Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia's Nongovernmental Media under Assault

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russia's Nongovernmental Media under Assault

Article excerpt

Abstract: During Vladimir Putin's first presidential term, the Kremlin established control over Russia's major television networks. Putin's return to the Kremlin in 2012 and Russia's role in the Ukrainian crisis have exacerbated constraints on media freedom. Nongovernment media fell under strong pressure and new limits on Internet communications were imposed.

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In developed democracies, the news media are an inseparable element of a network of checks and balances that help society to ensure the accountability of powerful actors (first and foremost, the government). At least, such is the understanding, even if in real life the news media do not always live up to these expectations and the goal of public accountability is not easily achieved.

In Vladimir Putin's Russia--long before his return to the Kremlin in 2012 and the shift toward a harder authoritarian model--political power was heavily monopolized, and democratic checks and balances existed only nominally. While the collapse of the Soviet communist system created a promise of democracy--the 1993 constitution defined a multiparty system with the separation of powers and mechanisms of public participation --the new institutions did not take root, and as soon as Putin came to power in 2000, they were steadily and radically eviscerated. The system of governance that Putin built virtually eliminated public accountability.

Despite some obvious similarities, Putin's system was not a return to the Soviet model. In the media realm, Putin's Kremlin did not seek to reintroduce preliminary censorship across the board, the key element of the Soviet media scene. Far from it: though the national TV networks with the largest audience were taken under control within just a few years after Putin became president, elsewhere, opportunities for self-expression remained. A range of media continued to pursue reasonably independent editorial lines; some were even openly anti-government.

These nongovernment media (1) occasionally exposed government abuse of authority and reported other politically meaningful information, yet actors who could follow up on these reports and use them in politically relevant ways were missing. In the absence of an independent parliament or genuine political opposition, media reports remained mere political texts that were not converted into political events. In other words, in the early 2000s press freedom as a democratic institution that could hold the government to account ceased to exist. (2)

The establishment of the Kremlin's political monopoly, as well as the elimination of press freedom, were facilitated by a weak public demand for political rights and civil liberties, media freedom being no exception. Put more broadly, the long decades of Soviet oppression precluded the emergence in Russia of a sense of "we, the people," or a belief that the people can hold the government to account.

By the end of the first decade of the 2000s, however, a minority that did not share the habitual sense of acquiescence toward government authority began to emerge. It was this constituency that in December 2011 took to the streets chanting "Russia without Putin." The protests continued through 2012, and in May that year the government responded with a crackdown and a conservative shift that the protesters were too weak to oppose. The freedom of expression remaining at that time did not make much difference. Moreover, in 2012-2013 the nongovernment media came under increasing pressure. The crisis in Ukraine followed by Russia's annexation of Crimea exacerbated the oppressive trend: the TV networks have been turned into raw propaganda machines, (3) and dissenting voices were condemned as natsional predateli ("traitors of the people"). (4) In late 2013-early 2014, the regime dealt several critical blows to what was left of the nongovernment media realm, leaving in doubt the viability of those nongovernment media outlets that have not been destroyed or submitted. …

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