Question time: expert comments on the future of Russian media
Recent developments in both state-controlled and independent media have sparked fears of a bleak future for journalism in Russia. We asked a range of insiders and analysts what they thought
Peter Pomeranzev, journalist, London Review of Books
The Kremlin needs internal enemies. That will be the independent media's new role for the moment. Fifth columnists. Saboteurs.
Dr Samuel Greene, director of King’s College London’s Russia Institute
Until relatively recently, the Russian government has been more or less happy to allow a range of points of view to compete in the public space, knowing, first, that the Kremlin effectively controlled the most important channels of communication through the three main television channels, and second, that as the economy continued to grow and ordinary Russians continued to prosper, the Kremlin's own narrative was believable. But as the economy has faltered, confrontation with the west has grown and internal politics have become more complicated, and the competition for Russians' hearts and minds is growing more fierce and more fraught. And that is not a competition that the Kremlin is prepared to lose, almost whatever the cost.
Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper, media entrepreneur
Independent news media has no future in Russia for the moment. The only stronghold left is Vedomosti, which is explained by the fact that it is co-owned by The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. News media is doomed to articulate the views of and serve the interests of their owner.
Yury Saprykin, managing editor, Afisha
I would characterise the situation as a catastrophe. In the foreseeable future certain independent media in Russia will survive either in still existing oases financed by western investors or in marginal projects, or in the entertainment and lifestyle segment into which the political and social agenda sometimes makes its way. I don’t think there’s any chance for a nationwide media which is not totally controlled by the state to emerge.
Svetlana Babaeva, editor, Gazeta.ru
The current situation in journalism is determined by three factors. The first is the polarisation of public opinion and political processes. Both politicians and consumers of information are becoming harsher in their evaluations and judgments. There’s no place left for moderation in the world.
The second is the fact that citizens themselves are evaluating things more in terms of categories: either you’re with us or you’re our enemy. Social networks are causing fragmentation, especially in the west, but this trend is happening in Russia now as well. In order to form an opinion about an event, people look at their social group on social networks.
The third factor is the nature of the world we live in. With the appearance of the internet, everyone can know everything in a second. The channels for disseminating information have changed entirely. This imposes new obligations on everyone — from politicians to journalists and information consumers.
There is an opinion nowadays that they’re starting to tighten the screws again. I suggest that they’ll try to avoid harshness and will prefer “soft” methods. They’re going to propose different formats of propaganda. The government hasn’t yet learned how to offer propaganda for different layers of society, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ll do softer variations for the creative class. And the conversations about it being “hard to work” have been going on for a long time. In effect since 2003 when they destroyed NTV. And we’re still working.
Dr Natalia Rulyova, Russian media expert, University of Birmingham
The recent pressure on internet-enabled publications shows that the strategies used by the Putin government as regards the mass media are still very much based on “the hypodermic needle theory”, implying that the mass media has an immediate, powerful and direct effect on audiences — a theory discredited in the west in the 1970s.
In fact, post-Soviet viewers are creative in their decoding and are capable of seeing through the government agenda in news stories to a greater extent than their US counterparts. Contemporary internet users are no longer just audiences, they are “prosumers”, ie they are consumers and producers at the same time. This suggests that the government’s attempts to keep the media under control would be futile, as active, internet-enabled audiences would be able to see through the propaganda even better. But such a view is overly optimistic.
We have recently lived through a change of paradigm: from the mass media paradigm of the 20th century to new media. Putin’s government is still stuck with a 20th-century idea of communication, adapted to the Soviet context, in which mass media are used as propaganda for a particular ideology. With the shift to the 21st-century media model and further segmentation of audiences, the old model can work only if some sort of authoritarian media control is exercised to prevent the further spread of the internet and segmentation of audiences.
With the growing number of internet users in Russia, we have observed a new model starting to develop in Russia in which people receive information from multiple channels. A whole new class of people described as “creative” has recently formed; these are the people who joined anti-Putin marches after his last elections. But are these new creative audiences too segmented to put up any significant opposition to the hegemonic ideology? If all they are united by is a culture of sharing the value of communication, would this be sufficient to form a strong enough opposition to a government which is still driven by the idea that the mass media should work like a hypodermic needle?
Andrey Loshak, journalist, Rain TV
The situation around Lenta.ru is yet another step in the crackdown on media. The first was television, where journalists not willing to spread propaganda had their air supply cut off; after that they turned to print media and now the time has come for the internet. Lenta.ru became the first and largest target, but others will follow. The recent attack on media was provoked by the 2012 presidential election and the protests surrounding it. With Putin's policy becoming more controversial, intolerance to alternative opinion has been growing constantly. The sad thing is that most people in this country accept this easily as freedom is not an absolute value for them. Today the protest movement, which to a large degree is made up of journalists, is indeed very weak and its voice is almost unheard.