Since the Vladimir Putin’s accession to the presidency of the Russian Federation in 2000 the state has gone through significant changes and reforms introduced by the new president. The country under Putin’s rule managed the financial crisis of 1998, experienced rapid economic growth and faced power centralization. Particularly, the power rearrangements called for international doubts regarding state of democracy in the federation. One of the democracy threats is Putin’s interference in the realm of free media. Ultimately, the most severe measures realized by Kremlin were undertaken towards television, particularly, TV6, ORT and NTV. This paper seeks for explanation of what made the television to fall into disgrace by analysing the particular role of this medium in Russian society, in Putin’s reforms and in Russian domestic politics. The author also looks at the way, how two media tycoons Gusinsky and Berezovsky were expelled from the media business in Russia, thus turning the Russian television form watchdog to lapdog.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation remained as its legal successor, thus keeping the Soviet legacy, including Soviet television, which generally had coverage across all the Union. After 1991, Russia declared itself a country on the road to democracy. Until the Yeltsin’s resignation on the eve of 1999 “political leaders and organised interests adopted themselves to constitutional and democratic mass politics”.1 The new system also necessitated respective adjustments in the field of media. On November 30, 1994 Yeltsin issued the presidential decree by which the two major television channels – ORT (Channel One) and RTR (Russia television Channel) – were transformed into an open joint stock companies. That is, the companies were made publicly open for privatization.
Throughout the first half of the 1990s new stations began to appear alongside the two senior television channels, particularly TV6 as in Berezovsky’s bosom and NTV, Gusinsky’s plot. Both of them essentially contributed to the results of the 1996 Presidential elections. Namely, their vigorous support of Yeltsin was more than obvious. Thus, the two media tycoons at that time were very much linked to the Kremlin and “television emerged as the prime instrument for gaining and keeping political power”.2 One may agree, then, that the 1996 elections mark the threshold, the starting point in the history of contemporary power-media relations in Russia.
Following the timeline of media history in the Russian Federation, the main trends in development of Russian television can be summarized into the following three periods: 1) Privatization (1991–1996): when the emergence of an integrated political-business elite took place. Television to some extent gradually became financed by political parties and owned by loyal oligarchs (that is, Yeltsin “family” members); 2) Oligarchization (1996–2000): restructuring and redistribution of ownership among a loyal business elite (NTV case), as well as growth of media-industrial conglomerates and the rise and fall of the advertising industry (affected by the 1998 crisis); 3) De-Oligarchization (since 2000): when an extensive withdrawal of oligarchs from the media industry took place and a rapid growth of advertising started and cross-media concentration (Gazprom media) was formed. Ultimately, the third period witnessed these essential changes – inconvenient television stations were brought under the legal state’s surveillance (withdrawal of oligarchs) or even closed down. By these actions television in Russia fully became a speaking trumpet of Putin’s Government.
One of the main preconditions of a democratic system is freedom of speech, which to great extent is presented by media. Once media content is put under governmental control, the system itself becomes questionable in terms of being a democratic. Thus, Putin’s transformations regarding media ownership and taking the control over the agenda, especially in television, doubtlessly questions the entire political system in the Federation. The issue of agenda control in television is significant also due to its consumption in Russia, where 85 percent of citizens receive their information from the federal (national) TV broadcasts.3 Television as a medium is easy to consume, and it is also cheaper than buying newspapers on everyday basis, and, besides, it is also a source of leisure. All these characteristics of television provide fruitful preconditions for the medium to become a powerful tool for control in arms of the Government. Within the essay the author aims at analysing Putin’s actions towards the federal television stations, which have close to 100 percent coverage nationwide.4 The focus will be put on issues related to the television’s role internal politics in Russia and in the society. The particular attention is given to the Gusindky’s and Berezovsky’s case by providing analysis of their importance in Putin’s politics. Both of those cases are explicit examples of the de-oligarchization and consequences of this action, and they demand a critical analysis.
