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Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 19, 2003

Are Mass Media Free in Russia?

By Vitali Tretyakov

The situation with the Russian media, despite numerous heated debates on this topic, is quite simple and distinct. Emotions aside, the state of the media in Russia is line with the general situation in the Russian economy, politics and public opinion; drifting along from the anarchic-romantic past of the last years of perestroika and the first years of democracy, through the present intermediary stage (which will be discussed separately), to the future – where the scenario for the media is no less predetermined than the scenario for Russia's development.

First of all we need to specify one of the key notions - the matter under discussion here concerns freedom of the press (freedom to relate various facts and opinions in the media) and not freedom of speech.

Myths and reality

History knows no instance of anybody dying for freedom of speech as such, especially for somebody else's freedom. Voltaire himself did not do this. People consciously die for their families, their homeland, their religion or ideology, or finally for their honor. Freedom of speech as such is an absolute and all-encompassing value not as much as the five aforementioned examples.

Freedom of speech (in both ideal declarations and reality operation) is one of the corner stones of the contemporary market democratic political system, but not the highest value in either this system (its highest values relate to survival or self-preservation and expansion), or even less so life in general. Freedom of speech, either as an ideal or reality, does not even stand above, for example, freedom of property or freedom of competition.

Meanwhile, as is well-known, restrictions on freedom of speech in Western democracies occur everywhere, although these restrictions are most often either carried out by politically-correct or behind-the-scenes or psychological methods or at least never directly on behalf of the government save for its institutions such as security services and save for periods of military action.

The pragmatism of Western democracy (and its high competitiveness ensuing from this pragmatism) leads to attempts not to suppress human instincts within this democracy, but to use them to preserve democracy itself as a form of existence of society and state.

Simply banning is impossible. However, one can prohibit expressing certain ideas in public. Religious states, as well as totalitarian states, introduce a direct system of prohibitions.
Democratic states use an indirect system. For example, as is customary in any society, via a system of moral prohibitions, certain public and taboos, as well as growing public conformism.
Violation of these prohibitions is not a crime, but it can create and it does create a lot of serious, sometimes even tragic problems for the violator. The law, however, is clean, government is not involved and the "sacred cow" of freedom of speech remains inviolable.

In democratic societies freedom of speech exists not because it is the highest value, but because this society's survivability and expansion cannot be secured without such a value. Freely expressed thought is easier for government to control than thoughts that are not expressed.

Finally, and in the practical sense this is probably the most important, the Western political democracy is based on restrictions on the power institutions. The interaction of the legislature, executive and judiciary has proved insufficient to keep the balance of forces in this system.

Bureaucracy, money and public vices defy control of either the democratic system as it is or its judiciary, or religion which is obviously dying out as a universal moral institution. This can be done either through the total control of the state (which would destroy democracy itself) or the total control of society, i.e. its citizens.

So freedom of speech is exactly the institution ensuring total control of the public over the state, bureaucracy, money and public vices. This is what the Russian leadership has been unable to understand as yet, thereby placing itself under the blows of Western public opinion.

It is not out of place to note that political, public and government loyalty have developed to such an extent that Western journalists in just a few of them - and even so very rarely- seek to tell the world about the genuine, actually significant secrets of their own nation.

In Russia, it has become generally believed by some journalists, political (strangely enough and human rights circles, that only the ill will and undemocratic nature of Russia’s leadership, military and security services lead to constant violations of the principles of freedom of speech and press during military action, counter-terrorist operations (including the liberation of hostages) and emergencies in general. It would be ridiculous to claim our leadership is the most democratic, while the military and security services are the most transparent.

However, it is as stupid not to understand that any military action always and everywhere (not only in Russia) is carried out inevitably with violations of entire sets of rights and liberties which are usually observed for better or worse in another country.

Martial law (or similar events) in principle does not provide for the existence of a lot of liberties and rights that are normal for peaceful life. This is the main and most fundamental reason for the destruction of the institution of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in time of war.

