The live TV broadcast of 20,000 martial arts fans booing Vladimir Putin illuminates key features of Russia’s media landscape, which are particularly relevant for upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, according to Christopher Walker and Robert Orttung. Management of news media is pivotal to the leadership’s political dominance, but Russian citizens are getting restive.
The modern authoritarian media model forged under Putin offers Russians a sometimes entertaining but always deeply warped lens through which to observe politics. We offer three points that, while not exhaustive, are essential to understanding Russia’s contemporary media system and how it has adapted to meet the needs of the authorities:
1. New media are not a political game changer in Russia (yet). Russia’s internet audience is growing. There are already some 50 million users in a population of roughly 142 million. The Russian internet is also comparatively free of state restrictions. Notably, even as the Kremlin quickly censored the Putin booing story through its control of television news, Russian internet users actively discussed and debated the spontaneous auditory assault on the prime minister. None of this has gone unnoticed by the authorities. Global Voices reports that regional discussion boards have become targets of oppression in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections, and Freedom on the Net 2011, Freedom House’s annual assessment of internet and digital media, identified Russia as a “country at risk” due to mounting encroachments on key spheres of online activity. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that Russian internet users are heavily concentrated in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.
2. Among influential “old media,” state capitalism begets state outlets. Roughly 80 percent of the population gets its news and information from television, and the Kremlin has been quite thorough in its use of state-controlled enterprises to bring key outlets into line—and keep them there. Gazprom-Media, an arm of the state-run energy giant Gazprom, owns a stable of television networks, radio stations, and newspapers. …………. Other Kremlin-friendly businessmen like Aleksandr Mamut, Alisher Usmanov, Oleg Deripaska, Aleksey Mordashyov, and Roman Abramovich have extensive media holdings. Equally important, the upcoming switch to digital broadcasting is expected to eliminate many independent regional stations.
3. Authorities don’t try to block everything, only the content that counts. Russia enjoys considerable diversity of information today, but this does not translate into meaningful coverage of policy and politics. For the authorities, blocking a candid discussion of what counts—broadly speaking, detailed information about policymaking, public spending, and the deeply intertwined relationship between business and government—is paramount.
Given the curbed media environment, along with the other restrictions on public space in Russia, it is clear that the upcoming elections were throttled even before the campaign began. This is unfortunate, because as the recent heckling of Putin suggests, Russia’s increasingly restive population is ready for change.
Christopher Walker is vice president for strategy and analysis at Freedom House. Follow him on Twitter at @Walker_CT. Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.