As statistics show the federal television is a source of basic (or even general) information for Russian people, what makes television especially attractive as a source of control for the Kremlin. This tendency is very much influenced by economic development of Russian society: “The social background of media consumers does affect the level of influence of specific media. This is particularly true with regard to the limited access of low-income social groups to the satellite and cable TV networks, as well as to the internet (16 percent of the population live below the poverty line).”5
Television as a source of information in Russia is so popular not only because it is free of charge and accessible to masses, but also because of its nature. First of all, television is an entertainment source: “Television remains the principal medium through which most people obtain visual entertainment.”6 Along with the entertaining programmes, television also provides so called qualitative information, namely, news and analytical talk-shows and similar programmes. Television-provided information, including news, is easy to perceive. They are as packed commodities ready to consume. Nowadays media critics call this packed information an infotainment – framed qualitative information which is combined with entertaining elements: “Infotainment is a sign and a signifier of what McChesney (2004) had called the ‘age of hyper-commercialization’ where almost every aspect of mediated communication is commodified.”7 Regarding Russia as a post-communist state infotainment is even more present than in the Western world due to the sudden shift from Marxism to the free market system.8 Svetlana Pasti, exploring journalism practice in Russia, concludes “media aggressively implants hedonistic morals, paying huge attention to the entertainment genre”.9 Thus, the nature of television makes leaders of non-democratic regimes so enthusiastic about assuming control over this medium – they in a more explicit or implicit way assert their rights to pack the television commodities.
There are numerous quantities of books and articles dealing with Russia’s particular political and economical habits under the rule of Vladimir Putin. Accordingly, the author of the essay considers Russian internal politics as being guided in a way, that it becomes hard or even impossible to talk about the country being a fruitful soil for democracy – a system which “requires a separation of powers, so that no single institution or social force dominates the society and polity”.10 In Russia, the millennium brought significant changes and under Putin’s rule the country “evolved to a kind of oligarchic capitalism controlled by a combination of old political and new economic elites”.11 The upper mentioned definition of democracy insists on separation and non-dominancy of powers, whereas in Russia the powers tend to be merged under supervision of the leader forming so called “managed democracy”.12 Lipman and McFaul have argued that the most obvious manifestation of the shift from democracy to managed democracy is the state’s effort to control all major television stations.13 Thus the media can serve as a thermometer for measuring the temperature of democracy. (That is, whether it is still alive.)
Accordingly, in many communication science papers and in everyday journalism practice media is aptly described as a watchdog (the 4th power), and if it is restricted, it becomes a lap-dog of the Government. This definitely is a case of breaking the rule of democratic non-dominancy. It is the case when society is made blindfold. During the period prior to Putin’s ascendancy “there was pluralism in print and on television, criticism of the government, particularly on issues such as corruption and Chechnya”,14 whereas during Putin’s two presidential terms, media, particularly television, have experienced hard violation of their democratic rights (and obligations) that accompany their role as a watchdog. Even their very existence has been heavily violated. The essential reforms, which will be discussed in the following parts, have explicitly demonstrated Russia’s shift from a democratic to a non-democratic system. Becker names the established order as neo-authoritarian and he argues the opinion by saying: “The most important manifestation of Russia’s neo-authoritarian system is the way in which state control has limited pluralism, particularly on television. Under Putin there has been a steady decline in coverage of dissent.”15
It is 2006, 8pm Moscow time, photo-flashes brightly coruscate, people are rising to their feet and shaking hands – the Russian president Vladimir Putin is arriving. The first story of news (Vesti) is devoted to Putin’s visit to the enterprise in one of the regions. The main story carried out regards Russia’s president’s great efforts to to foster economic development of Russia. “If there is no obvious breaking news, we start with the president,"1 said Antonov, whose programme appears on the state channel Rossiya. The average Russian citizen sits down at his television and starts to consume – both food and information. Both acts of consumption provide pleasure, because it is easy and relaxing. If political debates appear, they are mainly guided in order to show Russia’s power and great capabilities. This has a cheering effect on the viewer who is, at the end of the day, very tired and needs some moral encouragement.
1Meyers, L., M. (2004). On Russian TV, Whatever Putin Wants, He Gets.