The second reason is: freedom of speech and freedom of the press (and some other freedoms) make it possible to achieve the main goal in war, i.e. victory over the enemy. War implies deceit (attacking where the enemy does not expect), disinformation (making the enemy believe that you are going to do the opposite of what is planned), significant intelligence activity (i.e. stealing others' secrets) and finally murder of other people and concealing of the truth of one's own casualties to keep the morale and ability to resist one's army and one's population.

How can freedom of speech and freedom of the press blend with all this? Perhaps, only as crime against one's own army and one's own nation!

Finally, the third reason. Wars (as well as various special operations) are waged by forces of specially (established by law) organized groups of people (army, militia, security services). The law enables these forces to replace democratic forms of organization with authoritarian hierarchies. Non-democratic structures cannot act democratically.

Overall, it should be remarked that both the leadership and society in Russia are extremely sensitive to what is the back (some say "shadow") freedom of the press, but show little trust in the front of this freedom (as well as a lot of other freedoms). It should be acknowledged that persecutors and revilers of freedom of the press in Russia have enough basis in both theory and practice (from both Western and domestic experience).

Democracy is built to enable the people to elect the leadership, but is governed by this leadership until the next election. To a significant extent this is done to prevent daily coups d'etat using the press, or at least to prevent the elected leadership of the people from losing freedom of action, in a natural way (which does not rule out distortions or abuse in this sphere) the political system and civil society achieves implicit consensus on two issues:

1) the leadership can ignore the opinion of the press;

2) the leadership can (as part of so-called democratic procedures, political correctness, common sense and observing the highest national interests) influence the press and even govern society via the media (including so-called free media).

Freedom of speech and of the press, pluralism of opinions and voiced standpoints lead to exotic, marginal, extreme and disintegrative opinions resonating most by virtue of a series of conditions (including fashion), which are often very artificial. Public attention is focused on them which multiply and increase the impact of these opinions on current policies and society in general. Freedom of press, pluralism of opinions can thus lead to the disintegration of society or the state, which we clearly saw in the history of the USSR’s disintegration from 1987 to 1991. The Russian leadership has learnt this lesson very well. So it has tried to step up the media's integration function, gradually, very covertly, but nonetheless distinctly. In its extremities, this led even to the nationalization (direct or indirect) of a number of key media (primarily television) or the introduction of elements of censorship - for example when the state conducted military action in Chechnya.

In 1996, the Russian leadership and (special attention should be paid here) the biggest business groups, subsequently termed oligarchic, jointly used the media, primarily television, to purposefully manipulate the behavior of voters - and they achieved a tangible success. Neither the authorities nor the oligarchs have since abandoned this weapon.

Special attention should be paid to the fact that both the authorities during that period and the oligarchs called themselves adherents of democracy and liberalism, viewed themselves as such and were supported under this mark by the governments of all the West's democratic states.

This is when the blow on the fully-fledged freedom of the press in Russia was struck - not by the communists nor the KGB, nor security services, but by Western and Russian liberals. This is a historic fact.

A split in Russia's elites conflicting with each other not for democracy, but for property and power, leading to the information wars in 1997-99, finally transformed the Russian media, once again television initially, into a political weapon, and not a weapon for freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

After the war between Russia's two main political parties in 1999 - the party of ORT and the party of NTV, the new authorities understood from this war (in the Kremlin) that nationwide television channels in Russia were political nuclear weapons. Absolutely undemocratic as the five great powers, permanent members of the UN Security Counci reserved for themselves the monopoly to possess nuclear weapons, Russia's central leadership decided to retain control over the political nuclear weapons.

This is no justification. This merely explains the situation.

Gusinsky and Berezovsky who did not wish to abandon their political nuclear potentials were declared "rogue oligarchs" and then disarmed and ousted from the country. Just a short while later, the rogue states aspiring to possess nuclear weapons started to be treated the same way by the great democratic United States of America. However the action of Washington's White House covered the entire world, while that of Moscow's Kremlin only Russia.

Freedom of press: for society or journalists?

Society allows journalists to speak on society's, behalf, including to criticize the leadership.

This is, by the way, the only fundamental right society has granted journalists, because the people themselves can directly and actually criticize the leadership only at elections (by voting for some instead of others), i.e. once every four years. Meanwhile, journalists are granted this right on a daily basis.

