The Media and Government in the USA, Europe and China
Edited By Christ´l De Landtsheer, Russell Farnen and Daniel B. German
12 Post-Communist Media in Russia
| 241 →
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in December 1991, coupled with the full-scale collapse of communism in East/Central Europe, brought expectations of Russia’s quick transformation into a democracy. Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin repeatedly expressed his commitment to democratic processes and launched an ambitious program of changes to reform the country, making it a truly open and economically stable society.
One of the major tasks of such a transition, creating free and independent media, has proven quite difficult. This chapter overviews Russian media (both print and electronic) and concentrates mainly on the economic challenges they faced during the early years of the country’s post-communist history. In addition, it reviews the Russian government’s attempts to control the press and television.
Since 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power and realized the importance of controlling access to information, the media have been an intricate part of Soviet politics. According to doctrine prevailing then:
. . . propaganda and agitation have general and permanent roles to spread the ideas of Marxism-Leninism, to explain to the masses the policy of the party, and to influence them emotionally to support this policy actively (Buzek, 1964, p. 17).
For over 70 years, the Soviet media served as one of the most important tools of official propaganda supervised by the Communist Party and several censorship agencies, including the KGB. On many occasions, the latter also forced journalists to perform intelligence or counterintelligence duties or sent its own agents abroad as “foreign correspondents” of different Soviet news organizations (Vachnadze, 1992, Chapters 2 and 10). Often, the KGB resorted to quite underhanded tactics. For instance, in 1990-91, many Russian publications ran a series of articles exposing the agency’s clandestine operations. But according to Yasmann, one source of those exposures was orchestrated to “pit younger security officers against ‘democrats’ and vice versa, as well as to prevent officers from joining Yeltsin’s camp” (Yasmann, 1993, p. 19).
A major change in Soviet media began in 1985. Then, Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his perestroika (restructuring) campaign. He apparently considered a liberated media instrumental to his reforms, but was reluctant to loosen control over them, so he set certain limits on media glasnost (openness). While he almost never criticized the more conservative publications, he often lashed out against those that were the most persistent and vigorous supporters/critics of his policies, such as Argumenty i Fakty and Moscow News. ← 241 | 242 →
But Gorbachev had released the media genie from the communist bottle. The limits of media freedom were continually expanded until the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. The post-Soviet media faced the challenges of economic chaos and political instability in Russia. Their managers and journalistic staffs had to deal with numerous and unprecedented problems of transition, including continuing governmental control without enough financial support from advertisers.
Newspapers and Readership
Much as in the Soviet past, newspaper reading remained a major leisure activity in democratization (Rhodes, 1993a, p. 39). Russian polling companies conducted a series of surveys in 1993 and produced some important statistics on the country’s readership then (Rhodes, 1993a, pp. 39-42). For example, in 1993, 36% of adults in European Russia living outside Moscow read a newspaper almost daily. More than half those respondents (58%) claimed to do so at least three days a week; 78% at least once a week (Rhodes, 1993a, p. 40).
According to this survey, Muscovites were more avid newspaper readers than other Russians, with 50% of the city’s adult population reading one daily. Only 16% of adult Muscovites did not read newspapers at all or had not read one within the three months prior to the poll, compared with the 20% in the rest of European Russia. When asked whether they read more or less than they did a year before, 15% of Moscow residents said they were reading more; 45% claimed to be reading less. Approximately 39% of those questioned did not notice any changes in their reading patterns (Rhodes, 1993a, p. 40).
The local press had a larger regular readership throughout the country than did the national press. Such publications combined political articles with coverage of social problems, sports, and popular culture. Also, readers’ interests varied substantially, depending on their demographic characteristics. Moscow men tended to be more interested in sports, while readers under 25 years old looked for information about music and concerts. Younger readers leaned toward many of the new papers which presented a more popular format and more liberal views; women and older Muscovites preferred the more established press.
Women were the primary readers of many papers. Apart from sports publications, only two newspapers (Kuranty and Kommersant) had a predominantly male readership in Moscow (53% and 68%, respectively) (Rhodes, 1993a, p. 41). Moscow readers named local news and listings of television programs as the topics which interested them most. National and international politics also ranked in the top ten popular issues. At the same time, most other interests on the list related to local problems, practical information, and entertainment. ← 242 | 243 →
Television and Its Audience
Television has been an important medium in Russia since the late 1960s when TV sets became common in most households. As in the Soviet past, television networks were still overwhelmingly state-owned and subsidized from the country’s budget. In the early 1990s, a series of attempts were made to create independent TV, such as the Moscow-based Sixth Channel and NTV. The former was started in 1992 as a joint venture with CNN; the latter went on the air in October 1993. However, the viewing audience for programs on both stations was limited because their broadcasts could not be received outside Moscow (Wishnevsky, 1994, pp. 11-12). The number of available channels in the country varied from place to place, but nowhere did it exceed six. The two major state-owned national channels attracted the largest audiences. Cable TV was relatively new to Russia. Its presence was substantial in large metropolitan areas (e.g., 35% of Moscow households) (Rhodes, 1993b, p. 5).