In 1992 two main state-owned television channels – ORT (Channel 1) and RTR (Channel 2) – were allowed by Presidential decree to engage in commercial activity. In 1994, another Presidential decree transformed ORT into an open joint stock company. 51 percent of its shares belonged to the state, and 49 percent of shares were sold to a group of banks and commercial structures associated with Boris Berezovsky.16 Regarding RTR, the state remained its owner by reorganizing in 1993 the television station into a state unitary enterprise. The same happened to 51 percent of ORT shares. The president had ultimate control over these channels’ programming policy by virtue of appointing their top executives, including the chairperson of the ORT shareholders’ council.17
Alongside with the reforms of the previously fully state owned ORT, new private television channels were established. Amongst them also NTV and TV6 were launched; the former was established by Vladimir Gusinsky (media holding Media-MOST) and the latter by Boris Berezovsky (media holding MNVK). The two newly established channels saw daylight in 1993. This paper will discuss all the three television channels – ORT, NTV and TV6 – and their fate under Putin’s rule.
Once Gusinsky launched his channels, he formed personnel from top journalists at that time and set high professional standards. TV6 and especially NTV were the most critical of all the channels at that time, and one can agree, that of its contemporaries, they best served the watchdog role.18 The most prominent programme on the NTV channel was Kukly (The Puppets) where current political affairs were harshly criticised: “[..] through such acclaimed masterpieces as Kukly (The Puppets), referred to as the mirror of the Russian politics.”19 NTV journalists focused their coverage on Chechen war. The channel also conducted interviews with Chechen rebel leaders Maskhadov and Basayev. The other issue put under NTV’s critics was the enormous corruption in the Government.
Gusinsky’s television channel NTV “very harshly criticised the Chechen war and didn’t support Boris Yeltsin from the very beginning. Only later, when it became clear that negative publicity could ruin Yeltsin’s campaign, NTV did start to support Yeltsin”.20
NTV carried out political and current affairs programmes which used satire to relentlessly criticize the political establishment. This especially applies to Vasili Grigoryev who produced the weekly programme Kukly on NTV. Notably, president Putin was frequently represented in the show. During parliamentary elections in 1999 and presidential elections in 2000 NTV was critical of the Second Chechen War, Putin and the political party Unity backing him. In the beginning of 2000, the puppet of Putin on the show acted as Little Zaches in a story based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's “Little Zaches called Cinnabar”, in which blindness causes villagers to mistake an evil gnome for a beautiful youth. Later the same year after the elections the programme produced the show “Ten Commandments”, where the puppet of Putin was asked to be excluded. The puppet in the show was replaced with a cloud covering the top of a mountain and a burning bush. The same year, the puppet of Putin acted in the Kukly show as Girolamo Savonarola.
Thus, it was natural that Vladimir Gusinsky with his media holding Media-MOST was the first to be punished – all these activities of NTV were followed by severe sanctions. Through the selective application of tax and criminal law, including the invasion of Media-Most premises by hooded and heavily armed tax police, the direct pressure of the Ministry of Press, Radio and Television and boardroom intrigue, Media-Most collapsed.21 On the surface, the reason for closing down NTV was purely commercial. The Media-MOST company owed more than USD 200 million to Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom and in March 2000 Gazprom demanded reimbursement for a USD 211 million loan that it had repaid to a bank on behalf of Media-MOST. Charges were brought against the owner of Media-MOST, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Gazprom attempted to assume control over the Media-MOST holding company. Gusinsky was arrested and later released when he agreed to sell enough Media-MOST shares to place Gazprom in a position of control over NTV. Representatives from the Ministry of Press and Information were also present during negotiations between Gusinsky and Gazprom, which has been interpreted as a clear sign that these representatives were primarily interested in securing state control over Media-MOST.22 The impact was devastating: NTV, the leading source of non-state broadcast news and the only station with a national reach that was not state-owned, fell into the hands of the government-controlled energy giant Gazprom.23
The other channel in question is Berezovsky’s TV6 (originally called the Moscow Independent Broadcasting Corporation), where he owned 75% of the stock through different companies. The fate of TV6 derived from the relations between Berezovsky and Putin as well as the television content itself. Soon after Putin’s accession to power, the channel also turned unfriendly towards the new leader of the Federation. TV6 critics provoked much harsher measures undertaken by the Kremlin.
