An Analysis of the Establishment of a Democratic Press in Russia


Following the dissolve of Communism in Russia, the country began heading toward a democracy previously unknown to most Russians. The media experienced its own freedoms away from the state’s firm hand. President Vladimir Putin, who began his first term in 2000 and began his second term in 2004, has taken on the public persona of promoting democracy for Russia’s citizens. The reality is not as simple. Television has only state-run stations operating in Russia, only one independent radio station remains, and newspaper and television journalists are fired or threatened for criticizing the government. In short, the Kremlin gives the air of freedom but is actually in control of the media. This paper analyzes the establishment of a democratic press in Russia from glasnost under Brezhnev in 1986 through the current presidency of Vladimir Putin to identify trends.

The analysis is based on independence from state control in the journalistic areas of publishing, broadcasting, radio and the Internet. The modes of media are examined by their degree of independence from state control. In the context of a democratic press, the gatekeeper is perhaps most important. The gatekeeper, as editor or publisher, sifts through information, prioritizing and deciding what should be delivered to the public. Under the ideals of a democratic society the gatekeeper desires to support the public’s right to know. To serve the public, the gatekeeper should remain independent of outside influences from corporation or government. If the press is fulfilling a function other than that of serving the public, whether through propaganda or pushing the agendas of one specific body, then that press falls outside the ideal democratic model of communications.

The specific criteria that make up democratic presses include: Complete abstention of governmental control; more specifically, 1. Gatekeepers are not part of the state, or controlled or influenced, directly or indirectly, by the state. 2. Gatekeepers are free to set an agenda based on the interest of citizens, and 3. The mass media is free to publish public feedback. When Russian media outlets are applied to these criteria, the discovery is that the Kremlin has created the illusion of a free press in Russia, beginning with Boris Yeltsin’s presidency in 1991, through manipulation and control of Russian media outlets.

These guidelines should be placed in context of Russia’s history in order to provide a better analysis for the progression of its press. Russia has survived under aristocratic rule from 1613 to 1917. With the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the form of government switched to Communism. In the first months after the revolution starting in April, censorship, including that of newspapers, was abolished. Then in October, Vladimir Lenin reinstated censorship. The first leader of the Soviet Union under Communism, Lenin shaped his press to become the voice of the Communist party. “As the first leader of the USSR, Lenin argued that Soviet newspapers should be tools for social control, and he strictly controlled the information they published.” In fact, he had already set up radical publications prior to the revolution, in the 1890s, publications that were illegal at the time. By 1935, photographic retouching was a common form of censorship for newspapers, journals and books in Russia. According to researcher David King, who collected and published a book of retouched photographs, “A word in an editors ear or discreet telephone conversation from a ‘higher authority’ was sufficient to eliminate all further reference – visual or literal – to a victim, no matter how famous he or she had been.” Lenin and Stalin set a precedent for media control that has only been under drastic reform since the 1980s.

The policies included partiinost, drafted in the first Soviet constitution of 1918, which limited media control to the Communist party, the government, and organizations serving the public. Narodnost said the media outlets must serve the public interest, but the Communist party defined what those interests were. Jeffrey Brooks, who teaches European History at Johns Hopkins University, discusses the control Bolsheviks in power had on editorials between 1917 and 1928. “Editorials carried great weight in the Soviet press, and the editorial ‘we’ echoed the leaders’ voices rather than those of journalists or editors of the newspaper, even when the editors belonged to the leadership.”

In 1956, under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, reforms began to encourage healthy criticism of the government, but change never really developed. With the development of television, the government took action right away to control this medium. Brian McNair says in his book, Glasnost, Perestroika and the Soviet Media, “These [actions] include the party’s right to grant licenses, finance, and access to media facilities; its monopoly of the process of media policy-making; its control over the selection of senior media workers; its direction and supervision of journalistic training; and finally, if all of this fails to produce the desired result, the use of censorship.” The government through the duration of the Soviet regime controlled all media outlets.

Overall, the Soviet Union did not truly experience a free press until Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, began glasnost in 1986, a policy aimed at openness. The policy was a response to the increasing availability of information from sources other than those that were official, and it gave media outlets the freedom to criticize the government, expose crime and publish outside commentaries from Western writers.

