17.02.2004
The Russian Mass Media: Is It Really Free?
№1 2004 January/February
Vitaly Tretyakov

Vitaly Tretyakov is Editor-in-chief of «Politichesky Class» magazine

The situation with the Russian mass media, despite the continuous heated debates over this issue, is fairly simple. The unbiased observer – free of sentiments and politically tainted assessments — will say that the position of Russia’s mass media is generally congruous to the current state of its economy, politics and public opinion: they have been all drifting together since the anarchic romanticism of the last years of Gorbachev’s perestroika to the current transitionali phase (of which we will speak in detail below), to a future that is as much predestined as the general course of Russia’s development.

First, let us make it clear that we are discussing not the freedom of speech here, but the freedom of the press, i.e. the liberty of making public a diversity of facts and opinions in the mass media. Obviously, the former notion has a broader range and scope; the two notions also differ in terms of who enjoys those freedoms. The freedom of speech embraces all of the citizens and non-citizens living in a country, while the freedom of the press mostly relates to journalists, that is, professionals employed by the mass media organizations. In a sense, this is a limited group of well-known public personalities.

Another important thing is that many, if not all, problems associated with the institution of the free press have generated myriads of myths – across the world in general and in Russia in particular. On the face of it, I will have to preface the description of the current state and prospects of the Russian mass media by a theoretical discourse, which is indispensable to this subject.

MYTHS AND REALITY

“I detest what you say, but I will die to defend your right to say it.” This postulation by Voltaire, often quoted flippantly, declares an audacious ideal, but not the norm and, definitely, not the reality.

History knows of not a single person who would give away his life for the freedom of speech, not to mention somebody else’s freedom of speech. Nor, indeed, did Voltaire ever go so far himself. People risk their lives to defend their families, fatherlands, religions, ideologies, and, last but not least, their own freedom and dignity. But the freedom of speech stays outside the category of these absolute values.

“The freedom of speech in a bourgeois society implies the dependence of a writer or journalist on the moneybags.” This statement by Vladimir Lenin, like Voltaire’s postulation, also borders on the extreme, although to a lesser degree. One has to admit that the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press are part and parcel of a market-oriented democracy – and Russia definitely has that today.

“The freedom of speech is a well-apprehended need for money,” Soviet writer Yuri Nagibin is believed to have once said. Along with his love for liberal freedoms and the liberty of thought, Nagibin had the repute of a prolific, much-published and well-earning writer. His somewhat cynical aphorism is a guideline for many contemporary professionals in writing and broadcasting. Not because they are indecent people – they simply have to earn money for a living.

Today, there is no doubt that the freedom of speech does exist in Russian society, as well as in the field of journalism. On the other hand, a summary of Voltaire’s, Lenin’s and Nagibin’s definitions apparently provides the only way to adequately describe the situation.

In both ideal declarations and real situations, the freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of a market-oriented democratic system. Yet, neither is it the highest value of that system – which makes emphasis on survival, self-maintenance and expansion – nor of life in general. As an ideal or reality, this freedom is less important than the freedoms of ownership and competition. Notwithstanding, in mature Western democracies the freedom of speech is placed in the category of absolute values – in political and even legislative terms.

Yet, it is no secret that those same democracies more often than not set definite restrictions on the freedom of speech. The democratic governments make use of more politically correct, oblique, or psychological methods for imposing them. Except for certain cases, such as wartime, democratic state power will never restrict that freedom in an outward manner (rather, it will resort to special services).

The pragmatism of market-oriented democracies leads to a situation where humanly instinctive desires become convenient tools for preserving democracy as a form of society and statehood, and are not subject to suppression.

