Russia’s Disappearing (Internet) Act

As Dmitry Gudkov is learning (or relearning) this week, it is tough being a Putin critic.  While on a panel co-hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative and Freedom House, he accused the Kremlin of initiating baseless investigations against opposition activists such as anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and New Left leader Sergei Udaltsov.  Gudkov, who was one of the few members of the Duma closely affiliated with Russia’s post-2011 protest movement, has been accused of treason, expelled from his party faction, and likely will be ousted from the Duma in a move that many argue demonstrate how little actual “opposing” Russia’s opposition parties do.

In his controversial speech, Gudkov echoed earlier statements by Navalny in describing Russia’s state television as being a “zombie box” that manipulates public opinion.  He identifies media-control as a key tool the Kremlin uses to maintain regime stability; it may, in fact, be one of the most effective tools in their arsenal.  Critics face considerable challenges in Russia’s media market, and, as recently reported by NGO Reporters Without Borders (RWB), conditions have worsened since Putin’s recent re-election.  Russia moved down 6 spots from last year’s report, and is now ranked 148 out of 179 countries in regards to media freedom.

On display in front of the Paris Embassy: A Reporters Without Borders activist stands behind a banner for their Sochi 2014 campaign. The banner depicts the Olympic rings as blood-covered brass knuckles.
The picture is posted on The Guardian’s website at

When it comes to Russia, RWB often focuses on highly dramatic journalist killings (scroll through their “Russia” page or check out their recently launched Sochi protest campaign), and not without cause.  Russia is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, and six were killed in 2011 alone (though only one in retaliation for his reporting).  The worst conditions are in the North Caucasus region, as journalists and human rights activists often come under threat by both local law enforcement and radical Islamic groups.

However, media control in the Russian Federation is actually fairly subtle, which is why Russia ranks as a “difficult” rather than a “very serious” situation (i.e. China or Iran).  Journalists who report stories critical of local officials often find themselves the center of (often expensive) defamation lawsuits.  Financial control, in fact, seems one of the most common ways of shaping Russia’s media message (a situation reflecting China’s critique of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire…); a couple media executives lost their jobs after publishing an article accusing Putin’s United Russia of ballot stuffing during recent elections.  Some of this control is direct, as the state owns (or indirectly controls) all the national television networks, a couple radio stations, 2 of the 14 national newspapers, and 60% of local newspapers.  Some of this financial pressure comes from “below;” as a 2008 Frontline episode demonstrates, the media presents a favorable view on Putin because this is what most viewers prefer.

Since the internet is less restricted than other media, many people, Gudkov included, are optimistic that it can be the basis for a free press.  Back in 2008, soon-to-be president Dmitry Medvedev cited Russia’s uncensored internet as proof of media freedom, and the availability of online news sources definitely impacted the recent protests.  While most Russians (81%) receive their news from state-controlled television, roughly 70% of protesters cited the internet as their key source of information (Volkov 2012).  These differing sources, in turn, help explain why the political attitudes of protesters differ so significantly from the general public.

This trust in the internet, however, is naïve, as the government is perhaps even savvier in their control of this medium.  Much attention has been given to the threat of censorship under Russia’s recent internet blacklisting law, but the Kremlin has already demonstrated that they do not need this law to shape the flow of information.  Early on the day of the 2011 parliamentary election, hackers shut down several opposition news websites, leaving state-owned media one of the few sources available.  In this game of internet cat and mouse, the protesters have yet to show that they can organize and discipline themselves enough to really take on the state.

Why the internet focus?Russia is one of the fastest growing internet markets in Europe, though the who uses it is very divided.Image from a RIA Novosti story:
Why all the focus on the internet?
Russia is one of the fastest growing internet markets in Europe, though who uses it is very divided.
Image from a RIA Novosti story:–Study.html


A Teaching Sample Post

I wrote this post as a sample for my post-Soviet students as the are preparing their own posts on media freedom in their chosen countries.  In this post, they were to include the following information:

  • In their recent report on media freedoms, what ranking did Reporters Without Borders give your country?
  • In recent years, has the trend in your country been towards more freedom, less freedom, or has it held steady?
  • How much control does the government have over: a) television, b) newspapers, and c) the internet?  For instance, is the media mostly privately owned, or is it state-run?

The big blog-writing tip from this post?  The more controversial the topic, the better researched it needs to be!  Media freedom is a very contentious issue, and even the “expert” sources (like Reporters Without Borders) will have a certain bias.  The best way to get around this, then, is to check and double-check (sometimes even triple-check!) your information and be aware of what potential bias your sources might share.

If sources contradict each other, then this contradiction is interesting to report.  If multiple sources seem to agree on a point, then you can be more confident of your conclusions.


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