Local Dimensions of Media Freedom: A Comparative Analysis of News Media Landscapes in 33 Russian Regions

By Litvinenko, Anna; Nigmatullina, Kamilla | Demokratizatsiya, Summer 2020 | Go to article overview

Local Dimensions of Media Freedom: A Comparative Analysis of News Media Landscapes in 33 Russian Regions


Litvinenko, Anna, Nigmatullina, Kamilla, Demokratizatsiya


For several decades, the local Russian media landscape was considered a rather predictable subject of analysis. Existing research on the Russian media system has described local media as being mostly controlled by local authorities, with a few independent press outlets in some regions serving as exceptions to the general rule.1 However, digitalization has created new opportunities for local communities to produce and spread alternative news. Has the potential of Internet liberalization2 been fulfilled, even if only partly, in the Russian regions? The map of Internet freedom in Russia3 shows that instances of censorship are spread quite unevenly throughout the regions: in the North Caucasus, the Internet environment is more restrictive, whereas a high level of online freedom can be observed in Buryatia near Lake Baikal. How are regional differences depicted in local media landscapes? What role does digital communication play in local Russian news landscapes?

Studies of Western media have shown that digitalization has led to a significant decline in the quality of local journalism in terms of its watchdog function and that digital-native hyperlocal websites have not been able to compensate for this loss.4 Is it possible that, in a restrictive media environment such as Russia, digitalization would have the opposite effect: the appearance of alternative news sources might allow local media to take on a watchdog function. Are the effects of digitalization similar in different regions? To date, there have been only a few studies that have compared local media in different Russian regions,5 all of which have dealt only with certain aspects of media functioning in the regions rather than analyzing whole news ecosystems.

Our study aims to address these questions by exploring local media landscapes in 33 carefully selected regions of Russia that, according to Natalia Zubarevich's theory of "Four Russias," represent different socio-economic contexts.6 It has been designed as an embedded case study7 based on document analysis, a survey of 73 media professionals, and 24 in-depth interviews.

In order to include in our research all news formats that have emerged on media landscapes in recent years-including VK news groups and Telegram channels-we have abandoned the notion of a media system and have adopted the concept of the multiple public sphere, which consists of myriad publics.8 In particular, we have used the recent theory of authoritarian publics suggested by Florian Toepfl,9 who proposed a framework for analyzing public communication in authoritarian settings. According to Toepfl, a country's public-at-large consists of a multitude of partial publics. Based on the level of public criticism of the elite in political discourse, he distinguishes three types of publics in authoritarian settings: leadership-critical, policy-critical, and uncritical. Each public consists of three elements: environment, participants, and discourse. In our paper, we ask:

* Research Question 1: Who are the leading publics in the local Russian news media landscapes (descriptive research goal)?

* Research Question 2: What are the factors that influence the prevailing level of political criticism in local media (explanatory research goal)?

Our results reveal differences among the news media landscapes in the cities of more than one million people (the First Russia, according to Zubarevich's theory), smaller regional centers (the Second Russia), small settlements (the Third Russia), and ethnic republics (the Fourth Russia) in terms of both media environments and discursive practices. The First Russia has a wider variety of news platforms and privately-owned media predominate. Leadership-critical publics are rather visible here, mostly in news groups on the Russia-based social network VK and on Telegram channels; policy criticism can be found even in loyal media. The local media landscapes of the Second and Third Russias are intertwined and characterized by tight state control over all media environments. …

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