The true cost of a free press

May 17, 2016

Sergey Orlov

The government is continuing its attack on the RBC media group. But how come regional media is so quiescent?

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President Putin speaks at the “Truth and Justice” Media Forum in St Petersburg, April 2016

The whole RBC story bears the stamp of federal involvement: the media group belongs to Mikhail Prokhorov, one of Russia’s richest men, and the cause of the “raid” is probably the RBC investigation into the business affairs of Putin’s younger daughter and her husband. The FSB is carrying out the searches, the matter is in the hands of the Prosecutor General, and one of the possible buyers for the disgraced company is one of Putin’s best friends. The latest news is that the editor-in-chief has gone, and two of her colleagues with her. But is this anything more than the usual attack on an independent media organisation that dared to criticise the government and its beneficiaries?

At the regional level not much has been heard recently of high-level scandals involving independent media outlets. Recent research carried out by the “Mediastandard” Foundation at Alexei Kudrin’s Committee of Civil Initiatives explained that only in seven regions is there serious criticism of governors. Moscow and the Moscow Region, for instance, have almost none, and in 15 other regions, including Sakhalin, Kaluga and Chelyabinsk, the journalists have quite lost the knack of criticising their governors.

So how is it that Russian officials have been given such an easy ride from their local media outlets? Perhaps they are working 24/7 without lunch or holidays? Perhaps there are no scandals to report? Unlikely … It turns out this exceptional loyalty can simply be bought using money from the state budget. The head of the Altai branch of Transparency International Russia, Stanislav Andreichuk, says that complimentary articles are ordered openly by officials through the official state purchasing system: “This is taxpayers’ money, which should be used to inform people about what the local government is doing for them. But we can see that actually the money from the budget is being used exclusively for PR, usually by the head of the region i.e. the governor.” And if the money for a laudatory article about the local government does not come from the administration, it’s often paid for by businessmen who are friends of administration officials.

The scale of this “laudatory journalism” is in some cases so enormous that the public is bombarded with it, just like propaganda. For instance, the Moscow regional directorate for public communications spent 1.4 billion roubles on “positive write-ups” in the first half of 2015. The former editor-in-chief of the YUGA.ru portal, Anton Smertin, thinks that working on government contracts spoils and demoralises regional journalism: “Media outlets have no interest at all in doing anything other than rubber-stamping material which doesn’t upset anyone … Regular payments from the regional authority budget result in a lack of competition, which in turn leads to a deterioration of quality.”

For many regional publications such “official” money is not just an extra perk, but their only way of surviving. Journalists have learnt to be quite philosophical about their ‘independence:’ “We don’t have to be regarded as some kind of Cerberus from a den of evil who is simply looking out for the interests of the government: we often have more freedom than media outlets belonging to oligarchs or businessmen. Okay, we do have some obligations to highlight the governor’s work or to promote the region’s tourist attractions. It’s a job and the organisation to carry it out is selected competitively,” says the editor-in-chief of Chelyabinsk Today news agency, Sergei Shumakov.

Every governor wants praise from the press so as to please Moscow. But pleasing the Kremlin is not quite so easy. On the one hand, the federal centre has an interest in journalists not rocking the boat or revealing things about the governor; on the other, the principle of “the tsar is good – it’s the boyars who are bad” is also very dear to the Kremlin’s heart, and it suffers when governors use money from the budget to get themselves praised. And when regional media outlets are seen to be criticising the president ten times more often than the regional governors, the president is not happy: “There’s nothing good about money from the budget being used to buy PR for officials – it is simply an improper use of public money. We have to devise a formula which will not allow money set aside for social needs to be used simply for PR.”

