by Robert Orttung and Christopher Walker*
Writing on the revolutions of Central Europe in the New York Review of Books two decades ago, scholar Timothy Garton Ash made the observation that “the crucial medium was television. In Europe, at the end of the twentieth century all revolutions are telerevolutions.”
Today, one could argue that all revolutions, at least in their nascent stages, are social media revolutions. However, this does not mean that television has been tossed onto the ash heap of history. In fact, in settings where the state retains dominance over television, it is in many ways functioning as a counterrevolutionary medium.
The current situation in Russia—which Freedom House has given poor marks on political rights and civil liberties, democratic development, and media freedom, but middling scores on internet freedom in particular—is a case in point. The country’s unfair and fraud-ridden parliamentary elections on December 4, 2011, brought into sharp relief the dramatically different realities portrayed by new and old media. Russia’s growing ranks of internet users collected and disseminated evidence of widespread and blatant electoral abuses, stimulating a response from a wider public that is showing less tolerance for corrupt and manipulative leadership. By contrast, the Kremlin-controlled national television networks, with only minor exceptions, have ignored both the extensive election mischief and demands that Russia’s top leadership be held accountable for it.
State dominance of the national broadcast media has long made it possible for the authorities to keep meaningful criticism off most television screens and shape the boundaries on what people are free to discuss on the air. For example, instead of genuine opposition figures, activists, and social critics, televised public-affairs shows feature a reliable set of Kremlin-approved commentators. Television can also serve as a simple loudspeaker for the leadership when it chooses to go on the offensive. Before the December 4 elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin used state media to denounce certain nongovernmental organizations and election monitors as foreign-funded “Judases.” State-controlled outlets are doing more of the same in advance of the March 4 presidential vote.
It is important to remember that the audience for these outlets comprises most of the population. Their extensive reach can be seen in recent polling data. A Levada Center survey conducted after the parliamentary elections (December 8–16) asked Moscow residents to list up to three sources from which they usually got their news. The results heavily favored state-controlled media: television—78 percent, internet news sites—44 percent, friends and neighbors—39 percent, radio—28 percent, newspapers—26 percent, and other internet sources—16 percent.
More to the point, 89 percent of those who supported the ruling United Russia party said they got their news from television, whereas only 38 percent of that group reported using internet news sites. Beyond Moscow, this breakdown is likely even more skewed toward television, as rural populations have less access to the internet and other independent sources of information.
Putin’s marathon call-in show performance on December 15 was emblematic of the way that the Kremlin has dominated political discussion in the media over the last decade. All key outlets broadcast the choreographed event, which allows the Russian leader to communicate an unchallenged message directly to his core constituency. Meanwhile, Putin has said he is “too busy” to participate in debates with his fellow (relatively friendly) presidential candidates, demonstrating his aversion to any unscripted television exposure.
Given this background, it was all the more remarkable that Russia’s three main state-controlled television channels reported on the December 10 rally against election fraud in Moscow, though the gathering, unlike previous protests, may have simply been too large to ignore. Since the end of the holidays, the state media have gone back to their old ways, devoting extensive positive coverage to Putin and disparaging the opposition as unfit to govern. Opposition figures Vladimir Ryzhkov and Boris Nemtsov were recently granted rare appearances on late-night talk shows, but both programs were prerecorded and edited, and Ryzhkov was berated and called a “traitor” on air by Sergei Kurginyan, a Kremlin apologist, for meeting with newly arrived U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul.
The regime’s control over broadcast media served it well during the past decade, but as Russia’s governance and economy have deteriorated, the Kremlin-friendly version of reality on television may be drifting too far from ordinary Russians’ daily experiences and understanding of their country. A similar dynamic took hold in the dying days of the Soviet Union, when it became impossible for ordinary citizens to stomach the government-issued fantasy any longer.
If such a rupture is now under way—and it is still an open question—the internet will have played a key role in bringing it about. Putin’s apparent failure to fully appreciate the threat posed by new media is consistent with his general reliance on old tricks, such as stoking anti-Americanism, in a rapidly shifting landscape. Indeed, as he prepares for another six years in office, he has made clear that he has no intention of changing the way he governs the country.
The future of Russian media is therefore bound up with the outcome of the larger political battle. The coming days and weeks will tell whether a critical mass of Russians have seen enough of the status quo.
* Robert Orttung is assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Christopher Walker is vice president for strategy and analysis at Freedom House. Walker can be followed on Twitter @Walker_CT.