Although it is impossible to arbitrarily ban the freedom of expression, it is possible to prohibit the declaration of certain ideas in public. Theocratic and authoritarian regimes establish systems of direct bans, while democratic states introduce meandering prohibitions. Every society has certain moral prohibitions, social and political taboos, as well as a set of principles used to foster public conformism. Infringement on those prohibitions is not a crime, but it can bring the offenders serious, and occasionally dire, problems. Importantly, in such situations the law remains intact, state power is not involved, and the ‘sacred cow’ of the freedom of speech retains its fundamental immunity.

A pragmatic approach to the freedom of speech in democratic societies has one more facet – unlike the practice of Marxism (that is, opposed to Marxist theory), democratic practice draws a distinction between truth and verity.

Truth is only a segment of the total verity that we have learnt, but not the entire verity. Attempts to ban the evolution from truth to verity, i.e. to prohibit free expression of different ideas and viewpoints which may seem strange at a certain point, undermines the competitiveness of democratic society. The freedom of speech exists in democratic societies because it ensures survival and expansion, but not due to its supremacy over other values.

Policymakers in democratic societies know only too well that the prohibited fruit is always more enticing and that it is more likely to escape control. Thus, democratic governments find it much easier to exercise control over outwardly expressed ideas than over the ideas kept secret.

Finally, it is important to note the principle which Western democracies abide by – restricting some institutions by other ones. The interaction between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of power has proved insufficient for maintaining the balance of forces in a democratic system. Bureaucracy, finances and social vices are going out of control of the democratic system, the judiciary and the religious institution (which is losing the status of a universal institution of morals). True, these may be controlled by absolute state power – the very thing that is destructive to any democracy – or by the absolute power of society, i.e. citizens. In this context, the freedom of speech appears to be an institution of absolute power – it ensures the power of society over the state, bureaucracy, finances, and social vices. This is something that Russia’s powers that be have been unable to realize, and thus found themselves exposed to attacks of public opinion in the West.

Western journalists are imbued with political, social and state loyalty; only a few of them – and very rarely – have any desire to reveal significant secrets of their countries.

In Russia, the anarchic sentiments and irresponsibility of journalists quite often result in actions of disloyalty toward their own nation. In some journalistic, human-rights and even political circles there has developed an idea that the ill-wishing of the undemocratic Russian government, military and secret agencies cause regular violations of the freedom of speech, particularly during armed conflicts, antiterrorist operations (including the release of hostages), and in emergency situations in general.

Few will claim that the Russian government is an embodiment of democracy, or that the Russian army and secret services revel in transparency, but it is also naive not to understand that armed conflicts necessarily imply the violation of many civil rights and freedoms. This happens everywhere, not only in Russia, and in countries that will normally observe those rights and freedoms.

The reasons for this occurrence is not due to anyone’s evil intent, but rather the basic differences (despite all the declarations) in our perceptions of life, security, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press as major values. The law of war and other conflicts does not provide (cannot provide) for freedoms or rights that are observed in normal conditions, and this is the main reason why the institutions of free speech and free press collapse during times of war.

Another crucial factor is that occasionally the freedoms of speech and the press appear to be inimical to the primary goal of war, which is, securing a victory over the enemy. The art of warfare presumes the use of deceit (attacking the enemy where and when he does not expect it); misinformation (misleading the enemy of one’s true plan of action); broad intelligence activity; and finally, destroying enemy troops while concealing one’s own real losses – in a bid to maintain the morale and combat capability of one’s own forces.

How can the freedom of speech and the ancillary freedom of the press fit into this state of affairs? Obviously, only as a crime against one’s own nation!

There is also a third reason. For waging wars and carrying out elite operations, governments engage special groups of people – the army, police, or security services – organized according to hierarchical and authoritarian principles. These inherently undemocratic fighting formations simply cannot act in a democratic fashion.

The above does not mean that the media and the audience should not aspire to receiving the maximum credible information from the frontline; yet the nature of war is such that as long as the frontline exists – be it in Chechnya or in Iraq – no one will ever get the whole truth.

