Russia's media scene: not just a state affair

Despite Western preconceptions of a Soviet-like puppet media, the Russian news landscape is quite diverse, with outlets public and private, big and small. But government influence remains a critical concern.

Grigory Dukor/Reuters/File
A man reads a newspaper at Baumanskaya metro station in Moscow, in March 2017.

The cramped editorial offices of the weekly tabloid Moyaw invoke sharp contradictions to several widely held stereotypes of what the media in Vladimir Putin’s Russia must look like.

For one thing, it’s a privately owned and operated newspaper, and has been since it started up in 1994. For another, it’s the most popular paper of its type in the city. It works from a downtown Voronezh building called “Press Freedom House,” and it consistently maintains its edge despite having a state-owned competitor that’s distributed free of charge.

And though it’s not overtly political in its focus, it does often break stories that seem to go against the official grain. For instance, one week in December, Moyaw (Mine) published a ground-breaking front-page feature spread about transgender people in the Voronezh region, with sympathetic first-person coverage of a local man who explains in detail his feelings, choices, and the steps he took to transition to becoming a woman.

“We try to connect big, national themes to what is happening here in Voronezh,” says Dmitry Yeriskin, Moyaw’s deputy editor. “It’s senseless to ask if we are ‘opposition’ press, because whether we support the Kremlin or not just doesn't come up on any given day. We mostly choose our own stories, according to what we think needs to be done. We don’t have the authorities threatening to close us down or anything like that. That would be impossible.”

But that’s not the same thing as saying it’s easy to be the only independent newspaper in a medium-sized Russian city like Voronezh. The post-Soviet media jungle is a complicated place.

The biggest animals tend to be state-owned or backed publications with deep pockets, but also display a very un-Soviet desire to be perceived as serving the public and fulfilling the classical role of the Fourth Estate. The main challenges faced by private newspapers like Moyaw are financial, the difficulty of surviving amid a sparse advertising market, and the constant, seductive lure of state support and the hidden strings that attach to it.

The oversized, whale-like presence of government in the media pool is to some extent a legacy of Soviet times. But it’s also the result of creative engineering by Putin-era authorities, aimed at stimulating the growth of a broad spectrum of media voices while also keeping them all on a leash. Here in Voronezh, there is a vigorous debate over whether the self-declared “nurturing” role of the state is a positive one, or whether it’s just a more sophisticated, neo-Soviet means of smothering free expression.

The journalists at Moyaw have a clear opinion about that.

“We live under very tough conditions. The authorities always say it’s great that independent media exists, and insist that it’s good for them too,” says Mr. Yeriskin. “But then they create a state-funded competitor – a weekly tabloid called 7 Semerochka [7 Days] – that covers many of the same issues we do, goes head-to-head with us in our advertising market, yet can afford to be distributed for free. This is not a competitor, this is a spoiler.”

Russia’s media spectrum

A relatively liberal region, Voronezh illustrates how far Russian media has evolved from the Soviet model, where the Communist Party effectively controlled every publication through direct censorship.

Even in Soviet times there was a spectrum of opinion in the press, largely engineered by the Party to cater to different sectors of the population. Today’s Russian media is a mixture of old Soviet products – which have evolved but often retain dependency on the support of the state or Kremlin-friendly oligarchs – and a few independent ones that answer to business or politically minded owners.

Throughout the country (including Voronezh), most information about national and foreign affairs comes from the three big Moscow-based TV networks and national-scale newspapers like Izestia, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and the government organ Rossiyskaya Gazeta. People here also read Western-style Moscow-based press like the business dailies Kommersant and Vedomosti, as well as the liberal opposition outlet Novaya Gazeta. And there is also the internet, a vast and largely unregulated space, with immensely popular social media platforms like Facebook and VKontakte, where almost anything can be found.

“Most of our major newspapers, both national and local, don’t express clear political opinions. It’s not like the Soviet Union. They are in principle independent,” says Vladimir Kireyev, an independent expert in Voronezh. “Nobody micromanages their content, telling them what to write. But there are rules of the game, which are observed by everyone.”

These rules concern off-limits criticisms – such as rejection of the annexation of Crimea; or Russian intervention in Syria; or the revival of “Christian values” currently underway; or the Putin-era idea of “national sovereignty” that defines Russia's foreign policy path separate from, and sometimes in opposition to, the West. “You can criticize the authorities in all sorts of ways, say almost anything, but you put yourself beyond the pale if you attack these ‘consensual values’ ” that under-gird the current system of power in Russia, he says.

But why would anyone want to challenge those basic concepts, retorts Boris Podgayny, editor of the city’s largest daily, Voronezh Kurier, which is owned by the city government. The vast majority of Russians subscribe to these ideas, he insists.

“Annexation of Crimea? We try to meet our readers’ interests, and no one would be interested in this,” he says. “We can talk about life in Crimea, how is it going, this and that. But we are a state newspaper holding. We all share our country’s positions. If we didn’t, we’d go and work on some opposition newspaper.”