Readership of newspapers became so popular that demand exceeded supply. In some cases, newspapers had to limit subscriptions. On television, the news program Spotlight on Perestroika took a societal problem and highlighted it each day.
One might think that with so much freedom so suddenly, the media outlets would be cautious. This was not the case. Instead, media outlets pushed the limits far. A letter to the newspaper Sobesednik, in April 1989, is one example of discussing a matter that would have been censored previously. The authors, I.A. Arkhipov, and S.N. Spiridonov, describe their time imprisoned in work camps during the reign of Stalin. “We won’t tell you all we suffered, how the guards treated usâÂ?¦Whoever didn’t work his quota got rations of 300 grams of bread and some boiled water. At least ten or fifteen people died each day from dysentery.” The letters seem to discuss all topics, whether pertaining to Stalin or the state of society at the time. The wide array of titles for letters to the editor is also revealing: “I’ve Begun my Sex Life at Fifteen ,” “New Pension Law is a ‘Law for the Rich,’ ” “Call for Private Farms, ” etc.

One episode of Spotlight on Perestroika focused on the overwhelming sales and shortages of newspapers, blaming it on poor technology. Chairman of the State Committee for Publishing complained in an interview on the show, “We have approximately 79,000 printing machines, of which 46 percent are more than fifteen years old. Technology which was installed fifteen or twenty years ago is obsolete and requires complete replacement. But the saddest thing of all is that nowhere in this country do we make this equipment.”

In 1989, during the last breaths of Communist rule, the first independent newspaper, Kommersant, emerged in Russia. With the fall of Communism in 1991 and the guarantee of a free press under law in 1990, Russia began its transformation into a democratic form of government, as it is today.

The state of radio

In 2005, two of Russia’s state-owned pop radio stations aired a song called “And Now I Want a Man Like Putin.” The idea for the song came from songwriter Aleksandr Yelin, and spokesman for the Supreme Court in Russia Nikolai Gastello. The two commissioned public relations company Kontora to audition singers for the song. Gastello had contacts within the radio industry, which he utilized to air the song:

A man like Putin, full of strength.
A man like Putin, who doesn’t drink.
A man like Putin, who doesn’t hurt me.
A man like Putin, who won’t run away.

The song’s emergence onto the radio is disturbing because it shows the power of the state influence on airwaves and the potential for further propaganda efforts. Those assuming the role of gatekeeper to the two radio stations have catered to the agenda of Gastello and Kontora.

In 1990, Ekho Movsky (Echo of Moscow), the first independent national radio station based in Russia, debuted. This was a big step for Russia, since prior to that time, all national radio in the country was state-owned. Gorbachev had begun taking steps toward a democratic society during glasnost when he lifted jamming on Radio Free Europe. Radio Free Europe is an independent broadcasting company based in the Czech Republic. Previously, government censors had blocked the airwaves so citizens could not listen to the station. In 1991, Boris Yeltsin helped create a bureau inside Russia for Radio Free Europe. In 1992, however, most radio was still provided by two state-owned companies.

Ekho Movsky is still the only independent national radio station in Russia. According to an article in Russian Life magazine, “Last Mic Standing,” “âÂ?¦Ekho Movsky remains the most significant broadcast outlet in President Putin’s Russia where one can hear news critical of the Powers That Be. It is the one place where what goes on the air is not one way or another vetted by someone answering to the Kremlin.” The station is the one forum for free discussion in Russia. It hosts both national and international personalities. In 2000, former U.S. President Bill Clinton even appeared on the station. Current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powel have also been guests on the station.

The gatekeepers of other stations in Russia are the indirect hand of the Kremlin, since they serve the Kremlin, but Ekho Movsky is an exception. The station, with its independent news coverage and choice of personalities, is fulfilling the intention of the democratic model of communications: To serve public interest. The end of this station’s broadcasting would seal the fate of Russian radio.

