The scandals of the past year surrounding the nationalization or closure of national privately owned media outlets (NTV, TV-6) have lent the phrase “freedom of speech” a new relevance and currency, perhaps for the first time since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Many analysts cite the threat of a similar clampdown on recalcitrant regional media outlets by local authorities as one of the main negative consequences of the “purge” of the television channels belonging to oligarchs hostile to the Kremlin. There is a clear logic to these concerns. Regional leaders, under critical fire from the local press, may be keen to find a quick solution to their pre-election problems, using the seizure of NTV and the closure of TV-6 as a signal from above indicating approval for the suppression of independent media outlets. Such a development would signal the end of freedom of speech in Russia–not only in the interpretation of individual political groups, but also in reality. Dangerous signs of this have been seen in a number of regions: the problems facing the Moskoviya television channel, conflicts between the local media and the governor of Ul’yanovsk Oblast, and several other examples. To understand the situation and assess the current state and prospects for the independent regional media, it is essential to recall how the Russian information market has developed over the fifteen years since perestroika.
In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union was almost the freest country in the world with regard to freedom of speech and dissemination of information. Thousands of newspapers and magazines reflected all shades of political opinion. The faith in the written word inculcated in Soviet times had not yet eroded, and any member of the middle classes, without being particularly well off, could afford to publish a newspaper with a reasonable circulation. In those days, journalism was a branch of literature, and unprecedented levels of public involvement ensured high print-runs and feedback from the readership. During this short period, Russian media outlets were truly independent. They depended on neither pressure from the state nor the oligarchs.
A SHORT LIFE, SUDDENLY ENDED
All this came to an end in 1992 with the liberalization of prices (including prices for paper and publishing and telecommunications services). The cost of printed publications shot up tens and hundreds of times. Paradoxically, it was the democratic, liberal government of Gaidar that unwittingly contributed to the destruction of the economic basis for a free press. The Russian media will not, for the foreseeable future, be as independent or influential again.
The liberalization of prices for printed publications in particular gave rise to another important phenomenon. Against a background of hyperinflation, subscriptions generated too many problems and difficulties, and the expensive teletype system by which central newspapers could be published simultaneously in every region of the country no longer worked. Moscow publications began to appear in the regions three or four days late, and volumes of sales outside the capital fell sharply. As a result, Moscow papers and magazines began to focus on issues relating to the capital. A wall arose between the central and the regional media. It is here today.
From 1993 onwards the Russian media existed on money made from advertising so-called financial pyramids, and business was still separate from politics. Economic independence had been forfeited, but editorial policy had yet to feel the effect.
The collapse of the financial pyramids in 1995 left the press in a parlous state. The only possible panacea came in the form of elections–first the parliamentary, then the presidential elections. With Yeltsin’s popularity rating languishing in single figures just six months before the election, the authorities became interested in the media and public opinion for the first time in the history of the new Russia. Yeltsin’s phenomenally successful presidential campaign demonstrated to the political elite throughout Russia that such a powerful resource in the battle for power as the independent media should not be left uncontrolled and underfunded. Since then, the press and television have become a decidedly political tool rather than a source of information, a means of influencing voters rather than of creating a dialog with them. Journalism has been transformed from a form of literature and public debate into a means of political struggle.
During 1995 and 1996 the regional elites and counter elites (mainly big business) gradually took control of the local media. Genuinely public, independent media outlets either ceased to exist or were taken over by new proprietors, who were far more preoccupied than their predecessors with editorial policy. At a federal level, this process occurred much later. It was Putin’s media triumph of 1999-2000 that awoke the authorities to the necessity of keeping the media under control.
THE DEATH KNELL
Thus regional media outlets lost their true independence well before the Media-Most and TV-6 scandals erupted. Does this signify the final end to freedom of speech in Russia, as some analysts believe? The answer to this depends on how the concept is interpreted. If the main criterion for freedom of speech in the press is considered to be the objective and impartial reporting of events (a definition that in our view borders on the utopian and is realized only very rarely, in very specific political and economic conditions–such as the Soviet Union at the end of perestroika), then the answer is definitely yes.
Yet I think a more productive approach to freedom of speech would be to see it as a dynamic clash of different subjective and possibly biased viewpoints, protecting the interests of different elites. Taken separately, each of these amounts to no more than manipulative devices plus notorious dirty tricks; yet when they are smearing each other with bucketloads of compromising material, the political elites very often tell the truth about their opponents. In some sense, freedom of speech is not what is written in one newspaper, but what people can glean from a comparison of several.
