companies than by gradually re selling companies to trustworthy owners such as National Media Group and  Gazprom-Media Holding. But direct state holdings grew as well, with the appearance of RT (Russia Today), an international multilingual TV news network conceived as a counterbalance to global broadcasters such as CNN and the BBC. Finance for RIA Novosti and ITAR-TASS also increased, and since the end of last year ITAR-TASS, thanks to the efforts of its new director, whose previous job was in PR, has even been poaching journalists who are feeling increasingly unhappy in the independent sector (at Kommersant, for example, which has been going through a troubled period).

Bad times for The New Times (and other independents)

The independent media sphere is steadily shrinking. The daily Moscow News, now state owned, has returned to the newsstands after its change of ownership but was reformatted a few months ago and is now a popular, entertainment-orientated local rag. The quality online portal Openspace.ru has closed down, and the weekly Bolshoy Gorod (Big City) is on the brink of closure. Another weekly, The New Times, may also disappear at any moment, and many other publications are facing financial problems.

The past year has seen a wave of dismissals of editors known for their independent views, and critically minded bloggers are also under pressure. Rustem Adagamov, the most widely read contributor to the popular Livejournal.com site, has recently been forced to leave Russia to avoid highly dubious accusations of paedophilia (although no actual charges have been brought against him). Aleksei Navalny, the anticorruption campaigner and another high profile blogger, is at present on trial for embezzling £300,000 from a timber firm, a charge most independent experts regard as a complete fabrication. Kremlin's political managers prefer to operate obliquely: censorship is never open; people are never sacked for opposition to the regime (the one exception  to this rule is Maksim Kovalsky, the ex editor of Vlast, a periodical that is part of the Kommersant group, fired in 2011 for publishing  a photo depicting a ballot paper defaced by the caption, ‘F... off, Putin’). Publications and radio stations are closed for reasons ostensibly having nothing to do with politics. The main thing is that the machine should appear to be moving under its own steam, its workings             invisible to anyone other than media people themselves and foreign commentators.

'Dutin Pick': One of the two now-famous images, the publication of which has led to two top employees of Kommersant being fired and one having to resign. Photo: Darya MalyutinaOur rulers prefer to operate obliquely: censorship is never open; people are never sacked for opposition to the regime, publications and radio stations are closed for reasons ostensibly having nothing to do with politics.

The chief instrument of control and pressure is, however, economic. All potential sources of finance are strictly monitored – the Kremlin knows exactly who they are. Private companies are vulnerable to blackmail over dodgy deals, and can be threatened with the loss of their business, while MPs can face the threat of losing their parliamentary immunity. 

Publications with a strong public interest bias have real difficulty attracting advertising: no one wants their brands linked with publications what are out of favour with the regime, and advertisers are often openly threatened.

Commercial backing is limited by the appalling state of the advertising sector, a situation only partly explainable by actual market conditions, including  a global downward trend in advertising revenue in the traditional media. Since the start of this year the Russian press is longer able to carry ads for alcohol drinks: this single measure has deprived some papers of up to 15-20% of their income. Publications with a strong public interest bias have real difficulty attracting advertising: no one wants their brands linked with publications what are out of favour with the regime. Despite being high-quality publications the weekly New Times and the biweekly Bolshoy Gorod have practically no advertising income.

The wrecking machine is encroaching not only on the media, but on other centres of free thinking, such as NGOs and independent research centres. The people who work for these are among the most valuable contributors to the independent media. To be an independent commentator in Russia today often means relying on grant funding from abroad, and organisations receiving such funding are under massive attack from the Kremlin.

Worlds apart

So, how is life on an island? The professional and corporate culture of ‘oceanic’ media is very different from that of our ‘island’. Suffice it to say that paid-for content and deals with PR companies are the norm in the media owned or controlled by the state – and I’m not even talking about material directly dictated by the government. And, unlike the ‘island’ media, they either have a monopoly in their market sector or are completely independent of the market since they are financed by the state.

We wake up each morning, amazed that we are still alive. We are like the inhabitants of the Maldives, who know that sooner or later their islands will disappear beneath the waves.

The free and un-free media live in different worlds. The former operate in the marketplace, have codes of ethics, check facts, compete with one another for readers and advertisers, keep transparent accounts and pay taxes. The latter basically operate without rules. For them the market is a relative term, and fact checking and ethical principles are impossible since they have to ignore them to order.

Independent Media are affected by the island lifestyle too. Their culture is a peculiar phenomenon whose roots run deeper than the Putin years. The country's free public sphere did shrank recently but it has always been small. Since the Gorbachev era of the late 1980s Russia's independent media have played the role of an absent public sphere. Back in the late Soviet times when the Russian society needed to digest the political and economic crisis and debate possible change journalists were delegated the role of speakers for the public, says Marat Guelman, contemporary art dealer and political consultant. It soon became clear that this sort of “representative” public sphere was not perfect: it glossed over some important issues and overemphasized those of lesser value to the general public. Some journalists proved prone to corruption or government pressure. Yet the legacy of this delegated public sphere has lived on.

It became even more important under Putin. Ever since 2003, when liberal-minded Russians lost their representation in the parliament, the few surviving independent media have taken up the roles of advocates for the suppressed liberal values. Journalists who continued to enjoy freedom of speech became more outspoken and sometimes more biased because they felt the bottom-up pressure. Independent media had to become a quasi political party, writes [in Russian] Maxim Glikin, an editor at Vedomosti. It's probably more than one party. Some highly opinionated media are serving as substitutes for all those parties that are absent in the parliament but are present in the Russian society. This lead to journalists becoming too active during last year's protest movement including organizing and co-ordinating rallies. This has given reasons to the authoritarian Russian state to harbour a grudge against all independent media regardless of their adherence to strict journalistic codes of conduct.

We wake up each morning, amazed that we are still alive. We are like the inhabitants of the Maldives, who know that sooner or later their islands will disappear beneath the waves. There is no sign of the pressure lifting; on the contrary, we have reason to expect even more measures designed to ‘neutralise’ the independent media sector.

 

PS.

openDemocracy Russia will be running two roundtables at the Perugia Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy on 26/27 April. For more details, visit: journalismfestival.com. Maxim Trudolyubov will be speaking on April 26th. For more information, see: Russia's protest movement and the media 

About the author

Maxim Trudolyubov is the Opinion Page Editor and columnist for Russia’s most influential, independent business daily Vedomosti (founded by Financial Times and Wall Street Journal). He is also Associate Director at the Center for New Media and Society at the New Economic School, Moscow.


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