By Jonathan Power
Moscow, November 18th 2014.
The English language “Moscow News” newspaper doesn’t worry much about censorship. It goes for the jugular on a regular basis. But it is doubtful if President Vladimir Putin gives it a thought. Its audience is almost entirely expatriate businessmen, diplomats and journalists.
For the Russian-language papers and broadcasting channels it is a different story. Over recent years the state has taken over more and more. Still there are chinks of light- sizeable ones, although admittedly Putin could shut these off if he wanted to. One of these is the internet, which suffers only from the censorship of a handful of personal sites and would be impossible to stifle completely given the way “close-downs” can be circumvented.
A contributor to The Moscow News made a good point:
“Even discounting the chaotic nature of the web, there is plenty of Russian-language material on political and social issues that is well-written and represents a wide range of views. This does not mean, though, that most Russians are well-informed of the important political and social issues of today. But this is largely a matter of personal choice, not government restrictions. If somebody is too lazy to make just a few clicks to read and become aware of various issues and points of view, maybe he deserves to be fed bland, one-sided government propaganda.”
The editor of the radio station Ekho (Echo), Alexey Venedikhov points out that the web site of the station gets 3,500,000 clicks each day. Critics praise the web site for its quality.
The internet aside, critical media institutions exist. Ekho is one, broadcasting right across Russia, reaching 43 major cities, (but not the countryside). It exhibits an enormous amount of freedom. I asked Venedikhov why are they so free. “We provide information not just to the public but to top officials who tell me they listen. One example is the government learning from Ekho about a secret cemetery in Ukraine where recently Russian troops were found buried.
“Most important I have a personal relationship with Putin. I meet with him privately 3 or 4 times a year, although this year just once. We have an open discussion about everything. Putin has said publically that he is not against Ekho. So the whole country knows that. We are a medicine for Russia.”
Ekho covers Ukraine in depth. Besides giving Ukrainian leaders and foreign critics including American officials a platform, it uncovers the goings-on inside Ukraine of Russian soldiers and citizens. It covered the Malaysian airliner downing and told its audience about the likelihood that the separatists did that with a weapon that came from Russia.
Ekho, like a number of other free publications, has part American ownership – in its case 33%. Likewise the independently-minded business paper, Vedeomosti, has a large slice of foreign ownership including the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.
A new media law which will come into effect in two years’ time will lower the permitted foreign ownership from 33% to 20%. (In the US it is 25% which is why Rupert Murdoch changed his nationality from Australian to American.) Venedikhov believes Ekho can deal with this problem.
Another very independent voice on the media landscape is the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, founded in part by the ex-president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, who used his Nobel Peace Prize money to help launch it. Today 51% of its ownership is in the hands of its journalists. Six of its journalists have been murdered including Anna Politkovskaya who raised Putin’s wrath for the way she reported on the war in Chechnya. Some say that since then it treads a little more warily.
Even the major television stations which follow the state line (some smaller ones don’t) have their openings that allow in some outside light. On this visit, driving 150 kilometres from Moscow, we stopped for petrol. In the café the 24 hour news channel was switched on, reporting the annual Valdai Discussion Club where Putin shares the platform with Western critics. I watched the former French prime minister, Dominque de Villepin, talk about Ukraine. In a peasant’s house where we stopped to buy cheese the farmer was watching the same event on Star TV.
And what about the speck in our own eye?
In many Western countries TV is partly under the thumb of governments. In France three of its major TV channels are state owned. When Berlusconi was president of Italy nearly all TV media was under his control. In Japan a friend of the prime minister has recently been appointed head of NHK. He stressed that the station should adhere to the government line. In the US Murdoch’s Fox TV broadcasts the Republicans’ every thought.
This is not to excuse Russia, only to understand it.