Opinion / 20 April 2022

Russian media

Focus: Ukraine

‘Truth is the first casualty of the war’, they say. If we look at the Russian state-controlled media of the last months it would be clear that in their world the truth has died years ago. For experts like myself it was not surprising to see so much hate and disinformation as soon as the war begun and in preparation to that. It was also not so surprising to see just dozens out of thousands of media professionals leaving their jobs after the 24th of February. Those who work in the media have learnt how to cope with lies and rationalise their work for the benefit of the regime. It was also expected to see most of the independent journalists leaving Russia in the first week of war as they have learnt the costs of not being loyal to the government in their reporting.

Putin and Konstantin Ernst, chief of Russia's main state-controlled TV station Channel One.

The official media coverage of the war in Ukraine is the result of many years of compromises and repressions that the journalistic community have performed with the authorities and Russian establishment. In the 1990s when the state was too weak, journalists were powerful players capable of shaking the trust in government. In this decade the community has seen fantastic successes (i.e. establishment of quality media, heroic war reporting) and incredible failures (i.e. shameless payoffs to journalists known as dzhinsa, self-censorship and intra-community warfare). What the majority of journalists lacked was the clear code of ethics that would apply to everyone in the profession. Very few have tried to abide by the ethical principles, the majority saw them as the obstacle to their creativity. ‘Don’t let the facts spoil a good story’ – once told me an experienced Russian reporter.

Sadly, 22 years of Putin’s rule have clearly illustrated that facts – the essence of the journalistic profession – have no value in the Russian media. The media industry invents fakes and spreads them across platforms targeting old generations via TV and younger generations via online media. Facts can be invented and confirmation biases of audiences (that were carefully cultivated by the state) will let any news pieces get the approval and high ratings. In the days of war the Kremlin’s philosophy of ressentiment for the imperial greatness added to the sense of appropriateness (that many journalists in Russia call ‘adekvatnost’) helped inventing the agenda of the virtual war where the Russians are good guys who battle the Nazis, NATO and save the most vulnerable. The reality is far from that, as we know.

What could protect the Russian media from that fate? In the well-developed democratic state private ownership, legislation as well as public watchdogs can protect the media from the decline. All three aspects have been quickly put under control by the state.

The legislation has been amended to prevent fair and balanced coverage of domestic news: journalists are held liable for honest reporting. The most active independent media are called ‘foreign agents’. Finally, the arbitrary application of legislation forces everyone to practice self-censorship to avoid ending up in prison or paying a huge fine.

From 2000 onwards the Kremlin made sure to have the biggest and most influential media assets in the hands of the loyal rich men. In 2000, Russian government intervened into ownership affairs in the media for the first time. NTV Network and its mother company Media MOST had maintained staunch independence from the Kremlin, criticizing Vladimir Putin and his style of dealing with the state affairs. Putin’s government has seized NTV and dismantled the most unreliable outlets. By 2022, all national and network broadcasters in Russia are owned by the state (via VGTRK), by Gazprom (via Gazprommedia/GPM Holdings) and National Media Group (owned by the family of Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s close friend). The same applied to the online media: by 2022 Russia’s biggest big tech companies were either in the hands of the Kremlin’s people or kept loyalty to the Kremlin.

Finally, the organizations responsible for media monitoring and training of journalists have either been banned or put under strict state control in the 2000s. In 2006 the major training company ‘Internews’ was shut down in Russia. At the same time, the power inside the union of journalists was monopolized by the pro-Kremlin actors. Horizontal connections between journalists and media professionals in the independent media exist, but they have a very limited power in the growing authoritarian environment.

For many years under Putin Russian journalistic elite have developed sophisticated strategies to handle the demands of the Kremlin and protect editorial leverage. Many Russian journalists have learnt how to stretch the borders of permissible with the authorities on the Moscow and regional levels. This life of compromise under the ever-growing pressure that the media elites in Russia led was the oil of the authoritarian regime that is now killing the people in Ukraine and puts innocent but dissenting voices in prison at home.

The only silver lining in this crisis is the lessons that the future media professionals should learn from Putin’s media. Future Russian journalist must be fiercely independent from authorities, should abide by the ethics principles and severely punished for misinforming their audience. If these principles are put into action, this will let the Russian media get their resurrection from ashes of anti-Ukrainian propaganda.