As pressure on Russian media increases, balanced news is harder to find than ever

Russia’s press isn’t what it was. EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

Russian media is in turmoil again. After the editor-in-chief of the independent online news website www.lenta.ru was fired, almost 40 journalists and editors left the publication. An independent, privately owned TV channel, Dozhd, was dropped by a number of leading cable and satellite operators and is facing closure following financial losses. RIA Novosti, a state-owned but until recently fairly balanced news agency, has been re-structured into a new institution with an aim of promoting Russia’s image worldwide.

Conversations about the trustworthiness and bias of news sources are taking place all over Russia. A recent example is a poll by colta.ru, which asked the country’s leading media experts and journalists where they get their news from nowadays. That question seems to be more relevant than ever at the moment, with serious doubts surfacing about control over and pressure on the traditional media, while new and social media introduce more “information noise” than useful news content.

It would be wrong to say the Russian media is completely washed-out and ruined, since some oppositional or independent items are still being published in print and online. But many of my media colleagues report that it’s becoming more and more difficult to get a “full news picture” each day. To get coverage from all sides, I would need to read media with positions ranging from strictly pro-Kremlin to entirely oppositional, plus social media, plus foreign media. This obviously takes serious time and effort; many friends and fellow colleagues of mine simply prefer to take some time off.

Interestingly, with the growing number of publications and growing importance of social networks, careful filtering and selection of sources is becoming more important than ever before. It is exactly in this area that the professional media-houses are expected to do their job – producing accurate, precise, fair and unbiased information and news, based on their experience and expertise, to give a trustworthy and representative picture of the world.

But with the growing political and economic pressure on independent journalism, the number of established and trustworthy media houses in Russia is falling. It is true that many new media projects are appearing, usually on a small scale or with a specialised remit. But for many of my friends who recently lost their journalistic jobs, even in Moscow, Russia’s media capital, finding a good place to work is becoming so difficult that they are leaving the profession altogether. I personally am trying to combine journalism with teaching and managing media training projects, so as not to be too dependent on one employer.

The Russian media sector is facing a number of challenges, both local and international in scale. At the national level, the media is under more and more political and financial pressure, with private owners being forced to influence editorial positions to preserve their business. On the other hand, Russia’s media is vulnerable to the global downturn in media revenues, with no sustainable financial model in sight. A number of media outlets are turning tow paywalls or crowdfunding schemes, among them TV Dozhd and Colta.ru. Both have yet to prove their viability. As a very active media consumer and social media user, I have long been getting requests for funding from numerous charities, NGOs, civil society initiatives; now, more and more are coming from media projects.

Tough times

I have certainly noticed an uptick in social media and citizen journalism over the last few months. Still, at a time of international conflict, with the accordant surge of propaganda, one has to double-check everything appearing online and in social networks in particular, read multiple sources, compare the facts – all of which requires a serious investment of time.

Media analysts had high hopes for the self-regulating mechanisms of the internet, which they hoped would create a decentralised and participatory system to verify, analyse and systematise the new surge of user-generated content. As things stand, in Russia at least, this mechanism is certainly not fully functioning.

All the information is certainly out there. When the authorities block online resources, new ones spring up in their place; when they shut down opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s blog, claiming he’d violated the rules of his house arrest, his colleagues simply started a new one. But this abundance doesn’t seem to be bringing much clarity and level-headedness to Russia’s Gordian knot of media wars and political interests.

Instead, most media consumers seem to be sticking to outlets that represent their position and tell them what they want to hear – whether that’s extremely pro-patriotic, or extremely anti-Kremlin. This is doing nothing to foster dialogue, and is a poor basis for a healthy public sphere. As a result, Russian society seems to be splitting more and more into self-contained groups consuming media that reinforce their views.

Opinions are polarised, with accusations and slurs heating up social networks. Such conflicts spill over into the real world, with people arguing over the Ukrainian crisis at Russian dinner parties. Official television news seems to have only one story these days, its coverage focused on Ukraine, Crimea and the international reaction to events, with the “us/them” divide, “internal enemies” and the “fifth column” spoken about openly. I find these signs deeply worrying.

I can’t yet say how the situation will look in even a few months, but this is certainly a challenging and disturbing time for journalists in Russia – as well as for their readers and viewers.