Freedom of the Russian Press: a Story of Lost Trust

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 209

Protesters holding a portrait of Oleg Kashin outside Kiev's Russian Embassy. (Reuters)

The recent attack on the Russian journalist and blogger Oleg Kashin left him severely injured. While he was still unconscious in a medically induced coma, an avalanche of speculation surrounded who might be responsible, with the so-called “liberal opposition” groups quarrelling with each other over who would issue the sharpest declaration implying the duumvirate is responsible, at least for a situation when such attacks happen frequently threatening the freedom of the press in Russia (Kommersant, 10 November). Some observers went as far as stating that “former Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, directly implicates Putin and Medvedev in the crime” (EDM, 11 November). While Kasyanov might be surprised with such interpretations, the newly-appeared Kashin sympathizers from among the “liberals” stress how critical Kashin was about the “vertical of power” in Russia. They conveniently overlook how bitter he was about the hypocrisy of those who call themselves “Russian liberal opposition.”

The Kashin case has indeed sharpened the discussions over the freedom of the press and the role of media in Russian society. Two legislative amendments were proposed in the State Duma, to class attacks on journalists as if on state officials punishable by 12-years to life imprisonment. However, as the latest Levada center poll indicates, these initiatives would only irritate the society in general. Over the post-perestroika years, the image of a journalist in the public perception has grown contradictory, as a person who delivers not only objective information but also lies. This year among the ratings of the most respected professions, journalism (8 percent), was the third from last, with only politicians (7 percent) and salespeople (4 percent) scoring worse (Kommersant, November 11,

Paradoxically, Kashin was a good enough professional to address the inconvenient question of why such lukewarm public attitude to journalists and the freedom of press has become reality in Russia. Just a couple of weeks prior to the attack, Kashin ran a series of interviews with some of the organizers of public action against the ruling bureaucracy in which they denounced “unpopular and senseless personages from political opposition,” who only hamper the attempts to develop a meaningful and effective civil protest movement in Russia. As they said, it has become a fashion among “political glitterati ” to show up at the protest meetings, though both “the authorities and the opposition continue to view ordinary people as scum of the earth,” substituting political work with political infighting, while the journalistic community use preset clichés to describe protest groups (Aleksei Navalnyi, Stanislav Yakovlev, Sergei Smirnov, Kommersant , October 19; Maksim Solopov,

In his Kommersant blog, Kashin stated, that in Russia today, with her one-party political system, the state corporations’ monopoly, excessive corruption and feudal-like bureaucracy, those in the Russian establishment who like to be associated with liberal values are in fact the co-authors of this system and their claim to Russian liberalism is no more legitimate than that of the former KGB types (Kommersant, October 29,

Indeed, it were the “liberals” in the then President Boris Yeltsin’s entourage who supplied him with an idea to choose his successor, flaunting the elections, and helped to pick the then FSB (former KGB) head, Vladimir Putin, and later elaborated Putin’s new political and economic agenda. The same people have also had their hand in turning the freedom of press into a phantom in Russia. Kashin is 30 and cannot remember the long lines at the press kiosks in the late 1980’s, when Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost created, virtually overnight, an enormous market for quality information in the Soviet Union. Just a few years later, this market was destroyed by the new Russian ruling elites, some of them still in the establishment, others in the “liberal opposition,” as they started to use the mass media for political manipulation and power brokering.

Capitalizing on the mass interest in quality information implied that long and hard work was needed to create an effective distribution and sales network. It was much easier to raise the needed cash from advertising or, better still, new owners.  The mass media were soon divided between a few so-called oligarchs and reflected the problems of society in a crooked mirror of their owners’ clan struggles.  The profession created its own myths. A media outlet was considered “independent” if it was critical, what or who it was about did not really matter, as criticism, peppered heavily with pathos and moralizing, was often pre-paid for by competing rivals. In the provinces, mass media were an even easier prey to financial and political influence, and still are often controlled by the local authorities or business groups.

A number of individuals who had helped Yeltsin secure his re-election in 1996 were later “rewarded” with access to state resources. One of them, Vladimir Gusinsky, borrowed freely from state-controlled companies, Gazprom and Sberbank, with little intention of repayment, to develop his NTV channel into Russia’s leading TV station. Seeing himself as a king-maker, Gusinsky decided not to support either the Unity party, a new “party of power,” or Vladimir Putin, during the parliamentary and presidential campaigns of 2000-2001. His rival, Boris Berezovsky, who then controlled Russian Public Television (ORT), did so, but while Putin came out the winner, none of the oligarchs succeeded. It took the new president a few months to put an end to the political influence of the oligarchs and their misuse of the mass media for their own ends. A hostage of oligarchs, the freedom of press then became a state possession.

Media wars undermined the public trust in the media and the respect for journalism as a profession. But with the 2000’s consumer boom and the advertising money estimated at 126 billion rubles in 2008 (over $5 billion), media mangers did not bother about either recovering this trust or widening their audiences ( Unlike the Western mass media, with their ratio of sales and advertising money tipped towards the former, most Russian media came to depend on advertising, with their sales hardly covering distribution costs. As a result, today, the only media in Russia with mass audiences are the state-controlled TV channels with light entertainment dominating their programming, yellowish tabloids and some glossies, with Cosmopolitan being the market’s flagman. The quality press has long become the market niche.

That is why there is no need for the authorities to kill “critical” journalists, they are not heard anyway. Kashin has worked for Kommersant, which produces a high quality editorial material and prides itself in being influential. However, with its 16 pages, a 130,000 circulation and an issue’s federal audience estimated at 290,000 readers, in a country of 140 million, it can hardly command a tangible influence on the population ( Rather, it is read by a relatively small circle of high-powered bureaucrats and entrepreneurs, its position thus being something between an analytical institute for, and a platform for information exchange between the ruling power groups.

Consequently, people have in fact developed a wall of indifference between themselves and the mass media. Even such a high-profile media story as replacing the mayor of Moscow little impressed ordinary Russians. According to VTsIOM’s poll, only 13 percent knew that Sergei Sobyanin had become the Moscow mayor (Kommersant, October 29). Widespread political cynicism among the authorities is only matched by even greater indifference and mistrust of the mass media among the population. That is the price Russian society has paid for the pleasure of some in the Russian establishment and the opposition calling themselves “liberals.”  A pleasure that Oleg Kashin was bold enough to challenge. President Dmitry Medvedev ordered Kashin’s case to be investigated by the highest authority, the Main Investigation Department of the Investigation Committee of the Procurator-General’s Office. Kashin’s attackers might even be found and prosecuted. But would it help the Russian population recover their trust in the liberal values, the freedom of press including?