Generally speaking, the government and society in Russia are very sensitive to what constitutes the reverse – and many would say the dark – side of the freedom of the press; and they receive little credit for what makes the obverse side of this and many other freedoms. Given this situation, one must admit that the persecutors of the free press in Russia have a good theoretical and practical reasons for their actions (the practical reasons are evident in the West and in Russia likewise).

The very nature of democracy presumes that the people elect a government that will remain in power until the date of the next election. If the press, being the voice of the rank-and-file, had an unlimited opportunity to exert influence on the government in between the elections, the whole system of democracy would become senseless, since the mandate it received on Election Day would simply become irrelevant. Indeed, what is the sense of winning an election if the newspapers – i.e. the people – can say the next day that the newly elected president is no good and his power must be limited or banned altogether? Thus, in order to prevent the possibility of regular coups d’etat and to provide the elected government with the freedom of action, the political system and civic society reached a natural agreement (although this may often be abused) on two things:

  • the government can ignore the opinion of the mass media;
  • using democratic procedures and being guided by the principles of political correctness, common sense and national interests, the government can influence the media and even govern society via the media, including the so-called free press.

The freedom of the press – together with the idea of pluralism – often results in a situation where alien, marginal, extremist, or destructive viewpoints come into the limelight. These opinions, despite their true significance and value for society, attract public interest and affect the current policies and the life of the nation as a whole. The free press within a pluralistic society may actually drive the society and the state to collapse, as was plainly visible from the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1987 through 1991. The Russian authorities have come to understand that lesson perfectly well and have been consistently accentuating the uniting mission of the mass media. In extreme cases, they have even resorted to direct or tentative state control over the key media – above all television – or to the introduction of certain elements of censorship, for example, during the military actions in Chechnya.

In 1996, the Russian government and – this must be particularly stressed – major business groups that were later defined as “oligarchies” jointly used television to manipulate the voters’ conduct; they achieved remarkable success. Since then, neither the government nor the oligarchs have lost their hold over television. The former authorities and the oligarchs called themselves the champions of democracy and liberalism and were naturally supported by all of the democratic governments in the West. So it was exactly in 1996 that the freedom of the press received a heavy blow, which was dealt by the Russian and Western liberals, not the Communists, KGB or law enforcement agencies.

A rift between the Russian elites – who were striving not for democracy per se but for property and power – erupted into the so-called information wars of 1997-1999. As a result, the mass media, and television in particular, became a political weapon rather than an instrument of free speech and the free press.

In 1999, following the ruthless clash between the two parties – the ORT television channel and the NTV channel – the victors who made their way to the Kremlin realized the real significance of television:  the Moscow-based nationwide television channels actually became a nuclear weapon of Russian politics. The government took a very undemocratic decision to keep hold of that weapon – the move was as undemocratic as the usurping of the right to possess real nuclear weapons by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. (The above passage only explains the situation but does not justify it.)

Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, the two oligarchs who owned and controlled the NTV and ORT channels respectively, refused to renounce their political nuclear armaments. As a result, they were declared “rogue oligarchs,” disarmed and expelled from the country. Soon thereafter, the United States of America, the great democracy, began acting in a similar manner against “rogue states” which had aspirations for possessing nuclear arms. The only difference is that the White House extended this practice to the entire world, while the Kremlin limited it to Russia’s borders.

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS – FOR SOCIETY OR FOR JOURNALISTS?

Society recognizes the right of the journalists to speak out and criticize the powers that be on its behalf. Incidentally, this is the only fundamental right that society vests in the journalists, since the general public has an opportunity to directly criticize the government only during election campaigns, that is, once in several years. For the media, this opportunity is available on a daily basis.

Whereas members of parliament come to power as a result of elections (which does not rule out the abuses of popular mandates by the MPs), people come into journalism thanks to their own efforts. There are no formal estimates of how broadly the interests of different strata of society are represented in the media, (especially in those having nationwide coverage); to what degree the journalists’ opinions reflect those of society; or how often the journalists misuse their lifelong entitlement to speak on behalf of society. Unlike the upper echelons of power, there is no mandatory personnel rotation in the media, in which sense the journalists resemble another super-powerful corporation – the bureaucrats.

