Putin’s media dream team

On Sunday, Putin was reelected for his fourth presidential term. After years of centralisation and increased top-down control, the Russian media has widely contributed to his omnipresent branding. The media coverage of the election campaign confirmed a Kremlin with widespread information control.

With 56 million personal votes, Russia’s president Putin could unsurprisingly proclaim himself ready for his fourth presidential term on Sunday night. Even with an election campaign lacking any serious opponents, Kremlin allegedly managed to get 68% of Russians to vote – 77% of these for Putin. Hereby Putin substantially improved his result from 64% in 2012.

Looking at the coverage of the remaining seven presidential candidates and the incumbent president on the biggest Russian TV channels up to the election, this result is not surprising. Here Putin appeared as Russia’s only option for a strong and reliable leader. In spite of the lacking suspense about the result, the content of the presidential election coverage has been far from predictable or boring.  Water throwing, gold accounts in Switzerland, and new nuclear missiles – welcome to the presidential election in the Russian news.

Pro-Putin media

During Putin’s time in power, the Russian media system has undergone an increasing centralisation process, which supports critics’ allegations that the Russian media has widely been turned into useful instruments for the Russian power holders. In the biggest Russian media, Putin is provided airtime that would make most European state leaders envious. This has also been the case during the recent election campaign.

In the end of February, a spokesperson for the Central Election Commission informed that the Russian television channels had provided them with data proving that they cover all the presidential candidates evenly.

However, a study made by Memo 98 and a group of Russian experts has, to the contrary, shown that Putin was highly favoured on the big (and state controlled) TV channels during this election. The favouring of Putin was not only seen in terms of airtime but also in terms of extensive positive coverage. The study monitored the most popular Russian news and political programs from February 1 to March 11.

As an example, the state owned Channel One spent almost half of its air time on largely positive coverage of President Putin (only with a vanishingly small amount of negative coverage). This tendency to cover president Putin in solely positive or neutral terms was also evident looking at the big TV channels Russia 1 REN TV. On Gazprom-owned NTV the Putin-coverage was almost exclusively positive and he was covered twice as often as all the seven other candidates and their parties altogether.

Critical media remains

The Russian media system can be described as a form of two-tier system. Here the first and by far biggest tier has been incorporated into the realm of state control during Putin’s time in power.

The second tier represents a smaller group of Russian media that have remained critical and operate closer to professional and independent journalistic standards. However, journalists working for these media admit that while being able to write critically about most topics, substantial investigations of for example corruption among Putin’s inner circles or his family relations are still considered editorial “no goes”.

The study showed that a smaller range of media has provided a more nuanced and critical election coverage than the big state TV channels. For example, the online TV channel Dozhd and Radio Echo Moskvy were widely neural or negative in their coverage of the government and all presidential candidates. Additionally, a big difference between the state positive media and these was that they primarily covered Vladimir Putin as a presidential candidate, while the former mostly covered him in his capacity as incumbent president. Another significant difference was that the opposition politician Alexei Navalny (who was banned from running for President) got one tenth of the coverage in these media, while he was not even mentioned in the first-tier media.

Hopeless presidential challengers

Seven candidates ran against president Putin. The new candidate for the Communist Party, Pavel Grudinin, came in number two with 12% of the votes. The Communist Party was the second or third most covered actor in the first-tier media monitored in the Memo 98 study. However, this is also the party that, without exception, got the most negative coverage. A part of this has been accusations against Grudinin for not informing the authorities of cash and gold accounts in Switzerland. According to Russian election laws, candidates are forbidden from having foreign bank accounts. Grudinin have denied such allegations.

As in European elections, the political debates among candidates are reserved for prime time on the main channels. All candidates – except Putin – participated in these debates that are often characterized as “shouting competitions”. If, and to which extend, these programs are staged under guidance of people in Putin’s inner circle is hard to document. Nevertheless, they serve an effective purpose of distinguishing Putin from the rest of the candidates. As an illustrative example, a heated first Russian presidential debate between candidates on Russia 1 on February 28 attracted particular attention when the female candidate Ksenia Sobchak threw water on the notorious provocateur, ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The following day – in sharp contrast to the form of political communication displayed the previous night – Putin gave his state of nation address. The speech was conveniently postponed from an earlier date to March 1 during the campaign. For almost two hours he stressed the need for political stability and presented economic reforms and new nuclear missiles. Especially the latter was widely appraised by the “first-tier” media who transmitted that NATO is now “useless” (Channel 1, “Vremya Pokazhet”) and that the West will no longer be able to ignore Russia now that it owns “the world’s most terrible and promising weapon” (Russia 1, “60 Minut”). The impact of such strong messages among the Russian voters should not be underestimated.

A well-prepared Kremlin

It has never been risk-free to speak up freely and exercise good journalism in Russia. However, since Putin assumed his third term in office in 2012, Russia has been through a severe clampdown on freedom of expression, and the control measures have reached new heights to silence remaining independent voices. Apart from the occasional unsolved murders of journalists, Russia’s Freedom House-rating has continued to deteriorate from bad to worse since 2015. When looking at Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index Russia actually has climbed from 152nd to 148th place since 2015 but with the reason being the decline in press freedom in many other countries.

With around 100 million active internet users, equal to 70% of the Russian population, online platforms and social media have become important fora for independent and critical debate. As a result, since the election in 2012, the Kremlin has stepped up measures aimed at bringing the internet under greater state control.

Among pieces of legislation that has come into force are the bills allowing authorities to ban “extremist” content together with the “Blogger’s law” requiring bloggers with more than 3,000 “unique” visits per day to provide their real surname, initials, and contact details on their websites. In November 2016, in a groundbreaking move, Russian authorities blocked access to LinkedIn, on the grounds of the 2015 Data storage law, requiring websites to store the personal data of Russian citizens on servers in Russia. As a recent step, a law signed by Putin last July bans technology, which allows internet users to access online content prohibited in Russia, including VPNs and anonymisers.

The Kremlin’s media watchdog agency, Roskomnadzor, has the unprecedented authority to establish whether online information includes “unacceptable content” and, if so, order media outlets, website owners, and content hosting providers to remove it. According to a report by the Agora International Human Rights Group internet censorship skyrocketed in 2017 with an average of 244 webpages being blocked by the authorities each day. Among these were quality journalism pieces that contained criticism of the authorities.

Other restrictions posing great difficulties for the journalists who wish to contradict the line of the state controlled media is the infamous “foreign agents law”, which labels all media actors that receive foreign funding as de facto working according to the interests of foreign agents, together with a 2014 bill restricting foreign media ownership to maximum 20%.

Parallel to the crackdown on free expression during Putin’s third term in office, the Russian authorities have worked aggressively to silence the other fundamental freedoms of assembly and association by continuously cracking down on peaceful protesters.

The recent election in Russia has displayed a Kremlin that has ensured itself an extensive degree of information control, while still allowing some critical voices that are either harmless to the regime’s power position or who can be controlled to some degree. The coverage of the election campaign reveals that the media’s role as watchdogs against power holders has been further inhibited since the last election. This underscores that the need to support the existence of high journalistic standards among Russian political and media actors might be higher than ever before.