Friday, May 18, 2007

Russian Journalists Fight Censorship

In the past days several journalists have left the Russian News Service (RSN - Русская Служба Новостей) protesting what they call very harsh censure coming from the new company executives, appointed in April from the state-run Channel One (Первый Канал). As Kommersant reported today, a former employee of RSN Artem Khan, has told the paper of key journalists leaving the radio service amid the developing scandal.

The RSN is part of a radio-holding Russian Media Group which owns a variety of radio stations, including the popular Russkoe Radio, Xit-FM, Maximum, and the Russian News Service radio station. The audience of Russkoe Radio is in the range of 7.5 million listeners. Adding the entire auditorium of all the radio stations of the Russian Media Group gives a substantial share of the entire Russian radio audience, at least in and around the Central-Russian area. Russian News Service provides news broadcasts for all the radio stations of the Russian Media Group, and used to operated live broadcasting for its news services.

The scandal began in mid-April, when the head of RSN, Mikhail Baklanov was fired from his post which he occupied since the company's inception twelve years ago. A team from the state-run Channel One replaced him and was quick to initiate its own rules regarding the news content of the radio station. According to, most of the political stories had to be devoted to the state-party United Russia and the Public Chamber. If human rights activists were to be mentioned in the commentaries, they had to be involved with the state (Vladimir Lukin, Ella Pamfilova). At least 50% of the news content had to be positive, and all the news broadcasts had to end on a positive note (this by itself is not that strict and gives leeway, but). The likes of opposition members such as Kasyanov, Ryzhkov, or Kasparov were to be mentioned only in extraordinary circumstances and referred to as "liberal-radicals".

Apart from the content censure, radio listeners noticed that all live broadcasts had vanished in late April from the radio waves of Russian Media Group stations, and according to employees of RSN all reports were being rigorously reviewed by the new radio executives. Soon after the change in command at RSN, the coverage of "Nashi" protests outside the Estonian embassy in Moscow was formatted due to the journalists seeking to "sympathize" with the Estonians. The journalists themselves claimed that they simply referred to the protests as "provocative". It is hard to find fault in the defense of the journalists, as the actual protests turned a bit violent when the "Nashi" members attacked the car of a Swedish ambassador coming out of the Estonian embassy.

Not much commentary has appeared from both sides of the conflict, even less has appeared in the Russian press (Kommersant, and Novaya Gazeta are the exceptions). The new head of RSN made a statement that the events are a natural occurrence when a change in the executive structure occurs, and that replacements for the journalists will be found. Some of the journalists who have departed from RSN referred to a previous agreement with the station itself rather than a sign of protest.

Such censure attempts on a scale as big as the Russian Media Group, which owns over 50 Russian radio stations has not happened for a long time. Most analysts suggest that the state or state-backed forces are trying to turn around the station's news team to provide news friendly to the United Russia party, especially given that the audience of the radio stations often includes listeners who get their news either from TV (essentially loyal to the state) or morning or evening radio shows while driving to work. The bulk of the audience lives in Moscow. The state essentially block any remaining opportunity for dissent in the case of an extraordinary scenario; the Ukrainian orange revolution is probably what the radio heads have in mind. Of course this may be an act of loyalty by mid-level administrators in the Russian Media and the Government who are doing this to prove their worthiness to the current and maybe future Russian state heads. This factor, which can be attributed to the side-effects of President Putin's newly constructed "vertical of power"; but given the size of the audience involved, this factor is most likely secondary.

The story adds another unflattering page to the book of the Russian state's fears of a Ukrainian-style scenario. It is unfortunate given the fact that the opposition in Russia fails to unite any credible personalities, aims to include a broad spectrum of parties, ranging from hard-core liberals of the 1990-s to the National Bolshevik Party. Similarly, whenever opposition leaders do appear on TV, or float around in internet blogs, they inspire little support, instead generating satirical commentary. Limiting the exposure of the so-called opposition in the face of the "Other Russia" will work to their advantage and will continue fueling anti-Russian feelings abroad.

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