The freedom of the press, in fact, limits the freedom of speech to only the journalists, and not society as a whole. In a sense, the freedom of the press becomes a restriction on the freedom of speech for the rest of society. Therefore, overt and covert mechanisms have been developed in order to prevent the use of the freedom of the press by journalists to the detriment of society, separate groups of people, or state power. These mechanisms are effective even in the U.S., where the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides maximum protection for the free press.

Naturally, the system ensuring the freedom of the media and the system offering protection against it are conflicting with each other. Such conflicts became evident in 2001 and in 2003, when the U.S. and British authorities were annoyed at the way the U.S. and British media were covering the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In general, those two campaigns provided lots of instances when the governments of the world’s two most democratic countries placed restrictions on the freedom of the press.

A blatant example of the activity of the U.S. ‘fourth estate,’ i.e. real state power, were the daily reports by American television and press on the horrors (real and fictitious) of the Saddam Hussein regime, which preceded by several months the launch of U.S.-led attack on Iraq in the spring of 2003. No doubt it was a well-orchestrated campaign – on both the local and international level – that had two purposes. First, the U.S. population was made psychologically prepared for the commencements of the military operation, and an environment was created for the public to support such actions. Secondly, the U.S. sought to suppress the morale of the enemy (which is actually the first phase of any military action).

Do the U.S. media report to the Pentagon or the CIA? Were the U.S. journalists called up for army service? Do most of them cooperate with the intelligence services? There can be only one answer to these questions – no.

Yet the pluralistic, free, non-government U.S. media acted in a united front as armed forces detachments. And this fact is undeniable.

This should not be taken as a direct criticism, but an example of the realities of the present interaction between the free press and non-free politics. The understanding of these realities makes us draw the conclusion that any democratic society possesses efficient mechanisms for summoning the free press to fulfill specific tasks, including military-related ones, which the government sets down to the nation. And it is absolutely inadmissible to ignore or misunderstand this fact.

A classical notion of the free press as something opposed to the authorities might prompt a conclusion that the American media have lost their true purpose or developed a negative symptom of the condition. However, if one recalls the political (governing) function of the modern mass media, which no journalist or publication (except for marginal, non-significant ones) can avoid, then it is no longer perceived as a case of collective insanity. It is simply the manifestation of systemic rule.

A few examples that I will cite below confirm the simple truth (which, however, many may take as a metaphor) that the mass media are really the fourth estate, after the legislative, executive and judiciary branches of state power. It is my conviction that with the arrival of television, the media have literally become the fourth branch of power.

There are several institutions that are described as national – a nation’s territory, state, armed forces, language, culture, monetary unit, religion – and the mass media. National mentality and national consciousness manifest themselves in the national press – the only carrier of the collective reason of a nation.

Russia’s President and members of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, are elected for four-year terms. In what way can the man on the street influence them in between the elections? Stage a revolution? This is possible, but such a course of action may lead to grave consequences – an imminent breakup of the entire social and political system. Or go on strike or organize a rally? Nationwide strikes occur but seldom, and there have been none in disrupted Russian society so far, while local strikes and protests acquire national importance only if they get into the press or TV news programs.

Journalists play the role of informal representatives of the people in power or in quarters close to state power. Although they may be quite close to state power they never quite fuse with it, even in totalitarian societies. So it is only through journalists that ordinary people can influence the government between the elections. Democracy as a system of (limited) popular rule remains unabated if it has an institution of free, and most importantly, variegated pluralistic mass media.

Moreover, in Russia the weaknesses of the judiciary actually increase the power of the mass media far beyond reasonable norms, that is, beyond the limits acceptable in the Western nations with regard to the media’s influence on politics and elections.