In 2004, the US Agency for International Development launched a 3-year program aimed at promoting independent radio in Russia. It will provide interns to regional stations through the Foundation for Independent Radio Broadcasting, a Russian organization trying to develop lasting sources of independent regional radio; it also plans to train journalists and radio stations. Since the program is new, it has yet to take action. Interns and training might help Russian radio, particularly in becoming economically viable, but providing such programs will not fix the situation at its root.

If Russia’s current administration truly supported press freedom, it would completely eliminate state ownership of radio stations. In general, the government, and not the traditional gatekeepers of a democratic press decide what to air on Russian radio, as in the case of “A Man Like Putin.” The gatekeepers of the national radio stations, with the exception of Ekho Movsky, are employees of the state and are thus susceptible to the pressure of the administration. Radio does not seem to be in worse state than during Yeltsin’s presidency, but the situation has not improved. The gatekeepers are dependent on the state, and as seen by the airing of “A Man Like Putin,” influenced by the state. They cannot set an independent agenda based on the interest of citizens. With only one national radio station in Russia, the best hope for a democratic system of radio broadcasting seems to be with regional stations.


During a press conference between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush in February, The Washington Post quoted a member of the Russian press pool as asking Bush, “What is all this lack of freedom about? Our regional and national media often criticize government institutions.” The Washington Post was quick to point out, however, that the press pool for the Kremlin is hand selected, and they are those who either work for the state or are faithful to the Kremlin’s rules of conduct when asking questions. This display of government control represents the faÃ?§ade surrounding Russia and its true condition. The Kremlin, with a press pool of the most loyal reporters, controls regional and national television almost exclusively.
This trend began not with Putin’s presidency, but in 1990, when two state-owned television and radio companies began broadcasting. Privatization was sometimes an illusion, although it had been under way until 2000. Although the country was officially a democracy, Yeltsin had the ability to punish disloyal state-owned stations and reward loyal independent stations. In 1995, for example, Yeltsin fired the head of RTV, one of the state’s official stations, for airing news critical of his administration. In 1996, those who had the most stocks in broadcast media had the most ties to Yeltsin.

According to an essay published in 2000 by Larisa Manilova, director of the Management Center for the Electronic Media in Krasnoiarsk, Russia had 600 television companies, and between 400 and 500 were privately owned. 83.9 percent of Russians watched television, and more than 20 percent completely trusted the information on television. Numbers this high are disturbing, considering the news on television were shaped by Yeltsin through rewarding loyalty. In 1995, Ostankino Television, a national state-owned station, was partially privatized when the government kept 51 percent of shares and renamed the station ORT. To be fair, although the station was owned by the state, it provided only $30 million annually of a total $220 million in expenses the station incurred annually.

In 1993, the first independent national television station, NTV, debuted. In 1996, NTV, which owned one channel in 1993, owned four channels, all given by the state-owned company VGTRK, for supporting Yeltsin. Those companies who supported Yeltsin could be rewarded with additional stations, which undoubtedly created conflicts of interest. Vitalii Tretiakov, editor in chief of the Independent Publishing Group in Russia, explained the relationship between the government and the media, which sounds more like a business deal than a democracy. “If a business group gave political support to the regime, the regime would help that group to acquire national mass media outlets, which were then required to help the business group, not so much to make money as to maintain close ties to the regime.” In 1998, there were 113 state-owned broadcast stations across the nation.

Since Putin’s presidency, Russia’s television has been taking a nose-dive toward state control. Putin jumped into his presidential term with swift action aimed at placing television under the ownership of his administration. In 1999, a year before Putin came into power, the Kremlin controlled one national network. Also in 1999, the two independent national television stations, NTV and ORT, became political parties themselves during the presidential election. ORT supported Primakov, while NTV supported Putin. Malinova says in her essay, “Readers and listeners enjoyed full freedom of information, as the feuding media empires told all-and more-about their rivals and their rivals’ clients.” The mass media’s freedom was limited only by its owners, who could either interrupt financing or replace the editor in chief as a penalty for not following his wishes.