A number of surveys of European Russia in the early 1990s showed that 96% of all households had TV sets (94% ownership in rural areas; 96% in urban centers). Approximately 40% of urban households had two or more sets; about three-quarters of the households had a color TV.
Prime time viewing throughout the week was between 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. Most Russians watched TV daily. About 60% of urban respondents did so every weekday and 50% on weekends. Rural residents watched slightly less frequently. Men spent more time in front of their TV screens than did women. People under 25 and over 54 were the most frequent viewers.
In 1991-93 the two most popular programs in the country were the newscasts “Vesti” at 8:00 p.m. and “Novosti” at 9:00 p.m., with 40% and 50% of all Russian households watching each, respectively. Television remained the most important source of domestic and international news for both rural and urban Russians. At the same time, the majority of people still regarded TV as an entertainment medium (Rhodes, 1993, pp. 54-56).
Economic Challenges and Struggle for Survival
As soon as Yeltsin started his economic reforms and lifted government price controls on January 2, 1992, all of the Russian media found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy. Under the former Soviet system, the print media belonged to the state (i.e., the Communist Party). They were financed from its budget and were centrally distributed. Since all media were part of the propaganda machine, nobody was really concerned about their cost. The nationwide system of delivery (Soyuzpechat ) was centralized. Most print media did not make a profit; the state covered all the deficits. After the USSR disintegrated, newsprint and ink prices skyrocketed. While in 1991, newsprint could be purchased at 33 rubles a ton, by January 1992, it ← 243 | 244 → cost 240 rubles a ton, and by July 1992, it rose to 21,000 rubles (Daniloff, 1993, p. 44).
By early 1992, Soyuzpechat split into a number of national systems in the newly independent states. Each was given its own media monopoly. Few new privatized alternative delivery services could compete with Rospechat (the successor). Distribution prices also skyrocketed.
Soaring publishing and distribution costs, aggravated by inflation, sent subscription and newsstand prices sky high. As a result, newspaper and magazine circulations decreased dramatically. In 1991, the Soviet press lost about one-third of its 1990 subscribers, even though numerous new publications were started. In 1992 and 1993, this trend continued. According to the subscription rates for 1993, Izvestia kept 25% of its 1992 subscribers (800,000 compared to 3,200,000), Komsomol’skaya Pravda 15% (1,831,000 of 12,941,000), Nezavisimaya Gazeta 39% (27,000 of 70,000), and the weekly Argumenty i fakty 35% (8,873,000 of 25,693,000) (Androunas, 1993, p. 15). In their struggle for survival, newspapers and magazines attempted to increase advertising revenues and sought (with varying degrees of success) to diversify their activities by publishing supplements and setting up joint ventures with domestic and foreign firms.
The audiovisual media were not immune to economic problems either. Unlike the bulk of newspapers and magazines, which by 1993 had already been privatized, the overwhelming majority of TV and most radio stations were still state-owned. In the early 1990s, a major change in the electronic media was the disappearance of what used to be Gosteleradio (Soviet State Television and Radio Company). Control shifted to the former Soviet republics. But each of them, including Russia, continued with its own state TV and radio broadcasting.
In the previous Soviet model, the major expense for TV broadcasting was not programming, but transmission costs. Since the Ministry of Communications was responsible for the entire transmission system, a part of the national TV budget was appropriated for it. In the post-Soviet era, in addition to these expenses, Russian TV had to pay producers for movies it showed, which it never did before. The payment situation with sports events and entertainment was the same. At the same time, expansion of commercials and joint ventures on TV went faster than in the press because larger investments were made. Nevertheless, economic hardships forced TV organizations to fight for their survival.
State Subsidies and Political Pressures
In the Soviet system, the state both controlled and supported the press. But with the disappearance of the communist regime, financial support for the media faded away, too. Interestingly enough, finding themselves in dire straits, many “privatized” editors and journalists appealed to the government for help. Apparently, they failed to realize that they were putting themselves in a very vulnerable position and ← 244 | 245 → risking their newly won independence. The financial situation became critical in February 1992.