Even the governors who are very loyal to Putin prefer not to share their PR with him

Anton Smertin, formerly of YUGA.ru, says that even the governors who are very loyal to Putin prefer not to share their PR with him: “Recently, the editor of a regional newspaper in Krasnodar Region recounted something that happened under the previous governor. There was an abusive telephone call from the media department, because they had put information about Putin in prime position, with information about Alexander Tkachov [formerly head of Krasnodar region, now Agriculture Minister] in second place: ‘What were you thinking of? The money comes from the governor, not the president.'”

Although Vladimir Putin was essentially right in what he said about governors’ PR, he completely overlooked one point: governors are not doing anything at regional level that is not being done at federal level, witness all the broadcasting time the state channels have devoted during the past 16 years to the actions of Putin himself.

Vladimir Putin seems to have formulated what he expects of regional journalists at the “Truth and Justice” Media Forum for regional and local journalists, held in April in St Petersburg: “This is a unique forum for representatives of the local and regional press from all over Russia, and it is symbolic that it is taking place in St Petersburg. Why? Because formerly Leningrad-Petersburg was called the city of three revolutions. I hope that your work will not end in a fourth revolution, but just the opposite.”

“I hope that your work will not end in a fourth revolution, but just the opposite.”

The carrot of government contracts being offered to the regional press would not have been possible without the many years of hard stick work. The authorities had first to take inconvenient, disobedient and independent journalists out of the game because they were getting in the way, and preventing the government from establishing a monopoly over regional journalism. For instance, during a similar battle in 2014, the regime destroyed TV-2 in Tomsk, one of the best regional TV channels. There is absolutely no doubt that the current anaemic attitude displayed by the government towards regional journalism is one of convenience. If any inconvenient, disobedient and independent journalists (and there are still some left) were once more to be perceived as a threat, they would be crushed, their publications destroyed, and they would find themselves on the street without a job. The current general lull does not mean there are not daily battles throughout the regions: Anton Smertin, quoted above, lost his job as editor-in-chief after the “owner and general director expressed the opinion that the principles and quality of the work being done would have to be changed.”

There are, of course, still many professional journalists of quality left in the regions. Their work is honest and uncompromising, often at risk to their lives. But RBC’s Andrei Babitsky points out that this is far from the norm: “You would have no idea that 99% of the journalists in Russia exist: there are a hundred thousand of them writing millions of articles about plaster coming down in the local cultural centre, and they do this every day in the several thousand municipal papers, published in cities throughout Russia. Though usually they write about the centre being repainted, rather than the plaster, because their papers belong to the municipality. These papers are as a rule paid for by the taxpayer and delivered to us at home. To my mind a state media outlet is an abomination.”

Disillusion in one’s future profession is a separate drama

Disillusion in one’s future profession is a separate drama. Students at regional faculties of journalism are overcome by confusion and a sense of helplessness. Sergei Mitrofanov, jury member of “Student TEFI 2016” and assistant general director at RBC TV, has seen their lack of hope in a future: “What I encountered first and foremost, talking to the student competitors, was that they could see no prospects for a future in the profession, which, to them, seemed totally useless. Who needs journalists? The public don’t believe them, and the authorities don’t react.”

Moscow helpfully offers an answer to this question. The state channels are very keen to take ambitious provincials into their system of propaganda broadcasting. “The federal channels are mainly staffed by people we have sourced from the regions. We have Muscovites too, of course, and I am one myself, but it’s far less common,” says the executive producer of news at NTV, Pyotr Orlov. To stay in Moscow, many young professionals are forced into horrendous compromises.

On 7 April, at the above-mentioned regional media forum in St Petersburg, Natalya Kostenko, director of the Centre for the Legal Support for Journalists (set up within the All Russian Popular Front on orders from the president) expressed the following thought to the president: “Any government investment in independent media is the most effective contribution to the development of our country.” Vladimir Putin neither laughed nor looked surprised. The Russian president simply cannot countenance any normal relationship with the media, one that isn’t turned inside out. When Putin came to power, his first step was to do away with freedom of speech. When this freedom returns, its first step will be to do away with Vladimir Putin.

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