As the 15 percent of TV6 stock belonged to LUKoil, the company employed a very rarely used paragraph of the joint-stock company law that allowed minority shareholders to defend their interests by liquidating companies whose liabilities had exceeded their assets for two years in a row or longer. Boris Berezovsky made a public statement about his readiness to buy out shares that were owned by LUKoil-Garant, but this company did not respond to the offer.24 Ultimately, TV6 was closed down on January 22, 2002. The new bid was announced where Berezovsky was not allowed to participate. It is worth mentioning that the court managed to produce the ruling very quickly though court proceedings often drag on for years. In July, 2002 the Federal Arbitration Tribunal in Moscow ruled that the January decision to force TV6 off air was illegal.25
The other Berezovsky’s channel to be discussed is ORT, the privatized TV channel. Despite the fact that Berezovsky exercised significant influence over ORT content during the Yeltsin’s period, in general terms the channel continued to be a state “pocket” channel. This devotion to Yeltsin was self-evident, as Berezovsky was one of the Yeltsin “family” members. Moreover, Berezovsky was one who actually participated in the selection of Yeltsin’s successor. Thus, from the very beginning ORT was supporting also Putin. Nonetheless, upon a slip in Putin’s actions ORT grew critical of the new Russian president. Namely, the breaking point was the Kursk tragedy and Putin’s reaction to it. ORT accused Putin being incapable to act properly. Putin’s reaction to the tragedy was also widely criticized by international press. The headlines of the press stated Putin deepened the tragedy: “Kursk Tragedy: Putin inaction turns disaster into a crisis”.26 After the event ORT started to boost its critics, which also aroused sanctions for the Kremlin.
Alongside TV6 and NTV, after several years of mysterious deals ORT was finally acquired by the Government. Berezovsky was forced to sell his shares to the state. In an open letter to President Vladimir Putin published by Interfax, Berezovsky said that “last week a high-ranking Kremlin official gave me an ultimatum: either I hand over my block of ORT shares to the state within two weeks or I go the same way as Vladimir Gusinsky – presumably meaning the Butyrka prison.”27 Instead, Berezovky sold the shares to Roman Abramovich, Sibneft, which later was acquired by Gazptom and renamed Gazprom neft. For a long time it remained top secret what had happened to the ORT’s 49 percent of stock: “On July 6 , Abramovich gathered a narrow circle of journalists close to him for an informal talk during which he announced that he had sold his shares in ORT to Sberbank [Savings Bank of the Russian Federation]. (Except for 6.5 percent used to secure a $100 million loan for ORT from Vnesheconombank). Abramovich said the deal involved a figure of between $140 million and $200 million.”28 Through this deal, the state acquired also ORT, which nowadays is harshly criticized for being pro-Putin. The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Russian press freedom group, released a study in 2006 that found „that 91 percent of political news on Channel One was devoted to Putin and the ‘ruling powers’. Nearly three quarters of that coverage was positive, a quarter neutral – none of it critical”.29
These mysterious terminations (TV6) and sell-offs (NTV) obviously were not done only for economic gain; these actions were a sign of a changing regime: “Although formally NTV and TV6 were closed down legally, there is good reason to believe that the main goal was to silence TV stations that were criticising political authorities.”30 However, during Yeltsin’s era the relationship between television and the state remained controversial. The main channels were owned directly by the state or state associated media tycoons still there was real pluralism of organizational forms, sources of financing and control, and consequently, of viewpoints expressed in the programmes. All these factors were in favour of qualitative political broadcasting, which had a potential. In addition, investigative journalism had space for development and growth and represented diverse points of view, particularly within the framework of the non-state commercial channels like NTV. On the negative side, television became colonized by various political interest groups, which allowed outpourings on the screen of a mixture of politically compromising material (compromat), commercials and indirect commercials (zakaz).31
Today pluralism, which was achieved during controversial Yeltsin’s era, is eliminated. The prospective watchdog now has grown into a lapdog lying on Government’s lap. Today Kremlin-controlled television stations are heavily criticised by the West for being biased and its very obvious pro-Governmental policy: “Today political and news coverage on national TV is thoroughly filtered, measured and orchestrated so that nothing unexpected or unpleasant for the Kremlin may appear on the screen. [..] lion's share of TV political coverage is given to the broad range of government incumbents and only a few percent, to their isolated opponents. [..] Television reporters, too, have learned the rules of loyal coverage. These days it is inconceivable for somebody to break the unspoken limits. It is fairly common, however, for TV reporters to censor themselves even before – and sometimes more strictly – than their managers would.”32
As discussed, the media are a thermometer of democracy because they can both demonstrate and advocate the interests of the public. The media are the fourth power and are a watchdog of the three others. It is essential for a democratic system that the media are not suppressed by the Government. According to the definition of democracy mentioned at the beginning, the Russian state is obviously severely breaking democratic rule.
