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One nation, one voice: press control and propaganda in Putin’s Russia

One people, one voice: Putin takes to the airwaves. EPA/Yuri Kochetkov

Even as speculation continues about whether Russia’s recent foreign policy behaviour will result in a return to conflict in Europe, a war of words is already ongoing in Russia itself and it is one that seems to be increasing Vladimir Putin’s popularity and, by extension, decreasing popular support for the West.

Evidently this is a cause for concern, as signalled by the recent EU decision to include the Kremlin-friendly television journalist, Dmitri Kiselyov, on the list of individuals sanctioned as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The EU is not alone in recognising that the Kremlin has significantly ramped up its propaganda activity since Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012. Propaganda campaigns rarely brook opposition; thus Russia’s media have experienced an increase in repressive measures, culminating in a March 2014 letter from the Committee to Protect Journalists to Putin exposing repressions and asking for their reversal.

Motives for propaganda

A cynic might argue that such high levels of propaganda are occasioned by Putin’s need to garner widespread public support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea before the effects of that action, both political and economic, begin to be felt by ordinary people. Crimea was always heavily subsidised by other parts of Ukraine and now Russia must bear that burden. Ukraine’s wider economic problems are now well-known, if other parts do secede to Russia, again it will be ordinary Russians who pay the bills. Sanctions are currently targeted at political elites and Putin’s cronies, but the trickle-down effect may yet come. So it makes sense to prepare the scapegoat now, in order to point convincingly to it later.

Less cynically, the propaganda campaign can be seen to be part of an attempt to bind the country together. Putin’s speech to the Valdai Club in September 2013 made clear that building a clear identity for Russia is a priority: “It is evident” said Putin, “that it is impossible to move forward without spiritual, cultural and national self-determination. Without this we will not be able to withstand internal and external challenges, nor will we succeed in global competitions”.

Agitation campaigns designed, as in the best traditions of Russian revolutionaries Plekhanov and Lenin, to bring public opinion onside, preceded and have followed this speech. Thus the iniquities of the West are exposed, campaigns of half-truths and misinformation undertaken and the fears and grievances of ordinary people exploited for political effect. In this vision, Russia’s future progress is threatened not by poor domestic policy, nor failure to reform the economy, but rather by homosexuals (usually cast as paedophiles), migrants, hostile western forces, fascists (a common label in the Russian propaganda campaign against Ukraine) and blasphemers.

The agitprop train has rolled on by shutting down those portals of information that offer a perspective different from that of the Kremlin. It was announced in December 2013, for instance, that RIA Novosti, would be dismantled, replaced by Russia Today, with the Kremlin’s favourite propagandist, Kiselyov, at its head. It incorporates Voice of Russia and the external-facing news channel, RT; itself in the news recently when one of its American newsreaders, Liz Wahl, resigned live on air, citing the “ethical and moral challenges” that she faced in her daily professional life at RT. What is billed as an efficiency measure has the effect, of course, of creating one voice from three and, crucially, silencing one of those least on-message.

In his first speech after being appointed, Kiselyov insinuated that RIA Novosti had lost sight of its function: “The question is how to position oneself as a state news agency. Often, under the slogan of objectivity, we distort the picture and look at our own country as if it were foreign. I think that this period of distilled, estranged journalism is over”. Chillingly, on the same occasion, in answer to a question about how messages about the government could be separated from messages about Russia, Kiselyov replied: “Separate your attitude toward the government from your attitude toward the fatherland. If you plan to be involved in subversive activity, and that does not coincide with my plans, then I will let you know directly”.

What happens to those considered to engage in subversive activity is already all too clear. Dozhd (Rain), an independent television channel has been under attack for a number of months now. Singled out for its exposure of the corruption of Kremlin officials, its attempts to debate key moments in Russian history and its live reporting from Kiev and the Maidan events, Dozhd was steadily dropped by major television firms and satellite providers, lost its advertisers and is unlikely to survive much beyond the short term.

Facing closure: independent Russian TV station Dozhd. EPA/Sergei Chirikov

Described as “an icon of Russia’s post-Soviet media”, Ekho Muscovy, an independent radio station, has fallen foul of the Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications (Roskomnadzor), its website blocked without notice in March. A month earlier, a reshuffle saw its more independently-minded director, Yuri Fedutinov, replaced by a state media figure in the person of Yekaterina Pavlova, who is also the wife of a Kremlin PR aide, according to The Moscow Times.

Internet is no competition for TV

The internet has revolutionised the way many receive their news, of course, and the rise of social media means that ordinary people in many states can access a far wider range of views and information than was traditionally possible. Internet penetration rates are therefore important to consider as an indicator of possible counters to state agitation and propaganda. In the Russian case, most sources agree that approximately 45% of the population are regular internet users. On the face of it, then, there is hope that state control of the media has its challengers. In fact, the Kremlin has dealt with this challenge as it has with other media.

While it is harder to control the internet, service providers in Russia have experienced censorship. Legislation has been passed that makes censorship of websites very easy and the state has an array of tools at its disposal. Under the System for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM), no fewer than seven agencies have the right to intercept information. In addition, since 2012, Roskomnadzor has had the power to blacklist websites and to order providers to block the entire site. It has been very successful, blocking, according to the Russian Legal Information Agency (RAPSI), in excess of 14,000 online resources in the first year of its existence. Like its US counterpart, the US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), it has been condemned widely.

The Kremlin is assisted too by the fact that, as a 2010-2011 survey showed, the majority of Russians still receive most of their information about the world from state-controlled television. Dissent is alive and well in Russia but the reach of independent bloggers and tweeters is still miniscule compared to that of the state.

A new curtain in Europe

Even in times of relative stability, the world had reason to lament Russia’s less than impressive record on media freedom. But as the United Nations, NATO and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) continue to debate where Russian foreign policy will go in the future and what the effects will be for its neighbours, the increasing suppression of freedoms is even more worrying. Currently, an anti-western narrative is developing in Russia. If this takes hold amongst the majority of Russian people, it has the capacity to draw another curtain between East and West; further east, it is true, but no less destabilising and depressing for all that.

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