However, while parliament members are elected by the citizenry (and even then abuse their mandates), people come to journalism by themselves. No one can say, even formally:

1) how the interests of different segments of society are represented in the media, especially nationwide ones;

2) how accurately journalists' opinions reflect society's opinions instead of the opinions of the journalist corporation (one of many) proper;

3) how significantly and frequently journalists abuse their actually lifelong right to speak on the society's behalf. After all, journalism, unlike the highest echelons of power, does not even provide for the obligatory replacement, rotation of the staff. This is, by the way, how it resembles another most powerful professional corporation linked to power - bureaucracy.

Firstly, freedom of the press is in fact freedom of speech for journalists, not all citizens in a given society; secondly, freedom of the press is in some sense a restriction on freedom of speech for the remaining citizens in a given society; that is why, thirdly, even where freedom of the press is protected by law, as in the USA thanks to the first amendment to the Constitution, legal and illegal mechanisms have been preserved to counteract journalists who use freedom of speech to the detriment of interests of society, individual citizens or even government.

The degree of freedom of speech in Russia

Freedom of speech in the present-day Russia does not only exist. As in all societies in a stage of anarchic democracy, it is actually absolute. This doesn't mean there are no problems with freedom of speech in Russia, or threats to it. Such problems and threats are linked to the three factors:

1) the inability and reluctance of the state that has declared it is a democracy to act in accordance with democratic norms and rules in this sphere;

2) irresponsible use of freedom of speech by journalists, which causes the state's response, often inadequate;

3) continuing civil "cold war" within Russian society, its instability when the task of political and at times physical survival of individual persons, groups and the government or even the nation makes them violate any laws, including those protecting freedom of speech.

I should once again return to the widespread expression - freedom of speech. A serious, not a superficial or intriguing analysis of this problem, required differentiating between at least five terms and accordingly, five social values and social institutions based on them: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, censorship, freedom of specific media outlets and freedom of information.

Freedom of speech in the present-day Russia is real and absolute. Even with lesser responsibility for one's words than in the West.

Freedom of press is codified in legislation, but it is expressed for society as a whole in the totality of texts and images in all Russian media outlets, not in each specific one. This is an acceptable standard, in principle.

Censorship is prohibited in legislation and is actually absent in the practice of all media outlets save for corporate censorship that does not either legally exist, though. I would specially point out the following factors as significant in present-day Russia: journalists' self-censorship linked to their political preferences (this is especially clearly manifested along the "communists - anti-communists" line, on both sides); and, as I call it, "friends' censorship" - which is very effective. It is normal in Russia to call a friend, and editor-in-chief or a well-known journalist, and ask them for something. It is very difficult to refuse such a request. Not because it is frightening, however, but because it is impolite: it is impolite to deny a friend a friendly request. This is how the Russian political class has so far been functioning, through habit.

The freedom of specific media outlets is different as always. It is limited in both to government media outlets (including those belonging to or controlled by regional or local authorities) and of course, private ones - as a minimum by the interests of their owners who often depend on the state, as well as the interests of senior management and the self-censorship (voluntary or selfish) of editors-in-chief or journalists.

Freedom of information in Russia is not present in full - primarily because of numerous taboos implicitly imposed on some or other topic by both the state and private media owners and some groups close to them in their business or political interests.

Describing the situation as a whole I can assert that individual restrictions on all these freedoms and on the contrary, on individual elements of unofficial censorship are with interest covered by some particular features of the operation of the Russian press, already free but not yet completely responsible, in a society with a weak leadership, feuding elites (information wars where a lot of lies are used also leak the most incredible truth) and general anarchy.

Finally, the "money problem."

A poor society, while always better than a rich one in some attributes, also suffers from a lot of additional defects that are minimized in the rich countries.

Ninety percent of Russian journalists (especially outside Moscow) officially earn very little. Very small amounts can ensure both the emergence of information that expands the freedom of speech and on the contrary, leads to the concealment information, which naturally restricts this freedom of speech

Secondly, along the same line. A poor audience is less fastidious about journalists' performance, but it is unable to provide the required material support to the necessary tone of competition. Soviet times, when each family subscribed to five or six newspapers and two or three magazines as well, are long gone.