The key to maintaining freedom of speech is the ongoing political process in Russia, and the chief elements of this are elections. Despite the fact that since Putin’s arrival a period of relative calm has been observed in politics in Moscow (the absence of a structured opposition and the desire of many political forces to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kremlin), in the regions there is still a consistently high degree of political struggle. For example, not one Moscow publication–even the most opposition-minded–presumed to launch such ferocious attacks on President Putin as did a whole range of Volgograd newspapers against Governor Maksyuta prior to the elections there.
Living as they do off the regional political elites that sponsor them, regional media outlets are only well financed in the run-up to elections, and journalists wait impatiently for the next scheduled big payday. While journalism and PR–two respected and prestigious but incompatible professions–are clearly separated in Western Europe and the United States, in Russia politically and economically independent journalism has sadly ceased to exist. The more cynically a publication behaves in this respect, the more it parades its independence in the short breaks between elections.
THE ALMIGHTY RUBLE
The roots of this state of affairs lie, specifically, in legislation. According to the current laws, anything written about a candidate during an election campaign is seen as propaganda. Outside the allocated few minutes of free airtime on local television channels, any propaganda, by law, must be paid for. Therefore, in order to publish anything negative about a candidate, a media outlet is obliged by law to ask his opponent to pay for it.
Thus existing legislation encourages journalists to undertake various forms of PR work, writing for or against a candidate in exchange for money. Independent opinions are not welcomed and are, effectively, illegal. This state of affairs contradicts Article 29 of the Russian constitution, which is the equivalent of the First Amendment to the constitution of the United States.
Sad as it is, the entire history of the 1990s in Russia represents the slow but sure destruction of the economic basis for independent journalism. The sparse (in comparison with Moscow) advertising market in the regions and far more blatant pressure on the part of the regional elites has led to a situation whereby the poorer and less well-known local media outlets are the first to lose their political independence. There is unlikely to be a quick route back to the days of perestroika and a politically neutral press. The role played by the media in Russia’s regions has changed too much since then.
Today, editorial policy depends only on the political and economic interests of the proprietor. To take one example from Volgograd: The newspaper “Den za dnem,” which belongs to the young financial oligarch Ishchenko, is known for its scandalmongering, multitudinous exposures left, right and center, and its exploitation of the theme of Russian nationalism. In the world of financial speculation in which Ishchenko is involved, it is advantageous to stir things up, to bring things to a head. Another publication, “Narodnye Izvestia,” is the industrialist Savchenko’s baby, and is noted for its considerably calmer tone and for its presentation of the views of a wide range of local politicians, because economic and political stability is very important for Savchenko’s metallurgical business. It is in his interests to bring the region’s various warring elites together for a dialog on the pages of his newspaper, and to play the honorable role of impartial referee and judge. It is through such openly partisan local media outlets that the elites communicate–an important process in Russia today.
A BATTLE OF WILLS
Whereas in the late 1980s and early 1990s independent regional media outlets often reflected public opinion on topical issues and served as an instrument for feedback from ordinary people to the authorities, from the mid-1990s onwards (and the situation is unlikely to change in the near future) the local media, already controlled by various proprietors with vested interests, have served as a means of communication between conflicting regional elites, dividing spheres of influence. When people in Russia or abroad write about opposition publications, they often forget that the authorities in modern Russia (particularly in the regions) are not heterogeneous, but represent a “layer cake” made up of different clans–people from the security structures, administrative structures, industry or even the mafia. The most acute political crises in Russia in the 1990s were brought about not by pressure on the authorities from public opinion (which has a minimal influence on political processes in present-day Russia), but by a breakdown in communication between various elites. Today, when almost every interest group has its own media outlet, the job of communicating without the danger of escalation is made much easier.
It will never be possible to achieve complete understanding between these groups; their political and economic interests are too different. However, open conflict entails a political crisis at the very least, and often bloodshed and self-destruction. Therefore at the moment there is a functioning system of “checks and balances,” PR and communication via media outlets, which have had to bid farewell to their independent line.
The question is, are the terms “independent press” and “freedom of speech” synonymous? Probably not always. After all, during election campaigns, regional television channels and publications are involved in a tough information war between the clans they represent, and as a result the audience has access to full information about the people they are going to vote for. The scandals early this year about local authorities and media outlets which they find inconvenient suggest not so much that there is a threat to freedom of speech, but rather that it is in fact alive and well. Complete indifference and apathy towards pre-election propaganda would be a far more worrying symptom. Local administrations will never be able to completely subordinate the media to their will: Regional media outlets are much more mobile than federal ones, and require fewer resources; their antagonism is harder to destroy than the powerful but cumbersome Media-Most empire, for example. As long as there are rival clans from the political and business elites doing battle for power, and as long as there are voters participating in elections, freedom of speech will survive in Russia’s regions.
Mikhail Kochkin is a postgraduate in linguistic studies and a volunteer with “Eurocontact” NGO in Volgograd.