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Investigation into media freedom of speech in post-Soviet Russia and its effects on MH17 Ukraine plane crash reporting
The effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union on the post-Soviet journalism in Russia
The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 has undoubtedly had major ramifications on the media landscape in Russia. During the Soviet era the target audience of the majority if not all of the media outlets were the members of the Communist Party, the so-called ‘party cadres’ (Tarschys, 1979, p.42). However, in the lead up to the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1985 perestroika movement was introduced in order to encourage the much needed democratic change in the political system and the mentality of the Russians. Thus, in turn, as von Seth argues (2013, p.215) this movement along with the glasnost policy of openness (especially among the journalists) provided the press with the opportunity to exercise much wider freedom of speech.
In 1990 new media law set the legal framework for media practices and established the abolition of censorship of the press. The law was re-introduced again in 1991. Consequently, since the aim of the media was gradually shifting towards addressing the issues of the public rather than conveying ideas of the state, as von Seth continues, the freedom of the press dramatically increased right after 1991. Brenton (2011, p.33) goes even further to add on the idea of possible liberation of the Russian press after 1990 stating that journalists found themselves not only being able to report on hard-pressing issues within the society but also criticise the status-quo of the Russian authorities. Surprisingly, some openly expressed anti-Communist views in the media, which was never allowed during the Soviet period of tight state-controlled media censorship.
Nevertheless, the law was not always enforced. In the lead up to the referendum in 1993 a few newspapers sharing different views rather than the state‘s propagated standpoint faced the ban from the Russian Ministry for the Press and Information (Benn, 1996, p.471), as opposed to the 1991 media law which stated that only courts were legally allowed to close papers. Some of the newspapers were granted the permission to continue journalistic work only if the title and editors were changed. Hence, the imposed media freedom was more of an illusion than the reality Russian journalists lived in.
Whereas in the early days after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc journalists enjoyed greater freedom of speech, this period of transformation did not last long. Even though the mass media officially became independent, the economic climate in Russia gradually deteriorated and reached the state of crisis in 1992. As a result, editors started looking for the source of income thus becoming increasingly dependent on private businessmen; e.g. oligarchs and their financial contributions (Roudakova, 2009, p.418). As a matter of fact, most of the latter were running for a seat in the parliament, as Roudakova explains, since this meant access to influential contacts and growth of their business. In this way, the issue of media freedom of speech was extended further and the situation of potential improvement in Russian media landscape was quickly reversed from there on.
Nevertheless, the comparison drawn in this dissertation is not between the pre- and post-Soviet media language but between the core journalism values defined by the BBC (2017) and how Russia in its post-Soviet state has managed to meet these fundamental requirements. These keys principals (truth, accuracy, impartiality, accountability, public interest, and independence) are considered the industry standard all journalists must follow. Indeed, these are prevalent in the West, thus raising the issue of the pressures journalists face on a daily basis if choosing to follow these standards.
Factors influencing post-Soviet journalism
A broad range of factors is of significance when discussing the state of the post-Soviet media landscape. As von Seth argues (2011, p.55), after the fall of the Soviet Union the media became progressively deprived of its initial power to make an impact in terms of the mentality of the masses. Nevertheless, the government promoted and even enforced the role of a journalist not as a neutral messenger but rather a teacher, guiding the members of the public towards a particular direction (De Smaele, 2004, p.69). These two contradictory statements only demonstrate the continuous propaganda the Russian state employs when communicating and most importantly controlling the public with the help of the media. Moreover, it has only aggravated already difficult working conditions under which the press has to operate in Russia up to the current day.