Today there are about 70 internet news sites in Voronezh, only one of which is state-funded, and several of which self-identify as “opposition.” Many of those are run by local businessmen who use them to promote their own interests, political and commercial, but some also try to cover local politics and business from an independent stance.

“I’ve often thought about changing my profession, but always seem to return to journalism,” says German Poltayev, a veteran political reporter who took part in liberating the Voronezh Kurier from Communist Party control amid the Soviet twilight. He rose to become deputy editor, but had a falling out with management a couple of years ago.

He went to work for a small online newspaper, Vremya Voronezh, owned by a local businessman, which engages in local investigative journalism.

“I find and write about various events, conflicts, and contradictions that are triggered by decisions of local authorities or big business,” including corruption scandals and construction boondoggles, he says. “About 80 percent of what I do is what I consider right and necessary; maybe 20 percent is the requirements of advertising and the demands of my boss.”

His readership is small, he says, maybe a few hundred people on any given week. “Sometimes I suspect we have more writers than readers. But it’s not our fault, or the fault of the authorities either. The public is just not engaged, as it was at some points in the past. Maybe it will be again, but the mood right now is very apathetic.”

Media and the state

The regional governor’s emissary to the media is Ilya Sakharov, a man whose job does not exist in any Western country. A former journalist, he says a special contact person between authorities and the press is necessary because Russia’s media architecture is a work-in-progress.

The state inherited many publications from the Soviet Union, he says, and few can survive without government assistance in various forms. Even Moyaw, the one completely private newspaper in Mr. Sakharov’s stable, depends upon occasional state grants. He insists his function is not to tell them what they may publish, but to help them better define their role as mediators between authorities and public.

“The state sometimes can’t manage industries well, and that is not what we want to do with the media,” he says. “My task is to make state-owned media less dependent on the government budget.

“We don’t need a place to print press releases,” Sakharov says. “We need to see the press regain the trust of readers and become an effective forum for public opinion. Authorities need to know what the people are thinking. The media stands between us and the public. They should be in a position to explain certain things to us, and help us explain certain things to them. We are only halfway to finding such a model.”

The new instrument that has taken shape under Sakharov’s tenure is a large state holding company, RIA-Voronezh, which brings together 32 regional publications under one roof. This includes several small district papers serving just a few thousand readers, the mainstay Kurier, and some new publications such as 7 Semerochka – the one that’s pressuring Moyaw – and a slick monthly magazine called Slovo (Word) that’s aimed at educated youth.

Natalya Teslenko, director of the holding company, says it’s created a lot of synergies that are increasing the reach and pubic authority of regional media. She argues that many small Soviet-era district papers, serving distinct local communities, would never survive without state support.

“They report the news people are interested in. What are their neighbors doing? What are the outside trends that are going to affect their town? These papers are a vital connection for people, and if they are lost, people would find themselves in a vacuum,” she says.

Some experts support this model, arguing that you can’t expect internet bloggers or other ad hoc sources to replace established media institutions that are staffed by professionals, and if the state has to step in and support it, then so be it.

“We used to believe that if it’s private, it’s better. But sometimes the opposite is true,” says Vladimir Tulupov, journalism professor at Voronezh State University. “The media everywhere is under pressure, either financial or political. In Russia we are not ready for a media that can survive entirely without state support. So our focus should be to try and make state officials see their task as creating conditions for the media to thrive and fulfill the role it should in a healthy society.

“There are a lot of ideas under discussion, but so far there is no clear direction,” he adds. “In some regions, like Voronezh, officials are trying to do it in a better way. In many other regions, they are not.”

‘It’s all changing’

But some argue the direction is all wrong.

“RIA-Voronezh is not the worst state media in the country but, being a state holding, they still cannot write about issues that are sensitive for their owner,” says Galina Arapova, head of the Voronezh-based Mass Media Defence Centre, a nongovernmental organization that was declared a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin two years ago due to its receipt of foreign funding. It may be a hopeful indication of the complexity and tentative pluralism in today’s Russia that the local governor called the Moscow decision a “mistake” and continues to consult with the group on media issues. Ms. Arapova says it’s probably the only example like that in the country today.

“The problem with this state model is that it’s a bit like conditions in a good prison, where the prisoners are well fed and clothed,” she says. “Of course they are better off now, but they’ve lost their freedom to decide any issues beginning with finances and ending with what they can cover. There are no prospects to develop this model.”

But Professor Tulupov says the main thing at this point is to keep the profession of journalism alive.

“We’re lucky people. We’ve lived through several epoch, and we can compare. We definitely know the wrong way to do things,” he says. “At least we have choices today. The print media will soon be gone, and everything will go online. It’s all changing, and some things are getting better. That’s not an answer to any of these fiercely debated questions, but I find it quite hopeful.”

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