Russia’s increasingly authoritarian system, with the vast majority of the media under government-control, discourages the free flow of information. It partially bars reporting on corruption or exposing ill-conceived policies—that could contribute to Russia weathering this economic storm. The information dams are hindering those in the Russian government who are trying to get the message across that the present economic system, which is based on centralized government control of commodity exports and credit, needs to be reformed. As the economic crisis is deepening in Russia, the 64 billion ruble question whether the political and economic system that has been built under Putin will survive in its present form.
Will those who favor reform and more openness prevail, or will those who favor manipulating information, tightening the screws and raising the nationalist banner win out? There are dire implications to this outcome for Russia and the world.
On Thursday, April 30, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty held an event “Muzzled Media: Coverage in Russia of the Financial Crisis.” The panel focused on the freedom of the media in Russia during the financial crisis.
Panelists included Dmitry Sidorov, Washington Bureau Chief, for Kommersant, and a contributor to Forbes.com; Daniel Kimmage, Independent Consultant; Andrei Sitov, Washington Bureau Chief from ITAR-TASS; Brian Whitmore Senior Correspondent from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and David Satter, Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute, as moderator. The two Russian journalists provided a Moscow perspective to the subject matter.
According to Sidorov, “the media in Russia is free only when the Kremlin allows it to be free.” Sidorov pointed out that the radio station “Echo of Moscow,” which is often considered a beacon of free speech and democracy, is only given limited autonomy to counter the argument that there is no media freedom in Russia.
For a Russian journalist reporting on the financial crisis, it is extremely difficult to judge what is acceptable to publish. It is hard to know what will “enrage the Kremlin,” Sidorov said. For example, the press was told specifically by the Russian leadership “not to cause a panic.” Is reporting on a 10 percent drop in the Moscow stop market causing panic?
Kimmage spoke about the “information manipulation strategy of the Kremlin,” characteristic of authoritarianism, as distinguished from totalitarian state’s total control over the information space. He observed that Russian television is under “very strong control” with an official message or line—“similar to the Arab press.” Concerning the financial crisis, while the TV stations are not ignoring the crisis, they are “spinning” the facts.
He noted that if one watches television regularly, the viewer can hear the official message as pronounced by the Russian leadership—the US is the root cause of the financial crisis and the government is working overtime to protect Russia. On a more subtle level, the official subtext as pronounced by approved commentators is that the crisis is a “vast defeat” for the US and a “potential victory” for Russia. This subtext is rather conspiratorial.
The print press is subject to a weaker control. The Internet has the smallest audience and is the freest — but is also subject to the greatest manipulation. Kimmage noted that there has been a proliferation of conspiratorial articles about the US’ role in the financial crisis on the Internet—with some on the ruling party United Russia’s website as well as on the youth wing of United Russia’s.
According to Sitov, the roots of the financial crisis are not in Russia but in America; the Russian resent this fact. He observed that after listening to the critical views of Sidorov, a Russian journalist, one can only conclude that the Russian media is free. He believes that, the domestic coverage of the financial crisis is adequate but that the foreign affairs coverage by American media is stuck largely in an “an echo chamber, taking the patriotic line.” The one exception is Helen Thomas who he described as a “courageous” reporter.
Whitmore observed that while the Russian television media has sought to portray the government as “united and battling the crisis successfully” during the financial crisis, this is far from reality. There is a lot of political sparring going on behind the scenes. For example, Igor Shuvalov, First Deputy Prime Minister, and Alexei Kudrin, Minister of Finance, apparently see the crisis as “an opportunity to diversify the economy” and deepen reform. To them, the crisis has exposed the vulnerabilities of a state too dependent on commodity exports. Powerful Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, on the other hand, wants to keep the same system but make it more effective.
To Whitmore, Sechin and other “siloviki” (law enforcement and security honchos) are disinclined towards diversification because they recognize that “when you decentralize economic power, you decentralize political power.” This is why they have launched a series of attacks on Kudrin. While this debate behind the scenes is not readily apparent from watching TV, one can connect the dots by reading various media.
Satter concluded by stating that a free press is an “important safety valve under conditions of economic hardship.” Russia could potentially be facing political and social unrest because the crisis comes after a long period of strong economic growth, including rising living standards. Citizens may find the reversal of this trend unacceptable. Panelists foresee potential problems ahead if the gap between reality and media reporting continues to grow.
While the official line and the official subtext coming out of Moscow is that the government is united and that the US is the cause is the economic crisis, respectively, a closer look reveals that there are clearly cracks in the Kremlin. The schism between the more liberal elements and other factions raising the banner of victimization and nationalism presents an opportunity that Russia will look within to examine the deeper causes of the economic crisis, expand economic reform and with it the space for the “Fourth Estate.” If the more liberal elements do not prevail, it may soon be evident by either internal instability or external truculence.
A wise man once said that out of every crisis there is a seed of opportunity. Let’s hope the severity of the financial crisis helps to initiate and expand the much-needed economic reforms – and promote freer media in Russia.