Most United States citizens would view partiality as a negative and unfortunate trait of the press. In this case, the owners were the gatekeepers of the station, and by pushing their own agendas, the stations became partisan. Although the two stations chose to push their own agendas, they were private citizens, and private ownership of media is a form of democracy. By serving the political interests of parties, they pushed the limits of freedom of information and in this way did disseminate information to the public. On the other side, the stations may have taken sides expecting reward for their support to the winner.
Both stations lost. After Putin’s election into presidency, he fully took over the national station ORT, which had supported his rival, and later took over NTV, now owned by the company Gazprom, a state monopoly. The last independent local television network in Russia, TV-6, was taken over in 2002. TV-6 was established by journalists that had been kicked out of NTV during the take over, according to an article published in The Washington Post. “When they tried again with a network called TVS, Putin’s press minister yanked it off the air and replaced it with a sports channel.” Additionally, NTV’s new general manager was fired after Putin became angry over his coverage of the 2002 theater takeover in Moscow.

The Kremlin has increased its control over national networks since Putin’s election as president. In 1999, the government controlled one national network, and in 2002, that number increased to three.

CBS News reported that during the 2004 election, Putin “dominated the nationwide television networks before the vote. His five challengers received less coverage, adding to the widespread impression that the vote was a one-horse race.”

NTV executives fired Leonid Parfyonov, former host of the weekly show Namedni, in 2004, when he spoke out about the cutting of a segment of his program. The five-minute segment covered the assassination of a Chechen separatist leader, allegedly by the Russian Secret Service. Secretary General of the Russian Union of Journalists Igor Yakovenko, said, “The last step has actually been made in the direction of introducing censorship in Russia. Elimination of this program is sort of a ritual murder. It’s a sign those in power have given to the rest of the journalism community in Russia. If you want to stay in the profession, be loyal, be respectful of those in power.” This was the second time Parfyonov saw one of his segments cut, the first when he interviewed newspaper journalist Yelena Tregubova. The last live-talk show focusing on politics aired on NTV, ironically called Freedom of Speech, was cancelled in 2004.

Despite this bleak outlook for independent news, STS, a national network, is gaining attention for its ability to deliver alternative political news. Regional broadcasters sign contracts with STS, allowing their stations to broadcast the news of STS. According to a Jan. 21, 2005 British Broadcasting Company Monitoring Media article, the station had “315 of these broadcasters, covering 1,000 cities and a total audience of 102 million.” It is up to the individual stations to decide which news to air, thus holding the stations, rather than STS, accountable.

This network may not be allowed to provide its independent programming for long. The Russian Union of Journalists announced on Feb. 25, 2005 that the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company, VGTRK, is cutting back on the amount of local news programming available to its regional stations. The network owns 86 regional television stations, two national channels; Russia TV and Kultura, and one radio station. If regional stations cannot receive local news, then they cannot broadcast the news, effectively cutting short the flow of information reaching viewers.

The United States Agency for International Development, USAID, began a program in 2001 for supporting the development of independent television in Russia. USAID is supporting independent television by training journalists in Russia on professionalism. The program, which will run until 2008, holds journalism seminars, provides legal training and helps stations learn to survive financially. According to USAID, 87 percent of regional independent stations create news programs themselves. Additionally, “More than 500 Russian regional non-state TV stations and more than 11,000 TV professionals have been trained in the international standards of journalism, management, marketing and news production and have begun to apply them in the Russian context.”

Despite this aid, television is turning into the voice of the Kremlin. During the 2004 hostage crisis, in which terrorists took over a school in Beslan, Chechnya, Russian journalists had difficulty reporting news critical of Russian actions in Chechnya. According to an article published in The Christian Science Monitor, Georgian journalist Nana Lezhava, while reporting on the situation, was arrested by Russian security. She was given coffee, and when she drank it, she passed out and woke in the hospital the next day.

During the Beslan crisis, those reporting on NTV were given guidelines outlining what they were allowed to report, according to the same article. “Forbidden, too, were listing of hostage-takers’ demands and interviews with hostage relatives. Analysis of options to save the hostages, of steps already taken, or reasons for the crisis was also forbidden.”
Increasing governmental control over television is a frightening reality, and considering current trends, ownership of the last national independent station remaining is imminent. The government has the ability to purchase the shares of a television station, giving it the option of ownership. This creates “independent” networks, such as NTV, which are not independent because the state runs the company. Conflicts of interest then prevent independent and critical news coverage from airing. It will be interesting to see what happens to programming, local and national, in the future. It will probably become so watered down that viewers will stop tuning in.