When a few large newspapers did not appear for several days, President Yeltsin signed an executive order “About additional measures for legal and economic defense of periodical press and state book publishing” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 22, 1992, p. 1). This order restored fixed prices (lower than production costs) for 70% of the newsprint and other kinds of paper for printing and publishing in the country. It guaranteed supplies for state book publishing and “newspapers and magazines published according to programs approved by the Ministry of Press and Mass Information of the Russian Federation” (Androunas, 1993, p. 61). Government-sponsored publications were not only guaranteed supplies, but also exempt from paying taxes on their hard currency revenues. Special funds to reimburse them for distribution and delivery expenses were also provided “within the framework of subscription circulation” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 22, 1992, p. 1). Not unexpectedly, there were also a number of cases in which the government tried to make its financial support conditional on a newspaper’s agreement to refrain from publishing an article which criticized the government (Tolz, 1993, p. 3).
Since government-owned TV and radio fell under Yeltsin’s strict control, it adhered to the “party line.” During Yeltsin’s confrontation with the Russian parliament and the subsequent October 1993 armed reprisals in Moscow, TV played an important role as the main source for pro-government propaganda.
In January 1992, Yeltsin authorized the merger of the country’s biggest news organization, TASS, with the Russian Information Agency “Novosti” (RIAN), thus creating a huge media structure under the auspices of the government. Officially, this move was explained as a solution for budget problems, but critics raised the issue of Yeltsin’s desire to monopolize information sources. (Interestingly enough, by the end of 1991, TASS had actually begun to show a small profit.) It is reasonable to assume that the government chose to subsidize the agency to prevent it from becoming independent (Androunas, 1993). At the same time, RIAN also aggravated Yeltsin by running a series of articles critical of his economic policies.
To strengthen presidential control over the state-run media even further, Yeltsin in late 1992 set up a Federal Information Center to supervise both television and radio and the TASS-RIAN conglomerate. He put one of his close associates Mikhail Poltoranin, in charge of the Center.
From 1991-93, when executive and legislative members waged a full-scaled political war, most of the country’s media joined one or the other side which explains obvious pro- or anti-government biases of different media outlets at the time. The government, in turn, also paid close attention to what journalists had to say. In the aftermath of the October 1993 mutiny, the president reinstated censorship and imposed a ban on 13 newspapers and one TV show (The New York Times, October 15, 1993, p. A7). ← 245 | 246 →
The Law on the Press
In the communist past, the media were regulated by the “Law on the Press and Other Mass Media,” adopted by the Soviet legislature in June 1990. In fact, this was the only legal document of its kind in the entire Soviet history.
After the USSR ceased to exist, all Soviet laws were declared invalid. But the new “Russian Federation Law on the Mass Media” was passed in December 1991. According to one observer, the Law on the Press reveals many compromises to accommodate the conservatives and their penchant for suppression. The 30-page law has none of the simplicity and ambiguity of the First Amendment to the US Constitution (Daniloff, 1993, p. 40). The document proclaimed prior censorship “inadmissible” (Article 3) (all articles are quoted from European Broadcast Statutes, Vol. 11 , No. 2, pp. 625-656); however, it required media organizations to register with the Ministry of Press and Information (Articles 8-15). Registration was not just a formality since it could be denied (Article 13). The media bore “criminal, administrative, disciplinary, or other responsibilities” for various violations and could be silenced (Articles 4 and 59). Journalists had certain rights (Article 47) and responsibilities (Article 49). Retail sales of erotic publications required discreet packaging (Article 37); calls for a “seizure of power,” racial violence, propaganda, or war were prohibited (Article 4).
Despite the existence of numerous restrictions and regulations, the press was able to operate quite freely much of the time. For instance, the pornography boom that started in the late 1980s continued into the 1990s. By 1991, pornographic publications became available virtually everywhere in Russia. As one expert notes, “the pornography issue pits conservatives against liberals, with the former wanting complete suppression and the latter urging civilized ways of control.” In another example, some Moscow newspapers also embarked on aggressive anti-Semitic campaigns (Daniloff, 1993, p. 40).
A lack of any professional standards and a passion for sensationalism resulted in many libel suits against media outlets. The Russian media in this period were “much more opinionated and less fact-based than their American counterparts” (Daniloff, 1993, p. 41). To some extent, this can be explained by the historical lack of access to information in a Soviet closed society. They saw themselves as heroes, crusaders, and independent journalists who had something to say, just like their Western European counterparts:
. . . common in Europe is the concept of the active or participant journalist, the journalist who sees himself as someone who wants to influence politics and audiences according to his own political beliefs (Horvat, 1991, p. 196).