In fact, the general public mostly agrees with Russian policies and the state leaders, thus leaving journalists with no other option than report on issues of interest to the audience, otherwise, they risk losing their readership. This was evident throughout the history and has not changed since the Soviet era. The fact that the majority of Russians use words “World War II” and “Great War of the Fatherland” interchangeably (Dougherty, 2014) speaks volumes about the prevailing attitude of the public. Another example of this, as Dougherty presents, is the 2002 poll in which Russians were asked to choose one event they are particularly proud of in Russia’s history. 41% of the participants have chosen Russia’s triumph in World War II. In fact, a staggering 87% of Russians support the country’s leader Vladimir Putin, whose ratings rocketed sky-high right after the annexation of Crimea during Ukraine crisis (Nardelli, Rankin, Arnett, 2015).
However, Roudakova (2009) argues that it came to no surprise for the Russian public when the Soviet Bloc collapsed since the public was aware of the deep separation between the private and public life. Hence, the public might not be as clueless as one might be inclined to believe. Nevertheless, the society‘s mentality, in general, illustrates the significance of the opinions predominant within the Russian public and its impact on the reporting of the current affairs.
Another crucial factor which determines how freedom of speech is exercised within the media industry is the extremely high rate of missing or dead journalists, thus intensifying the fear among the members of the press. Evidently, Russia is deemed one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist (Chazan, 2006). Indeed, 56 journalists were killed between the period of 1992 and 2014 in Russia with a motive confirmed, according to Committee to Protect Journalists figures (2014). This is the official data, however, the numbers of murders without the confirmed motive or missing journalists are not included on this list, suggesting that the actual figures could be much worse.
Arguably one of the most prominent cases of journalist’s murder was Anna Politkovskaya’s killing in 2006 in the elevator next to the flat complex where she lived. As she was critical about Chechen War and president Putin in her publications, her murder stands as a horrific example of dangers journalists face in post-Soviet Russia, thus making it extremely hard to follow Western journalistic standards. “No profession was worth dying for’’ said Dmitry Muratov (Chazan, 2006), the editor of the Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper where Anna Politkovskaya worked at the time of her murder. Indeed, three journalists were killed between 2000 and 2006 and, naturally, he feared for the lives of his reporters since the newspaper was well-known for its criticism towards the government political affairs and president’s policies.
Furthermore, nowadays journalists have to deal with online attacks and threats, adding to the already long list of dangers of modern day media industry in Russia. This situation, in turn, prohibits the members of the press from questioning the authorities and publishing anything which might not be a popular opinion. In this way, the aforementioned fear factor hinders with the implementation of the core element of any democracy which is free speech.
Media privatisation along with continuous state interference with journalistic work adds to the mix of struggles of the press in Russia. These two factors are closely intertwined, as De Smaele discusses (2015, p.19), underlining the close “symbiosis of private capital, politics, and media’’. Even though officially just two key media institutions are under close supervision of the government, the ownership of the majority of media organisations is in the hands of oligarchs. For instance, Yury Kovalchuk, a close friend of the president Putin and media tycoon, privately owns the vast majority of the media institutions, namely National Media Group with a quarter of stakes in Channel One as well as huge stakes in Gazprom Media, the largest media business in the country, and the majority of advertising revenue in Russian television (The Economist, 2014, p.45).
The state’s influence on media was very much evident during parliament elections in 1999 and 2000 presidential campaign, when the NTV had to undergo the change of management and TV6 was closed down (von Seth, 2013, p.217) due to criticism towards the state. These examples only further illustrate the limitations the press face when reporting on government affairs. Thus, the conclusion can be drawn that the state rather than the private owners is the most powerful factor regulating how much freedom the media is allowed to possess in Russia. Whereas the oligarchs nowadays only play the mechanic role, as it is evident from Mr.Kovalchuk’s case, the mastermind behind them still remains the state. In this way, it is clear that journalists were never actually provided with the opportunity to freely express themselves and only operate as a tool of the government, “educating” the masses and expressing the state-friendly views.
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- Natalia Roudakova (2009) Journalism as “Prostitution”: Understanding Russia’s Reactions to Anna Politkovskaya’s Murder. Political Communication. 26(4), pp.412-429.
- Tarschys, D. (1979) Soviet political agenda. London: Macmillan.
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