Media freedom in Russia exists for those journalists that are capable and that have the opportunity to work within its scope, while freedom of information exists for those who have the opportunity to follow programs of all the key television channels and regularly read six or seven newspapers and two or three dailies of various political orientations.

Russia is not an exception, but a beginner

It is appropriate now enumerate the multiple legal definitions of the principle of free speech that actually exist in all democratic countries (in a more or less rigid legal form).

1) As a rule, constitutions or laws specially devoted to the media prohibit (that is, censor): appeals for overthrowing the existing system; calls for war (meanwhile, wars are waged - so what do they start with, if not with the appeal of a relevant politician?); appeals to inciting interethnic, racial or religious hatred.

2) Besides, everywhere in legislation exists the notion of state and/or military secret, with complete segments of information censored on this pretext;

3) The operation of some security services in all big democratic states is actually (in some aspects) legislatively removed from under the media control at all;

4) Almost everywhere, libel is legally punishable, which is often defined even as the truth not proven by documents;

5) In many countries, various public insults of private individuals are also legally punishable;

6) Commercial confidentiality is protected by law;

7) Privacy is protected by law.

What amount of socially-relevant information is thus removed from the control of freedom of the press (media control)? No one can say it accurately. It is clear, however, it is not 1-2%.

Finally, a special expansion has lately been displayed by restrictions not codified in legislation but real, on freedom of the press according to the so-called political correctness criterion - restrictions that are often quite absurd. In Russia, this is for example manifested in the senseless debate that it is shameful to use the expression "individuals of Caucasian ethnicity." In doing so, none of those who oppose this expression has explained how, for example, to provide a basic description of detained people in police summaries if these people have no ID on them and don't give their names. But even the PC fighters are unlikely to be able to spontaneously define which of the five people from different ethnicities presented to them is Azeri, Armenian, Georgian, Chechen or Avar.

In the West, there is an even more extensive field of subjects, issues, conflicts, and words that are actually prohibited (i.e. censored) for PC considerations. These cases show not only that government periodically puts the institution of freedom of the press to a test of strength. Societies also do this, including the most free and the most liberal societies.

Trends and prospects

Even though the state's limited presence on the media market in Russia is an objective necessity, while subjectively the government will never abandon in completely, the following scenario of the Russian media's further development can be considered optimal (and this scenario will be carried out with some or other deviations):

1. The state, central leadership, has not need to have more than one controlled television channel (the first or the second, with a maximum coverage of the area and population of the country).

2. One or two central television channels should be transformed into public television.

3. The remaining central channels should be re-privatized.

4. The same goes for radio broadcasting.

5. It is a categorical imperative that all regional and local television and radio broadcasters should gradually be removed from the direct or indirect control of the regional or local governments by a direct prohibition established by the law.

6. There is no political necessity for any print media, either central (save for the official organ) or regional and local (save for purely official bulletins and the army press) to be owned (directly or indirectly) by any government institutions. A ban on such ownership should be introduced legislatively and at once.

7. All national publishing houses should be privatized and turned into joint-stock companies without any participation of government structures.

8. The Ministry of Press should be liquidated and replaced by agencies registering print media (the Justice Ministry could do this) and licensing television and radio broadcasters (the Telecommunications Ministry).

There is no doubt that this is the direction the media development will choose as the contemporary political system in Russia continues to take shape.

Will Russia one day have full-fledged freedom of speech (freedom)? Giving a direct answer to this question, I can say the following:

Firstly, freedom of the press (media freedom) in Russia exists even now; and on the whole, without being absolute and fully-fledged, it is still outpacing the level of democratic development of the political regime in Russia; secondly, unless the trend of neo-authoritarianism prevails worldwide (which is not ruled out), the level of freedom of the press in Russia will steadily grow; thirdly, as long as regional authorities in Russia are not stripped of the right to own media outlets, the central leadership cannot reject the same, so the first step towards further de-nationalization (in other words, liberation) of the media appears to be quite obvious.


See also:

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

Rossiyskaya Gazeta, November 19, 2003

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