The State Duma building
The upcoming Russian parliamentary elections to the State Duma – September 18 – after 17 years of president Vladimir Putin in power face predominant propagandistic rhetoric, widespread political apathy and merely voiceless attempt of the opposition to tackle the agenda.
Roskomnadzor, Russian federal media supervision service, and the Central Election Commission published a list of 13 national TV channels owned or financed by the state: among the list are Russia-1, Russia-24, Russia – Culture, First Channel, TV Centre – Moscow, National TV company The Star, Public Television of Russia and multi language Russia Today’s channels.
The real situation of autocratic media manipulations is rather more complicated.
Telecompany NTV, federal TV channel, is managed by Gazprom Media Holding and linked with Gazprom, Russian gas giant. Emergency. Investigation, NTV’s prime time programme, has long been a source of Kremlin scandalous revelation about the opposition through a number of secretly recorded audio and video tapes.
April edition of the programme showed former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, now chairman of the leading opposition People's Freedom Party (PARNAS), with an party activist Natalia Pelevina. Several months before the official start of the election campaign Kasyanov was publicly credited with “doing business while on duty”and “promising to gift a whole party to a girlfriend”.
The issue last week attacked Open Russia, movement financed by the prominent critic of Vladimir Putin and billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Open Elections, movement’s subsidiary, supports 18 candidates to the State Duma and 5 candidates to the Legislative Assembly of Saint Petersburg. The programme tried to reveal the “black schemes of financing the candidates”, as well as the recordings of closed training and movement activists’ intimate photos.
Such kind of political melodrama tends to be a placebo at the time of crisis. Free journalism and democratic media could provoke changes, but not directly.
“Sure, people are strongly influenced by propaganda. They are easily manipulated,” Sergei Davidis, a member of the federal coordination committee of the unregistered party 5th December, said.
He added: “Monopoly ownership of the consolidated source of information allows the state to impose an official point of view. It is done in a high quality, talented and diverse. On the other hand, it is possible only through issues that are not directly connected with everyday needs of people. They could constantly show the “fascists” in Ukraine, ISIS or even nasty opposition. But a collision is that the economic crisis deteriorates a quality of life and it is difficult to portray positive image. To blame outer enemies is not possible all the time. People are not ready to pay for such kind of propagandistic success: to be proud for the occupied Crimea is not the same as to send relatives to the war zones. But natural boundaries of propaganda are quite wide. It operates effectively there.”
Danila Katkov, senior PARNAS lawyer, told his concerns regarding oppositional parties access to the media: “Media and party legislation is not bad at all. Unfortunately, we don’t have real parties, that’s why each legislative provision will be used incorrectly.”
“Paid campaign advertising on TV is the best tool for party promotion. Parties are presumed to have lots of possibilities. But who can pay? Nobody, except allowed parties. For instance, even free time – 10 minutes for video clips and 20 minutes for debates – is estimated at 150 million Russian rubles. PARNAS didn’t attempt to buy paid time. We need equal start positions for all parties to get them alive.”
“The decision to initiate litigation against defamation on NTV’s programme is rather more political, than judicial. Each litigation is against a plaintiff if this is an opposition party. Reputational risks are considerable,” he added.
There are a number of cases across the county when opposition candidates suffer from propagandistic damages having no adequate chances to respond.
Daniel Ken, Open Russia’s candidate in Saint Petersburg, noticed a newspaper Word and Business of Evgeny Marchenko founded by the local municipal council. Filled with pro-Putin campaign, the newspaper has an increased circulation of 300 thousand copies – several times bigger than a number of local citizens.
Vladislav Khodakovsky, candidate from Voronezh, told that election commission refused to acknowledge direct lines on state media with the officials as an election campaign. “I also wrote a letter to a regional branch of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company asking if they could show videos about all registered candidates, not about the one. The official written answer contained only two words ‘Could be’.”
“Could be” for free media is the greatest challenge in modern Russia.
The latest legislative initiatives of the pro-Putin United Russia party deputies restricted rights of journalists at the elections. Due to the new rules to work at the election polls journalist should send an application for accreditation at least 3 days before the day of the election.
Accreditation is maintained only by the Central Election Commission in Moscow and regional election commissions that are not easy reachable by local journalists.
To access election polls at hospitals, closed cities, prisons and military camps journalist should send an additional application.
The biggest restrictions touched freelancers –labor or civil contract with the edition signed at least 2 months before the start of the elections is obligatory for the accredited journalist.
Propagandistic potential seems to be endless. For a while.
“A long period of economic growth is associated with president Putin. Comparable period of time is needed to break this association. Opposition can’t overcome it straight away,” mentioned Sergei Davidis.
“10-15 percent of people have a demand for alternative information. It’s news underworld that doesn’t cross official field. If anybody listens to Echo of Moscow, or watches TV Rain, or has friends from opposition in Facebook – he or she is out of Russia,” he added.
Evgeny Malyshev, deputy editor in the Muscovite Street newspaper in Penza, the first regional media proclaimed as a foreign agent by the Ministry of Justice, explained his actions as journalist:
“I don’t believe in elections. But I use this moment to fix the problems and expect official respond to my files. The State Duma is discredited. I prefer to stay closer to people and to write about their needs, not about the power.”