The most complicated situation is the state of newspapers, which are privately owned but subject to violent threats and legal battles. In 2004 the Kommersant publishing house received a warning for publishing an interview with Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. According to the Kremlin, the interview contained extremist activity, which is illegal to publish under Russian law. A paper can be shut down if it receives two warnings within a year. The newspaper appealed the warning, as the interviewee called for “talks and an end to military activity,” according to Ekho Movsky radio. No news has been released as to whether the Kommersant’s appeal was successful.

In 1991, with the fall of Communism, the previously state-owned newspaper Izvestiya became independent. It seemed the press might be able to experience a new era of freedom, with censorship officially abolished and the recent glasnost experience. In 1992, complaints about the loopholes of privatization already began. Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Surrey Jim Riorden, and lecturer in Russian at the University of Bradford Sue Bridger, wrote about such problems in the introduction to their book of letters published during glasnost, Dear Comrade Editor: “Even without the trebling of prices, the news press freedom is inhibited by state monopoly rights over print shop facilities, newsprint communications, and transport.”

In 1995, 10,000 newspapers and periodicals were in print. The government owned and published three official newspapers in 1996, while all other newspapers were considered independent. These newspapers, which are still available, disseminate official government documents to the public. Legally, newspapers were independent, but they were also dependent on the government for their information. Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Newspaper) went out of business when it refused to accept advertising and government subsidies. Newspapers in Russia are able to receive federal subsidies, which could encourage loyalty.

Vitally Tretiakov, editor of the Independent Publishing Group in Moscow, writes about the conflicts encountered with private ownership of newspapers in the March/April 2005 journal Russian Social Science Review. Anatoly Chubais, who headed the company United Energy System and began owning shares in mass media, sat the editors down for a meeting. “In fact, it was Chubais who, in a private meeting with the editors in chief of the country’s largest mass-media outlets (I was there, so I know for sure), formulated the principal of the new relationship: do as the owner tells you, or you’ll regret it. I am quoting him almost verbatim hereâÂ?¦The meeting took place in the late summer or early fall of 1996, when Chubais headed the Administration of the President under the sick Yeltsin.” An official government report found that those in the media who remained independent of the government had no better chance at reaching officials than during the Soviet regime.

The Kremlin press pool, with its handpicked set of reporters, receives the best access to information because it is loyal. Russian journalist Yelena Tregubva said she was removed from the press pool because “she would not follow instructions,” according to an article in The New York Times. She wrote a book critical of the Kremlin, and when she went onto Parfyonov’s television show, the segment was cut after it reached the eastern part of Russia, before it could reach the rest of the country. A bomb exploded outside her apartment in 2004, causing her to flee Russia.

An article published in the Columbia Journalism Review reports that in the city of Togliatti, six journalists have been killed since 1995. Former editor of the Togliatti Review, Valery Ivanov, was shot to death in April 2002, and his killer has never been found. The succeeding editor of the newspaper, Aleksei Sidorov, was stabbed to death outside his apartment in October 2003. “He managed to press the buzzer to his apartment. ‘The intercom rang. I heard wheezes and made out the word ‘help,’ but I did not recognize the voice,’ says his wife, Olga Lapitskaya, who rushed downstairs. ‘It took us a long time to open the door because his body was propped against it.'” The newspaper was uncovering the goings-on of government officials and gangsters at the time of Ivanov’s death. Sidorov’s lawyer said he believes Sidorov was investigating the death of Ivanov at the time of his own death.

Between the start of Putin’s presidency and July 2004, 14 journalists have assassinated. Serge Schmemann wrote in a New York Times editorial about the death of Paul Klebnikov, a journalist for Forbes Russia, who was murdered in 2004. “He had written books and articles about sleazy figures, and under his supervision, Forbes Russia had published a list of the 100 richest people in the country – most of whom would have serious problems explaining how they got their billions.” In February 2005, the government accused and charged a Chechen with being hired by individuals on the list to kill Klebnikov.
Not only are journalists at risk for murder, but harassment is also a possibility. During the 2004 hostage crisis, “on a flight from Moscow to get to the Beslan hostage scene, journalist Anna Politkovskaya asked for tea from a stewardess. After drinking it she lost consciousness, and upon landing was taken to a hospital,” according to an article in Christian Science Monitor. She had helped mediate a previous siege, according to the article, and often criticized the government’s policies in Chechnya. Although the validity of this story can never be proven, Politkovskaya was effectively kept from reporting at the scene at Beslan.

