Russian Media’s Lost Independence

Hello everyone! I am Julianna Jerosch, the CIMA Intern this summer. I am a student at University of Wisconsin-Madison studying political science, economics, and Russian. In August, I am heading to St. Petersburg to study Russian language and culture intensively for a year. Over the next few weeks, I will write about the media environment in Russia and the challenges for media development there. I’m especially interested in recent actions by the government to stamp out independent sources of information and expand its media influence past its borders.

The world is vastly different from when President Reagan called for General Secretary Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. But today many Russians live behind a different wall, one built to insulate ordinary Russian citizens from information. The information Russians do receive builds up the image of the Putin regime and encourages nationalistic, anti-Western sentiments.

“Difficult Situation” for freedom of the press in Russia. World Press Freedom map by Reporters Without Borders, 2014.

The Russian government has armed itself with legislation to wage war against independent media. As media sources have adapted to the internet to inform their audience, social media sites and news outlets have found themselves under attack. Facebook and Twitter are facing increasingly tighter regulations after protesters began using these platforms to plan gatherings. Influential independent bloggers and journalists are faced with bogus criminal charges. The legal environment encourages self-censorship and reduces opportunities for Russians to find unbiased news.

From the beginning, Putin has overseen the government takeover of private media outlets. Those that can’t be bought or taken over by Putin’s allies are hit by court cases and bureaucratic systems designed to make them fail. RT, a state-owned international TV network broadcast in several languages, “brings the Russian view on global news” beyond its borders. RIA Novosti, an award-winning independent media outlet, was shut down and replaced by Russia Today, a network designed to “provide information on Russian state policy and Russian life and society for audiences abroad”, earlier this year. The Russian government owns all of the major TV networks and the majority of print news outlets.

The main challenges for media development in Russia lie in the regulatory environment and the hostility of the Putin regime towards foreign NGOs. Many foreign NGOs have been kicked out since the Russian Foreign Agent Law was enacted, requiring NGOs to register as “foreign agents”. The law placed numerous costly and time-consuming bureaucratic burdens onto these organizations and restricts foreign funding. Putin has shown himself to be nearly impervious to international pressure on his domestic policies. These factors form a difficult environment for organic or assisted growth of media in Russia.

I plan to discuss a few of these issues in greater detail over the next month. I will highlight upcoming legislation set to be enacted soon. I will also touch on the consequences of these developments for independent media and democracy in Russia.

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