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Russian state tightens grip over TV broadcasting

The state stranglehold over TV broadcasting in Russia has tightened a notch further following a move by the Central Fuel Company, controlled by the Moscow city government, to acquire the part of the ‘Moskoviya’ Channel 3 it did not already own.

This company already owns Moscow’s TV Center, which broadcasts over the same terrestrial frequency at different times, while on a national scale control over TV has been progressively ceded to the state over the 12 years since the turn of the Millennium.

The only national channel of any significance still free from state control is REN TV, generally reckoned to be the largest, privately funded channel in the country. Set up in 1997, REN TV provides programming aimed mainly at families and people in the 18-to-45 year age group, from a network of 406 independent broadcasting companies, with its signal accessible to about 115 million viewers, or 80 percent of the population, including greater Moscow.

There is one other quite influential private channel, Channel 5, but that is now confined to the St. Petersberg area, having flowered briefly into a popular national TV provider during the last days of the Soviet Empire. This was followed by a national eruption of media freedom during the early days of the Russian Federation, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

Most notably, it led to the creation of NTV, which became renowned for almost unlimited freedom of speech exceeding most western countries, exemplified both by news coverage highly critical of the government, and a satirical political puppet show.

By 1999, NTV had achieved an audience of 102 million, covering most of the population and about 70 percent of Russia's territory, also being popular in the ex Soviet republics. But, things changed drastically in 2000 when NTV was critical of President Vladimir Putin during the country’s second Chechen war, when the puppet show made fun of him. Putin was portrayed as an evil gnome mistaken for a beautiful youth when villagers became blind in a story based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's "Little Zaches called Cinnabar."

This mockery of Putin is considered by some commentators to represent the nail in the coffin for media freedom in Russia, instigating a train of events after which NTV ended up under the control of state-owned energy giant Gazprom. Many of its leading journalists left, and, since then, NTV has been very muted in any government criticism.

While remaining popular in Russia, NTV has lost viewership and influence in the surrounding states. Meanwhile the other two biggest national channels, Channel One and Russia TV are also controlled effectively by the government.

With the growth of the Internet as a source of news and more recently TV, the issue of media freedom came to a head again this year in July when the Russian parliament unanimously voted for a controversial bill that boosted government control over the web, in the face of concerted opposition, and international warnings that it would impose censorship at a level almost comparable with the Soviet era.

Russia's leading websites, including search engine Yandex, blogging platform LiveJournal, and the Russian-language version of Wikipedia, had campaigned vociferously against the bill. Wikipedia went black on the day before the bill was passed in protest, arguing it would "lead to the creation of a Russian analogue to China's great firewall."

On the face of it, the protests had some success, since Russia’s parliament did remove the deliberately vaguely worded clause allowing closure of any website with "bad content." The new wording confined such powers to web sites specifically containing child pornography, or promotion of drugs or suicide. All other sites would require a court order before being placed on the blacklist.

However, given the corruptness of Russia’s courts, where fewer than 1 percent of cases brought result in acquittal, this change of wording was hardly reassuring for freedom advocates. It remains to be seen how this works out in practice, with the Russian media continuing to operate in the absence of formal censorship, but under a regime where in practice freedom is constrained through unspoken rules backed up by court action and coercion.