This year, the Russian Parliament will look at the guaranteed freedom of speech established for journalists in 1991 to consider revisions a government committee supplied. They will consider whether to ban the distribution of information considered extremist, whether to require news outlets to register with the government for a second time, and whether to create a code of responsibilities for journalists.

As a result of this unwelcoming climate, journalists are beginning to censor themselves. On April 11, 2005, The Guardian, a newspaper in Manchester, UK, reported on the struggles of independent publications in Russia and problems of being critical. “The Kremlin was reportedly furious the day after the Beslan school siege, when Izvestiya ran a series of photographs of the bloodbath in which 330 people, half of them schoolchildren, died. The paper’s publisher, Prof Media, a consortium owned by metals billionaire Vladimir Potanin, reportedly made chief editor Raf Shakirov resign.” Shakirov said in an interview with Christian Science Monitor that his coverage was considered “too emotional,” but that he thought reporting wrong information or leaving out information would harm the public more.

Although newspapers have gatekeepers within their organizations, the Kremlin is actually in control of what is printed. Newspapers are following a policy of self-censorship, so as not to feel the repercussions of their words. Thus, although government officials can no longer decide what is printed before it is printed, newspapers can find themselves dealing with the consequences of their actions. A democratic press should be able to choose what news it prints without fear of backlash from the government, but Russia’s newspapers are fearful.

Newspapers have more independence than radio or television, in that the state has so far taken no explicit ownership of private newspapers. They are dependent on the government for information, however, and must maintain positive relations to receive the information.

The Internet

Russian Life published an article on Internet Web sites hosted in Russia, known as RuNet. The Internet is the country’s most independent source of information. Russian software developer Mikhail Sobolev said in the article, “There is a lot more freedom of speech than in other mass media, which have to follow their orders of the government. I don’t think the government would achieve any success at all if it tried to control RuNetâÂ?¦and, in my opinion, the government doesn’t even try to. It has newspapers and TV to deal with.”

The Internet is wildly popular in major Russian cities. In 2003, 44.2 percent of Internet users in Russia were located in Moscow, while St. Petersburg had the other 10.6 percent. The first Internet caf�©, Tetris, opened in St. Petersburg in 1996, and now Russia has cafes in the major cities, where citizens are free to access information without censorship. The Internet is so unregulated in Russia that some parents try to shelter their children from the Internet, afraid of what they might see. was the first Internet newspaper founded in Russia in 1998, and it had an anti-government flavor to it. Even the old Communist newspaper Pravda (Truth) has a Web site to air its views. Blogging is popular for Russians, too. Russian Life article reported that in 2000, Roman Leibov created the first Russian-language journal on, and on January 19, 2005, Russians controlled 115,964 blogs on LiveJournal, making it the fourth largest creator on the site according to country.

Addresses ending in .ru jumped from 60,000 in 2001 to 112,000 in Jan. 1, 2002. Rather than control the Internet, the government launched a campaign in 2002, costing $2.6 billion dollars, which focused on bring the Internet to all Russian citizens. 15 percent of Russia’s citizens, 16.9 million people, use the Internet on a regular basis, reaching homes at twice the rate color television reached homes. Russian Deputy Minister for Telecommunications Alexander Volokitin predicted in 2001 that by 2010, 26 million Russian citizens will be using the Internet.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, have brought to light the possibility of censorship of the Internet, when they sent a letter to President Bush on Feb. 20, 2005, urging him to pressure Putin about his control over the media. According to the letter, Parliament will begin discussing possibilities of Internet censorship, and some members already have regulations drafted. “Though no laws have been passed, this debate has already prompted self-censorship online. The poetry web site recently instructed poets not to criticize Putin and his supporters, not to address the war in Chechnya, and not to write about antigovernment protests over welfare programs.”

