Georgia and Russian TV
According to a recent review of Russian TV by NATO:
NATO PA members were particularly concerned about the situation of the media in Russia. A presentation by Konstantin Eggert, head of the BBC office in Moscow, indicated that while radio and newspapers in Russia offered sufficiently balanced information, television news broadcasts could not be considered truly free and objective because of widespread government control. Only one channel (NTV or Channel 4) out of six covering the entire Russian Federation is, at least formally, independent, as it is partially owned by Gazprom. The government-controlled Russian gas giant took over NTV in 2001 from Media Most, a company owned by magnate Vladimir Gusinsky. As Mr Eggert pointed out, the overwhelming majority of the Russian population relies on TV as the principal source of information with the government-owned Channels 1 and 2 getting the largest share of the audience. Newscasts on those two channels report only the viewpoints of the authorities, especially on key political issues; questions such as the situation in Chechnya are not objectively treated on those channels. NTV’s approach is cautious but slightly more open on political issues.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed, stating: “There is still an independent print press. Unfortunately, there is not much left of independent television in Russia.” Given this power that the Kremlin has asserted over Russian television, and TV’s central role in providing information to Russians (so much for the idea that they are much more literate than Americans), it’s important to ask how the Kremlin is using this power. For instance, how is the power being used in connection with Russia’s ongoing confrontation with Georgia? Is Russian TV betraying Georgia in a factual or in a propagandistic manner?
The Carnegie Center’s Masha Lipman wrote in the Washington Post that in the immediate aftermath of Georgia’s arrest of several Russians who had been plotting a coup d’etat against its pro-West president “a government offical announced that Georgians were the most criminal ethnic group in Russia” and “State television was filled with stories about Georgian criminals operating in the Russian territory.” She explained: “On Kremlin-controlled television, Georgians were vilified as fat cats running casinos and driving Mercedes-Benzes. Raids on casinos (with their owners’ unmistakably Georgian-sounding last names repeatedly cited) were shown on national news programs. One of the federal channels showed a documentary about “guests” from the south — all with Georgian last names — coming to Russia to commit crimes.” The result was that the public supported discriminatory legal treatment of Georgians even though previously Georgians had enjoyed a positive image among Russians. Lipman reported: “polls taken in mid-October showed that 74 percent of the Russian people approved of stepped-up inspections of Georgian businesses, restaurants, and casinos; 38 percent said that Georgians should be deported from Russia, regardless of whether they are Georgian nationals or citizens of Russia.”
Lipman is a fully-qualified expert in neo-Soviet censorship. From 1995 until its closure by the Kremlin in 2001, she was deputy editor of Itogi magazine, published in cooperation with Newsweek. The crushing of Itogi was the beginning of the end for freedom of expression in Russia, but the West didn’t lift a finger to stop it (Newsweek itself was woefully, cravenly silent). She has previously written about how, in August, a privately-owned Russian TV channel whose programming is strictly non-political and certainly not over sophisticated made an unusual move: It launched a new show, whose two star anchors had a long record of hosting political shows. They also were known for their liberal views and reluctance to bend to government authority. After its fourth time on air, however, the show was shut. The invited guests had boldly spoken about government officials interfering with jury courts and orchestrating rulings to serve the Kremlin interests. The closure of the show was taken fully for granted and didn’t make much buzz. In fact if the show had gone on with the same hosts, then this would be something to talk about.
She explains how easy it has been for the Kremlin to achieve total control over television broadcast, as the lemming-like Russian population rolls over for Master:
Control over television is conducted by a well-coordinated team of loyal TV managers and their informal supervisors in the Kremlin. Their collaboration is not about the Kremlin dictating the agenda and forcing TV professional to boost this and downplay that. Highly professional, talented and sophisticated top managers of national channels are willing partners in the effort to create a picture of Russia that suits the interests of the top decision-makers in the Kremlin. They know how to censor their channels no less than their Kremlin minders do. 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.
The consequences are stark indeed, she writes, implying that the Kremlin can do as it likes with impunity:
In the most striking, but not unique example of blatant control over television, in the fall of 2004 the Kremlin radically limited the coverage of Beslan tragedy in which over 330 people, most of them children were killed in a monstrous terrorist attack in a school in Northern Ossetia. After the security operation was over, television coverage was under tight lid: there was no footage of survivors or victims’ relatives, no interviews with independent terrorism experts, no public discussions on any of the national channels. The president and his government didn’t face any political consequences of the tragedy, even in spite of significant and solid evidence that the horrible number of deaths resulted from incompetent, and ill-organized security operation whose commanders were concerned about avoiding responsibility, rather than rescuing hostages’ lives. But this evidence did not surface on television screens.
While there are still voices of objective analysis in print media, they have become largely meaningless. Kommersant, for instance, the leading light, has a circulation of just 100,000 (compare that to the New York Times‘ print run of over 1 million) and it was just purchased by a Kremlin-friendly oligarch.
The mere fact that television bombards viewers with negative images of Georgians could be expected to whip up a dangerous fervor against them; when television s widely associated with the government’s official imprimatur, even more so. Thus, it was hardly surprising when the Guardian reported soon after the feeding frenzy began that “a Georgian arm-wrestling champion was reported murdered in Moscow in an attack which his family said was carried out by nationalist skinheads as a result of the conflict.” In another fatality, one of the hundreds of deportees died from an asthma attack at a Moscow airport while waiting to be deported from Russia. The Georgian embassy said that Tengiz Togonidze, 58, was denied medical attention during five days of detention despite his requests to see a doctor, according to Turkish Weekly.
Merely by reporting unquestioningly on what the Kremlin is doing without mentioning its critics, Russian TV can mount a massive propaganda campaign. Thus, for instance, as Newsweek International reported:
Recently President Putin called for ethnic Russians to be given a fixed quota of places in the country’s open-air produce markets—traditionally controlled by immigrants from the Caucasus—in order to “protect the interests of the native Russian population.” That truculent rhetoric has not gone unnoticed. The president’s tone has given a “clear sign to bureaucrats and security services,” says Svetlana Ganushkina, head of the NGO Civil Assistance. “Putin’s words inspire nationalist movements growing across Russia.”
Or as Lipman states:
In the days that followed the arrests [of the Russians in Georgia], Russian officials sought to outdo one another in anti-Georgian rhetoric. Georgians were declared the most criminal of all ethnic minorities in Russia. A broad range of officials and loyalists demanded that they be barred from entering Russia and that migrant workers be forbidden to send home remittances. President Vladimir Putin remarked that “migration flows should be regulated so that… our citizens would not be disadvantaged in various sectors of the economy.” The speaker of the lower house proclaimed that “indigenous residents should be assured of advantages in trading activity at marketplaces.”
If the Kremlin can achieve unquestioning coverage of this sort of thing today, what will it be able to do tomorrow? Suppose it started building a new gulag archipelago: Would television report it? Would it report, much less criticize, mass arrests to fill the new gulags?