HOW FREE IS THE RUSSIAN PRESS?

The freedom of speech not only exists in Russia, it is actually unlimited in scale like in all societies going through a stage of “anarchic democracy.”

This does not mean, however, that there are no problems with or threats to the freedom of speech in Russia.

Those problems and threats stem from the following factors:

  • the inability or unwillingness of the organs of state power, which claim to be democratic, to act in conformity with democratic norms in the field of mass media;
  • the irresponsible use of the freedom of speech by journalists, which produces a negative (often excessive) reaction by the government;
  • the continued instability within Russian society, which forces individual people, groups of people and even state power to violate laws, including those which stipulate the freedom of speech.

Let us again consider the routine notion of the freedom of speech. A serious analysis of this problem requires the differentiation of at least five terms describing five social values and their respective social institutions: the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, censorship, the freedom of specific media, and the freedom of mass information.

In contemporary Russia, the freedom of speech is real and absolute as in the Western world: one can say whatever and wherever he or she wishes to say. Furthermore, Russian people feel much less responsibility for what they say than in the West.

The freedom of the press is fixed in legislation. It is also part of reality, but it exists as a symbiosis of texts and images present in all of the Russian mass media rather than in a particular medium. On the whole, this is an acceptable standard.

Censorship is prohibited by law. There is no censorship in the media per se, except for corporate censuring, which is officially non-existent. Several factors concerning censorship are critical for Russia today. First, there is self-censorship among journalists, which reflects their political preconceptions (this sort of censorship is clearly seen on both sides of the divide between Communists and anti-Communists). Secondly, there is censorship by friends, and a very effective one. To call up a friend, who happens to be a chief editor of some publication, and ask him for a favor is a normal thing to do by Russian standards. People usually find it hard to refuse, not for fear but because of ethical considerations: the Russians firmly believe that turning down a friend’s request is improper behavior. So the power of that tradition keeps the Russian political class afloat.

In a national poll held in 2003 by ROMIR Monitoring, 1,500 respondentsaged above 18 were asked to answer the question: “Do you think censor-ship is needed in the mass media?” Those polled gave the followinganswers:

A majority of those polled (76%) said censorship is needed in the mass mediain one way or another. This view was opposed by 19% of the respondents. Fivepercent of those polled failed to give an answer. The results of the poll varied with respect to the following factors.

Federal Districts. Censorship is the most welcome among people living inthe Urals and Siberian Federal Districts, and the most unwelcome in the SouthFederal District. Interestingly, the percentage of people in the North-West FederalDistrict favoring the introduction of censorship (72%) is close to the national aver-age, yet they are much less confident about the need for censorship (21%) asagainst the national average of 41%.

Type of populated locality. The analysis of the poll’s results has shown thatresidents of large cities hold a more moderate position on the need for censor-ship than the national average.

The respondents’ sex, age. The analysis of the socio-demographic dataattests to a higher interest among women for mass media censorship than amongmen. The number of censorship proponents grows among older respondents andis the highest among elderly people.

Education, income level. Respondents with secondary or higher educationand those with a medium or high level of income tend to be less categorical aboutthe need for censorship than on average in the country.

The freedom of specific media varies considerably. It has limitations both in the numerous state-controlled media (especially those reporting to regional governments), and in the private media, where the freedom of speech lies within the confines of the interests of their owners (who often depend on the state) and of senior management. Here, censorship is exercised by chief editors or journalists themselves.

The freedom of mass information exists on a limited scale in Russia, mostly due to numerous taboos imposed by the government, private owners or associated business and political groups.

Speaking of the general situation concerning the freedom of the press in Russia, I can definitely say that certain formal restrictions on the freedoms and instances of unofficial censorship are entirely compensated by the specific behavior of the free, yet not completely responsible, Russian press which acts in a society with a weak power, warring elitist groups and overall anarchy. This is evidenced by the information wars which, although hinging on incessant lies, do produce startling revelations of truth.