The government has yet to censor the Internet, although officials have made comments suggesting their support of such control. In 2004, Yuri Luzhkov, the Moscow mayor, recommended government legislation to control the Internet, in an article he wrote in the independent newspaper Izvestia. His announcement should not be cause for national concern, but citizens should keep an eye on the situation.

The reason for the current lack of regulation of Russia’s Internet can be linked to the government’s desire to hold up its illusion of a free press, with the hope that the world cannot see through it. Controlling the Internet would be a bold and obvious move compared with the market share ownership of companies and rewarding loyal media outlets.


Authors Art Silverblatt and Nikolai Zlobin say in their book, International Communications: A Media Literacy Approach, “Even though Russia ostensibly supports an independent media system, the state continues to control the production and distribution of media programming.” This is a true reflection. Television stations depend on state-owned transmitters, the state owns the airwaves and grants rights to those with whom it has an amicable relationship, and the Internet depends, for the most part, on phone companies, also owned by the government.

Despite the Internet’s lack of regulatory control, most of the media in Russia remains government controlled. The non-partisan organization Freedom House publishes a yearly report on the state of press freedom across the globe. From 1991 to 2003, the press in Russia was deemed “partly free” by Freedom House. In 2004, the country was downgraded to “not free.” This is an obvious sign that the democracy Putin is heading is moving backwards.

Although press freedom has wavered on unstable grounds since 1991, the situation has worsened under Putin’s presidency. Yeltsin began the downward spiral of press freedom by rewarding loyal companies with subsidies and additional broadcast stations. Putin’s administration is continuing that legacy, through his hand-picked press pool, ownership of broadcasting companies, and control of rich publishers.

During a May 9, 2005 interview on 60 Minutes, interviewer Mike Wallace questioned Putin about Russia’s press. “I am told that there are three major news channels and that they are controlled by you. Your people run these news channels and the opposition has no news channels, if there is indeed opposition to you.” Putin responded, “There is opposition to me. It’s normal. The opposition has an opportunity to openly express its views and that’s what they are doing.”

Putin’s opposition is there, but it does not have the same voice and power of the government. Opposition is squelched through government ownership of companies and through rewarding loyalty to the Kremlin. He never attempted to justify his control over television. He went on to say opposition is utilizing the media, including television. What he should have said is the opposition is utilizing the media, but not without repercussions.

Under Putin’s presidency, the mass media in Russia has been losing independence, and this trend is likely to continue over the next three years of his term. The state controls the gatekeepers, who control the flow of information, which means gatekeepers are unable to set an agenda independent of the state. National television and radio are state-owned for the most part, and independent newspapers are indirectly controlled by the state through the control of information. Control over the media has not reached the point yet of following the principals of narodnost or partiinost, but the press now has some similarities to the press during communism.

With the exception of the glasnost period, the state during Communism defined the interests of citizens. Today, the state is defining those interests indirectly, by complaining to network executives and pressuring private owners to follow its wishes.
The Internet is Russia’s best hope for a free press. Without a reversal in trends, however, gradual control of the Internet is possible. This would be the easy assumption, considering the Internet’s overwhelming freedom compared with other sources of media. My prediction is Putin will not take explicit ownership of the Internet anytime soon because his actions would cause too much alarm and support recent criticism. In a sense, he needs the Internet to prove that progression of his democracy is running smoothly. Without it, his faÃ?§ade would crumble.

Russia has the outlining of a democratic press, without the legal support to back up its freedoms. In developing a free press, the Russian government should provide unbiased access to information for media outlets and should abandon its practice of favoring the loyal. With this change, the press pool would become a more critical body, making the press more critical as a whole. The government should also abandon all state ownership of media outlets, including partial ownership of shares, which gives the government a say in what is printed and what is left out of the news. To tackle the ownership of media outlets by large government-biased non-media corporations, the Kremlin should provide no benefits to those who own shares in the media. Finally, the Russian government should support the press by taking an active role in fighting organized crime.