After Putin came to power, first as prime minister in 1999 and then as a president in 2000, in spite of the fact that the “state reintroduced administrative and political pressure on the television channels”33 Putin continued to advocate media freedom: “Putin has spoken of media freedom as ‘one of the cornerstones of democracy’ and asserted that if we don’t have a free mass media, we shall very soon slide back into the past”.34 When Putin talks about democracy in his country, he obviously means his own way to democracy – the managed one: “In his state of the nation address in June 2000, he divided the media into state (gossudarstveniye) and anti-state (anti-gossudarstveniye) and attacked private owners for turning media into ‘mass misinformation outlets’ and ‘into a means of struggle against the state’”.35
When analysing television’s role, it also has to be taken into consideration that Russia is a territorially huge country with regions expressing their dissatisfaction about Moscow’s way of ruling. This dissatisfaction leads to threats of separatism (the most explicit example is Chechnya, also western Siberian regions that are rich in oil and natural gas have good international economic contacts, and economically could survive as separate states). Recently, Russian journalist Yekaterina Glikman in Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta has touched upon this issue by arguing there are very little of things, which bounds the centre and the regions: „The only things we have in common [amongst Moscow and Far East] is Russian language, [..] and the Channel One [ORT], who very rarely remembers of this part [Far East] of Russia [..]. Regions get attention only if there is a flood, earthquake, volcano eruption or visit by the president or prime minister. This is too little to feel oneself as a single country.”36 To sustain territorial integrity, it is necessary to control information flows, as well as to introduce vertical administrative apparatus, limiting regions’ opportunity to have self-governmental actions: “During Putin’s first administration (2000–2004), administrative measures led to an increasing centralization of power.”37 After Beslan tragedy in 2004, Kremlin “drastically limited the resource base of regional elites by including them into the vertical hierarchy of power”.38
Information flow regarding regions is limited, and it is done also in dramatically drastic ways. Many of the Russian journalists killed are from regions and/or are covering news on regions. For example, the latest assassination of Ingushetia.Ru owner Magomed Evloev is one such case. As an example of violent limitation of freedom of speech also serves an abduction of the Agence France-Presse correspondent in Ingushetia in 2003. If the information having potential to bring regions on revolt is not well managed, the state is in danger. It is important for Moscow not to lose regions being rich in natural recourses. Thus, (federal) television becomes the most important medium through which to exercise control due to the following reasons: firstly, its effects; secondly, Russian society’s habits of television consumption; and thirdly, its nationwide coverage. Putin’s regime was established with great help from media. In fact, Putin introduced the new ideological concepts for the media’s role in society: “While continuing to declare commitment to the free media as a foundation of democracy, Putin asserted that the true social responsibility of the media was to support the government in carrying out its reforms. The media that criticized the government and more importantly, supported its political opponents or the potential rivals to Putin’s regime became the subject of scrutiny by tax inspectors, and were either shut down or placed under state control.”39
Now, “the access of oppositional parties and autonomous civil groups to national broadcasting media is being limited.”40 Now, only REN-TV (established in 1997) can be considered as liberal in the frame of Russian television. REN-TV is the only TV channel who conducts interviews with representatives from “Other Russia”. Today, Russia is ranked amongst the most dangerous countries for journalists. The report “Killing the Messenger”, which is based on the world’s most comprehensive survey of deaths among journalists and other news media professionals, was conducted between January 1996 and June 2006 by the International News Safety Institute. It reports that Russia, having killed 88 reporters within the past 10 years, is second only to Iraq where 138 reporters have been killed.41
All the arguments and facts mentioned in the essay allow the author to conclude that Russian television under Putin’s rule has been made a substantial tool for power consolidation in the Russian Federation. This is also stated by Ivan Krastev’s, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, argument who argues that “pipeline and television are two things that pull together the country; and they are very powerful weapons”,42 which explicitly illustrates Putin’s way of consolidating the country and nation(s).
Laura Supjeva is a visiting student at Charles University in Prague and studies at the University of Latvia.