x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Media freedom in Russia: a futile attempt to push the genie back in the bottle?

The Kremlin’s attempt to to silence opposition ahead of elections has been undermined by the web.

Vladimir Pozner, a Russian journalist, says there is concerns among Russian journalists that Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, is tightening the screws on independent media before a presidential election but any crackdown would be unlikely to succeed.
Vladimir Pozner, a Russian journalist, says there is concerns among Russian journalists that Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, is tightening the screws on independent media before a presidential election but any crackdown would be unlikely to succeed.

MOSCOW // It was like the bad old days of Soviet TV for Vladimir Pozner, a Russian broadcaster who began his career under Communism, when he found editors had cut parts of a pre-election talk show where he mentioned critics of the Kremlin.

But this is 2012. With censorship grown patchy and half the country online, the uncut programme had been uploaded to the web - thanks to viewers in Russia's far east who had caught the show live, before the edited version was broadcast in Moscow later.

"I think it's just a Soviet reflex: 'How can you criticise power?'," said Pozner, who has watched Russian leaders, from Brezhnev to Gorbachev, Yeltsin to Putin, blow hot and cold on political censorship of the media for the past 30 years.

"It's called a hangover in English. Eventually, it passes."

That sentiment echoes many who believe the genie of media freedom is, slowly, pushing its way out of the bottle in Russia, notably since street protests began against the expected return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency at an election on Sunday.

A public who tasted post-Soviet liberties in the anarchic 1990s, combined with new technology, will, many believe, not let the Kremlin force it back in again - despite years of tightening state control under former KGB man Putin, and despite a backlash against small, liberal media since protests began in December.

Ranked 142nd out of 179 countries worldwide on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Russia has seen journalists intimidated, even murdered, for exposing endemic crime and corruption, while privately owned and critical media have been much diminished since Mr Putin first took over the Kremlin in 2000.

Having retained power during his four-year stint as prime minister to his protege, the outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin has seen control of the media as a vital tool through which he has maintained his widespread popularity.

Yet in the internet age even the state-controlled networks on which most Russian voters rely have had to offer at least some account of grassroots protests since liberal anger erupted over the handling of the parliamentary election in December.

Some cautious critics see that as little more than a sop to public opinion, in their view as much a stage-managed piece of political machination as the electoral process itself. Yet others believe the shifts of the past few months are real.

"Today, the situation is changing by 180 degrees," said broadcaster Tina Kandelaki, who was a guest on Pozner's show on the day of the clumsy attempt to cut out the opposition comment.

"It's not there yet but it will change. The process has begun," she said. "We'll see what it leads to, especially after the election," she added, noting that there may be clues to be had in any future personnel changes among state media editors.

Mr Putin appeared to acknowledge the way the media was changing when he spoke to supporters on Wednesday: "Without free media we cannot create a stable situation in society," he said.

"When society is absolutely open, let's say, with the internet, it is simply senseless to restrict something in the media ... There is just no political or economic sense in it, because anybody can read the news on their telephone."

When protests, mainly in big cities, began over alleged fraud in the parliamentary election won by Mr Putin's ruling party on December 4, state television initially ignored them. But they, and channels run by companies or individuals largely sympathetic to Putin, quickly changed tack as news of the protests spread over the internet and social networking sites such as Twitter.

The main channels have since then broadcast footage of the rallies and shown interviews with some of the liberal opposition leaders for the first time in years.

"The tone has changed on TV. The coverage of events, especially of the opposition, changed after the events on December 4 last year," said Maxim Shevchenko, a broadcast journalist.

"It was unconditional, it was natural, and it's a good thing," he said, describing it as an unavoidable decision to show the rallies because the protests had become major news.