Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 2

The Fate of the Russian Media

by Victor Yasmann

The Russian media played a key role in the demise of the Soviet Union, and in the process was itself profoundly changed. Ten years ago, all media outlets were socialist enterprises, all journalists were "fighters on the ideological front," and most Soviet citizens were poorly informed about both their past and the present. In that environment, people relied on the media not to tell the truth but to tell them what the people in power wanted them to know. And even under Gorbachev, the policy of glasnost in one sense simply reinforced this triangle of the government–the mass media–and society. As one of three pillars of the regime, the media began to call itself the "fourth power" of the USSR.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the role of the mass media has changed. Now it is often engaged in a struggle to defend its own interests and priivileges against the government, often completely ignoring its audience. "We simply do not care about our readers and views," TV personality Andrei Karaulov told the April Sovershenno sekretno. "The market has transformed us into what the communist state tried, but could not do: we are now completely dependable but now for the people who pay us. Today, journalists increasingly invent news and reports that serve the interests of their clients. One group of young journalists have even established an agency that guarantees the publication of any news in any national paper and have set a price list for their services. Twenty lines in Izvestiya, for instance, costs $600." According to Karaulov, the market has changed us from the fourth power to the second oldest profession."

Karaulov’s comments may seem strange to those accustomed to the power of the market over the media in Western countries, but they reflect two basic problems facing the Russian mass media in transition. The first is that the mass media have been subject to what many call "nomenklatura privatization," the process by which the former directors became the new owners. The second is the largely unchallenged monopoly of Moscow over the country’s media output. In no other large country, with the possible exception of China, do all major papers and television channels originate in one place.

Privatization in the print media began in 1990 when almost all central newspapers were declared the property of their employees. At that time, the editors quickly renamed their Soviet-era publications, from Agitator into Dialogue, from Party Life into Business Life and so on. But despite the change in name, the newspapers and journals remained dependent on the state. Even now, the central press is dependent on a government handout. As the chairman of the Union of Russian Journalists Vsevolod Bogdanov told Argumenty I fakty (no. 17), "Russian newspapers cannot survive without state financing." But only the papers that follow the government line can count on such support, and thus have little chance to survive if they pursue real independence. It is perhaps not accidental that one of the few Soviet-era creative unions to survive is the one which covers journalists.

The situation with regard to television is even more complicated. Until 1994, both national channels were state institutions, and their journalists and producers civil servants. It was an open secret, however, that virtually anyone could pay a bribe and get what he wanted on the air. Indeed, the situation became so corrupt that virtually nothing appeared on the air in the absence of a bribe. As a result, the new Russians gained ground in the control of television, precisely because they were prepared to operate outside the law. Consider the following examples:

–At the end of last year, Ostankino television helped power pyramid-scheme operator |Sergei Mavrody into the Duma and not incidentally to escape prosecution for his criminal activities.

–Earlier, Ostankino broadcasts helped Andrei Tarasov win election to the Duma, acquire parliamentary immunity from prosecution, and return from exile where he had been hiding because of his financial dealings. And at the beginning of this year, the television station whitewashed his career to build him up for the 1995 elections.

–And in February 1995 Ostankino broadcast a whitewash about Dmitri Yakubovskiy, a truly scandalous figure who fled Russia in 1994, returned after a pardon, and then in the same month as the broadcast was arrested for stealing museum artifacts in St. Petersburg. None of that was mentioned in the film.

The decision to establish a new public television channel (ORT) last December was a move in the right direction. In theory, ORT can be an alterantive to both State television and NTV which is entirely controlled by the Most financial group and claims to be the country’s only private channel. But the murder of television personality Vlad Listyev in March 1995 has brought this process to a standstill. Listev’s murder, however, has meant that no one can deny the role of corruption on television anymore. And the government may seek to regulate television more than it has in the past to block the influence of the mafia on the airwaves. But such regulation could also quickly become a form of control unless the authorities are very careful.

But there is a more important, if very new, factor in this equation: the rise of the provincial media throughout the Russian Federation. In 1994, for the first time, subscriptions to the regional daily press exceeded subscriptions to Moscow papers, 22.8 millon to 20.8 million. The result of that quiet revolution may be that the provinces will be more influential than the national media in the upcoming elections. Indeed, so strong is this new part of the media that Duma members felt compelled to hold a hearing about the new regional press last month.

Unfortunately, the regional press has its difficulties: it is often controlled by the local authorities and serves their interests rather than the public’s, its journalists are poorly paid, and it is often dependent on Moscow services for information, thus limiting its independence. The Duma communications committee is now pressing for the privatization of the profitable regional papers, even though the central government fears the implications of such a move. But under current circumstances, only the rapid decentralization of the Russian mass media can save this fourth power of the state.