Finally, there is the “financial headache.” About ninety percent of Russian media people, particularly those living in Russian provinces, have meager official salaries, which cannot but generate additional problems for the freedom of the press in this country. Even moderate ‘tips’ can broaden the room for the freedom of speech, thereby facilitating the appearance of particular information, or on the contrary, concealing certain facts.

Furthermore, an impoverished audience is less demanding with regard to the performance of the journalists. It cannot seriously affect competition between different media in terms of subscription. Gone are the Soviet times when an average family could subscribe to five or six newspapers and two or three magazines. Today, most families have to confine their interests to television, albeit more diversified these days, and just one newspaper. More often than not this is a local publication, barely professional and/or very loyal to the local authorities or a local business group.

In Russia, the freedom of the press exists only for those journalists who have the opportunity to work in its format, while the freedom of mass information exists for those audiences who have access to the major television channels and can afford to buy dailies and weeklies of different political orientations.

RUSSIA: A NOVICE, NOT AN EXCEPTION

Let us now name the legal exclusions from the principle of the freedom of the press that have been registered in virtually all democratic societies.

1. National Constitutions and laws regulating the mass media will most commonly prohibit:

  • calls for the overthrow of the existing state regime;
  • calls for war (however, wars are waged following a call by some statesman);
  • instigation of ethnic, racial or religious strife.

2. National laws will commonly contain stipulations about state and/or military secrets, which give grounds for censoring masses of information.

3. The activity of certain security services is placed by law outside mass media control;

4. Libel (which is, in many cases, a truth unsupported by documents) is subject to prosecution by court.

5. Slandering of individuals in public is regarded to be a punishable offence.

6. Corporate secrets are protected by law.

7. The law demands the respect for privacy.

So, how much of the total information is placed outside mass media control? No one can say exactly, but it is absolutely clear that it is much more than one or two percent.

The recent years have witnessed the spread of restrictions due to considerations of political correctness. These are not fixed by law, but are real and in many cases absurd. In Russia, the phenomenon was manifest, among other ways, in the belief that it was politically incorrect to use expressions like “a person of Caucasian origin.” In the West, there is still a wider range of topics and expressions that are subject to censoring due to considerations of political correctness. This shows that not only governments, but also civil societies, including the most liberal ones, tend to place restrictions for the free media.  

The following example illustrates the vulnerability of both censoring restrictions and efforts to oppose them. Almost all democratic nations ban the calls for the overthrow of the existing regimes. Taken per se, it is a praiseworthy restriction, yet one should not forget that the history of those countries is the history of revolutions and coups d’etat, and Russia is no exception to such events. Over the past thirteen years alone, this country has seen at least three such events – in August 1991, December 1991, September and October 1993.

The onward movement of history cannot be stopped by the introduction of censorship or taboos. This is what politicians and journalists should not forget when they are fighting censorship, but most importantly, when they emerge victorious from that fight and begin censoring and tabooing the press themselves.

The free press is the building block of democratic societies, but it may often be used as a boulder, a convenient weapon to attack one’s opponents. Unlike the Russian revolutionary slogan which stated that the boulder is a weapon of the proletariat, the free press is much more often used as a weapon of the ruling class.

REALITY AND POSSIBILITIES

Let us now have a look at the present situation in the Russian mass media with regard to the factors limiting their freedom of expression.

Central (federal) printed press. This is the freest segment of the Russian mass media, as there are almost no restrictions here. Most of the central mass media are privately owned, yet the number of government-run newspapers and magazines is much greater in Russia than in any other democratic country. At the same time, although exiled oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky have been stripped of the TV channels they once controlled, Berezovsky continues to own all of his printed media, while Gusinsky continues to control, albeit indirectly, some of his previously owned periodicals. In general, Russia has both the rightist and leftist opposition media, and the balance between them has been left intact since the Yeltsin era.

