Here’s a piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal Europe about six months ago, about the effect of the internet on Russia’s stagnant politics:
In November 2010, Leonid Parfyenov, a well-known Russian journalist, took to the stage at a black-tie Russian television awards dinner. Visibly nervous, he embarked on a 10 minute critique of everything that was wrong with Russian media. The bravest print journalists are targeted with impunity, he said, while reporters on state-owned television are “no longer journalists, but rather state employees who worship submission and service”. No state television channel transmitted his remarks.
State control of television news is a core pillar of the so-called managed democracy that Vladimir Putin has built since he became president in 2000. As Mr. Parfyenov said in his speech: “News and life in general are categorized as [either] suitable or unsuitable news for television.” The state directly controls most of the national channels, and is suspected indirectly to control many others.
However, while television remains the main source of news for 80% of Russians, the internet is rapidly catching up. Internet penetration is soaring in Russia and it is a median that the state has little or no influence over. Social networking is on the rise and websites like Facebook and Twitter are becoming hugely influential forms of communication for more and more Russians.
For many, like Natalia Rostova, media correspondent for online news site Slon.ru, the increase in internet penetration will act as a balance to the perceived bias of the traditional media. “The television news is always positive about Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev”, she says.”It says that ‘today Putin met an important person and had important discussions’, and that’s it.”
On the rare occasions that television news attacks a Russian politician, it appears to be under the orders of the Kremlin. An example of this was the treatment of former mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. “Newspapers had written for many years about Mr. Luzhkov and the political patronage that his wife’s construction company enjoyed in Moscow,” says Ms. Rostova. “National television news never mentioned any of that, until Mr. Luzhkov fell out with president Medvedev. Then, overnight, the television news was full of attacks on Mr. Luzhkov.”
The state is less present in the print media, where quality print newspapers like Kommersant, Vedomosti,Moskovskie Novosti and Novaya Gazeta are not afraid to hold government structures to account. However, the total readership of these papers only amounts to around 5 million people, or 3% of Russia’s population. Furthermore, many papers are owned by Russian oligarchs, whose fortunes ultimately depend on the good favor of the state.
Despite the rise in the use of the internet by ordinary Russians, the state’s control of the main television channels continues to affect all aspects of Russia’s cultural life, from pop music to cinema. Artemy Troitsky, Russia’s leading rock critic, says: “Russian pop stars are economically dependent on the government, because it controls the biggest television stations. Many pop stars are therefore willing to appear in television appearances with Putin, or take part in electoral campaigns.”
Occasionally a pop star criticizes the government, as Yuri Shevchuk, Russia’s most famous rock star, did in a televised meeting with Mr. Putin in 2010. Mr. Putin looked furious, and asked Mr. Shevchuk: “Who are you?” “It would be like the American president asking Bob Dylan who he was”, says Mr. Troitsky. State television did not show Mr. Shevchuk’s criticisms, only Mr. Putin’s answers, and he has not appeared on state-controlled television since.
However, the state’s tight grip on traditional forms of media is being undermined by the increasing number of Russians who get their news from the internet, either from news sites like Gazeta.ru or Slon.ru, or from social networking sites like LiveJournal and from the blogosphere. According to Russian polling firm the Levada Center, the percentage of Russians who get political news from the internet rose from 13% in 2007 to 31% in 2011.
Some political bloggers, like lawyer and shareholder activist Alexei Navalny, enjoy bigger readerships than national newspapers, and use the internet to share documents and video footage that highlight officials’ corruption and abuse of power in Russia. Mr. Navalny has become famous for dubbing the ruling party, United Russia, a party of “thieves and swindlers”.
“It’s much harder to manage public opinion because of the internet,” says Mr. Troitsky. “The internet’s growing popularity is a huge hole in the wall of state control.”
For example, one grass roots opposition movement, the Blue Buckets, uses the internet to post video footage of Russian politicians’ chauffeur-driven cars, which cause long traffic jams by demanding clear lanes for their own private use. The Kremlin’s press spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, declined to be interviewed for this piece.