Finally, harsh economic conditions and political chaos in Russia took their toll on the media, making journalists vulnerable to the influence of special-interest groups. Bribery became common for many news organizations (Daniloff, 1993, p. ← 246 | 247 → 41; Androunas, 1993). In 1991, Yegor Yakovlev, then head of Russian national TV, publicly admitted that “the level of corruption around advertising, including information programs, is difficult to describe” (Kommersant, No. 44, 1991, p. 11). For example, on numerous occasions, different private businesses paid for commercials illegally and directly to the TV crew, which subsequently stole the money. Similarly, newspaper journalists were involved in what was called “hidden advertising” (interviews or reports that were actually advertising but not identified as such) (Androunas, 1993).
The transformation of Russia’s media, which started in the mid-l 980s, continued into the early 1990s. The freedom of expression which Soviet journalists had first experienced under Gorbachev was expanded even further after 1991. Substantial progress was also achieved in privatizing Russia’s press.
Yeltsin and subsequent economic hardships affected the media, leaving them struggling. In addition, the new Russian government was quick to use a new (not ideological, but rather economic) means of media control. It subsidized the “loyal” publications and gave them tax breaks as well as special deals on newsprint, ink, and publishing expenses. The result was that “economic pressure has, at times, become political pressure for the media in terms of . . . government subsidies or lack thereof” (Wilson, 1995, p. 113).
In its attempts to restrain the media, the government also employed some of the tactics of its communist predecessors, such as the reinstatement of censorship and trumped-up criminal prosecutions. It also consolidated its control over the state-owned press and created a superficial media watchdog agency: the Federal Information Center. The government refused to privatize TV and radio so that the most influential remained under state ownership. Because of the chaotic conditions in the country, the government frequently failed to enforce its own new laws regarding the press (e.g., regulating pornography and advocating racial violence prohibitions).
Generally, the situation in the Russian media by the mid-1990s reflected the situation in the country as a whole: a painful transition from the old authoritarian communist system (with no comparable experience from previous history) to an uncertain future which may (or may not) be based on democracy and the market. (For an update on this topic, see Fossato and Kachkaeva, August 1999.)
Androunas, E. (1993). Soviet Media In Transition. London, UK: Praeger.
Buzek, A. (1964). How The Communist Press Works. London, UK: Pall Mall Press.
Daniloff, N. (Winter 1993). “Will Russian Media Survive” in The Fletcher Forum.
European Broadcast Statutes (1993). “Russian Federation Law on Mass Media (1991),” pp. 225-256, Vol. 11, No. 2. ← 247 | 248 →
Fossato, F. and A. Kachkaeva (August 1999). “Russian Media Empires V.” Found at http://www.rferl.org/nca/special/rumedia5/index.html.
Horvat, J. (1991). “The East European Journalist,” pp. 191-200 in Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 45.
Kommersant, No. 44 (1991). “Borovoy Nakonets-to Otsenil Televidenie. A Kupit ne Smog” (Borovoy Has Finally Started to Value Television. But He Cannot Buy It), p. 11.
New York Times (October 15, 1993). “Permanent Ban for 13 Russian Newspapers,” p. A7.
Nezavisimaya Gazeta (February 22, 1992). “O Dopolnitel’nyh Merah Po Pravovomu I Ekonomi-cheskomu Obespecheniu Periodicheskih Izdaniy I Gosudarstvennogo Knigoizdania” (About Additional Measures for Legal and Economic Defense of Periodical Press and State Book Publishing), p. 1.
Rhodes, M. (1993a). “The Newspaper in Russia Today,” pp. 39-42 in RFE/RL Research Report, Vol. 2, No. 45.
Rhodes, M. (1993b). “Russians and Television,” pp. 54-56 in RFE/RL Research Report, Vol. 2, No. 39.
Tolz, V. (1993). “The Media in the Countries of the Former Soviet Union,” pp. 1-5 in RFE/RL Research Report, Vol. 2, No. 27.
Vachnadze, G. (1992). Secrets of Journalism in Russia. Commack, NY: Nova Science Publishers.
Valery, R. (November 17, 1992). “Uchenyi, ‘Prodavshiy Rodinu,’ Nakonets Poluchil Advodata” (Scientist Who “Sold Out the Motherland” Finally Gets a Defense Lawyer), p. 2 in Izvestia.
Wilson, L. (1995). “Communication and Russia: Evolving Media in a Changing Society,” pp. 109-119 in The Social Science Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1.
Wishnevsky, J. (1994). “The Role of the Media in the Parliamentary Election Campaign,” pp. 8-12 in RFE/RL Research Report, Vol. 2, No. 46.
Yasmann, V. (1993). “Where Has the KGB Gone?,” pp. 17-20 in RFE/RL Research Report, Vol. 2, No. 8.