The strong competition within this sector of the printed press helps support the necessary level of freedom. It appears to be limited only by the following factors:

  • corporate censoring as a result of their owners’ connections (leading business group) with the state;
  • the extremely small circulation of quality publications, which narrows the field for the freedom of expression that these publications can offer to society;
  • pro-government and private PR companies which grossly distort the free creativity of the journalists working for these media;
  • small salaries in these media, on the one hand, and their being located in Moscow, one of the most expensive cities in the world, on the other. This fact makes it easy to bribe journalists and publishers.

Regional/local printed press and regional/local radio & TV.  This segment has minimum freedom due to:

  • almost non-existent competition within this group because of the insignificant number of the owing companies;
  • control of these media by regional/local authorities which are far more authoritarian than the federal government, or by major business groups that are fusing or fighting (a better option) with the local administrations;
  • meager official salaries of the media people in the Russian provinces.

Federal television and radio broadcasting companies. Central broadcasting media have less freedom than the central printed press and much more freedom than any of the regional media.

Out of the TV channels operating in the metric waveband, three are directly controlled by the federal government (ORT, RTR, Kultura); one (TVC) by the governments of Moscow City and Moscow Region; one (NTV) by the country’s largest gas producing company, Gazprom, where the government has a big stake. Also, there are numerous decimetric waveband channels that offer entertainment shows, mostly spoiling the indulgent tastes of the audience. Standing out of the crowd is Ren-TV, controlled by the electric power monopoly RAO UES.

Nonetheless, the pluralism of opinions prevails here, albeit not absolutely. ORT and RTR reflect the official interpretation of official news (although the degree of freedom varies considerably in different programs). NTV, Ren-TV and TVC are exemplary deviations from the official line of thinking, with NTV being a more democratic channel, Ren-TV clearly liberal, and TVC almost nationalistically patriotic.

Of course, federal television and radio broadcasting companies do not demonstrate optimal freedom, but to state that the freedom of opinions is non-existent in the Russian media would be incorrect.

TENDENCIES AND PROSPECTS

Considering that the mass media market naturally needs a limited presence of the government, and the Russian government will never fully give up that presence, the following scenario for the further development of the mass media seems to be the best, and most likely, option for Russia.

There is no sense for the federal government to control more than one TV channel (either ORT or RTR) that has a nationwide coverage. One or two channels should be transformed into public-owned television. The rest of the TV channels must be reverted to private ownership. The same applies to radio stations.

It is essential that a law be endorsed that would prohibit control over regional and local broadcasting companies by the regional/local authorities. 

There is no political need for any central, regional or local printed press (except departmental newsletters or Armed Forces publications) to be directly or indirectly owned by the state agencies. Such ownership must be prohibited by law. All of the printing houses across the country should be sold to private owners or made joint-stock companies without the participation in the shares of whatever state agencies.

It would stand to reason to disband the federal Press and Mass Media Ministry and to organize agencies that would register publications (this could be done by the Justice Ministry) and issue licenses to radio and television broadcasters (for instance, the Telecommunications Ministry).

There is no doubt that Russia’s mass media will be developing according to this logical scenario as long as the country proceeds with the modernization of its political system. What is unclear is the rate of the progress toward its implementation.

Will the Russian mass media ever enjoy full-fledged freedom? This is what people most commonly have in mind when asking questions about the prospects for the mass media in this country.

It is my strong belief that, first of all, the Russian mass media have enough freedom already now. Although it is not absolute or full-fledged, it outpaces the democratic development of the country’s political structure. Secondly, the freedom of the Russian mass media will continue gaining momentum unless the world is swept by neo-authoritarianism (this turn of events is quite possible). Thirdly, the federal authorities will not relinquish ownership of the mass media until this is done at the regional and local levels.  Thus, the key to the freedom of the press across Russia is the privatization of regional and local media.