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Eric Helque, “Last Mic Standing,” Russian Life, Jan/February 2005, 55.
Helque, 57.
“Independent Radio in Russia,” United States Agency for International Development .
Peter Baker, “In Russian Media, Free Speech for a Select Few,” The Washington Post, 25 Feb. 2005, A18, Proquest.
Baker A18.
“Mass Media 1991-2000,” Kommersant, .
“Mass Media 1991-2000.”
“The Media.”
Larisa Malinova, “The Building of a Civil Society and the Media,” The Future of Freedom in Russia, ed. William J. vanden Heuvel (Templeton Foundation Press: Philadelphia, 2000), 144.
Ellen Mickiewicz, Changing Channels: Television and the Struggle for Power (Duke University Press: London, 1999), 231.
Mickiewicz 231.
“Mass Media 1991-2000.”
“The Media.”
Tretiakov 61.
Mickiewicz 231.
Tretiakov 56.
Tretiakov 64.
Tretiakov 65,67.
Silverblatt 147.
Baker A18.
Silverblatt 147.
“Russia Re-Elects Putin,” CBS News, 15 March 2004, .
Douglas Birch, “Kremlin Tightening Grip on Media, Russian Journalists Say; Respected Newsman Fired and Show Cancelled over Politically Sensitive Report,” The Sun Baltimore, 3 June, 2004, 9A. Proquest.
Birch 9A.
Baker A18.
“Russia Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2004,” United States Embassy in Moscow, Russia, .
Sergey Varshavchik, “Russia: Newspaper Sees STS ad ‘potential opposition channel,” BBC Monitoring Media, 28 Jan. 2005, Proquest.
Varshavchik 1.
“Analysis: Russian Journalists Fear Kremlin’s ‘Tightening Control,” BBC Monitoring Media, 25 Feb. 2005, Proquest.
“Analysis: Russian Journalists Fear Kremlin’s ‘Tightening Control.”
United States Agency for International Development, “Independent Television,” .
“Independent Television.”
Scott Peterson, “Russia Uses KGB Playbook on Press; Reporters Covering Beslan Say They Were Drugged By Officials,” The Christian Science Monitor, 21 Sept. 2004, Proquest.
Ekho Movsky Radio, “Russia: Newspaper Appeals Warning Over Interview with Chechen Leader,” BBC Monitoring Media, 19 April 2005, Proquest.
“The Media.”
Riorden 7.
“The Media.”
Tretiakov 61.
“The Media.”
Baker A18.
Rebecca Santana, “The Taming of the Review,” Columbia Journalism Review 42, No.6 (March/April 2004), 48.
Santana 48.
Santana 49.
Santana 50.
Schmemann A18.
Serge Schmemann, “Journalists Deaths Make it Harder to Excuse Putin’s Excesses,” The New York Times, 13 July 2004, A18. Proquest.
“As There is an Arrest in the Murder of ‘Forbes Russia’s’ Paul Klebnikov,” Media Industry Newsletter, 14 March, 2005. Proquest.
Peterson 1.
“Russia/USA: US Watchdog Urges Bush to Highlight Russian Press Abuses in Putin Summit,” BBC Monitoring Media, 21 Feb. 2005, Proquest.
Nick Paton Walsh. “Media: The Last Stand for Russia’s Free Press,” The Guardian, 11 April 2005: 10, Proquest.
Peterson 1.
Anna Bowles, “RuNet: A Cyberian Adventure,” Russian Life, March/April 2005, 46.
“Russia’s Internet Penetration Up 2.7 Percent,” World IT Report, 4 May 2003, Proquest.
Bowles 42.
Bowles 43.
Bowles 45.
“Russia’s Internet .ru Addresses Double in Year,” Xinhua News Agency, 6 Aug. 2002, Proquest.
Bowles 46.
Bowles 42.
“Russia’s Internet Users to top 26 Million by 2010,” Xinhua News Agency, 5 May, 2001, Proquest.
“Russia/USA: US Watchdog Urges Bush to Highlight Russian Press Abuses in Putin Summit.”
Bowles 47.
Silverblatt 146.
Silverblatt 146-147.
“Freedom in the World 2005,” Freedom House. .
“Putin Defends His ‘Democracy,” interview transcript, 8 May 2005, .

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