Russia: Elections of the absurd
Coverage of the recent Duma poll and forthcoming presidential race suggests that Russian media increasingly only functions to endorse the government line, writes Oleg Panfilov On 12 December, Vladimir Putin had an official meeting with the Chairman of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, and with the chairmen of several regional election commissions. The president […]
20 Dec 07

Vladimir Putin
Coverage of the recent Duma poll and forthcoming presidential race suggests that Russian media increasingly only functions to endorse the government line, writes Oleg Panfilov

On 12 December, Vladimir Putin had an official meeting with the Chairman of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, and with the chairmen of several regional election commissions. The president offered his congratulations with regard to the Constitution Day and thanked them for the ‘highly professional work’ done during the campaign season of the State Duma elections.

The Central Election Commission is an officially independent organisation, so this meeting, and many others like it, could be viewed with some surprise. However, the reality is that Russians are not surprised or worried about this in the slightest. Political aggression from President Putin’s supporters has long been the norm, and it does not seem to upset anyone. On the contrary, such behaviour is widely welcomed, as many regard Putin’s actions to be an expression of masculine power, supreme courage and strong arm tactics.

A few days before the above-mentioned meeting, Vladimir Churov officially declared that the elections were over, the results being fair and thus peremptory, even though The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly and other European organisations stated that the elections were ‘not fair’. However, their worries do not feature prominently on the President’s list of concerns. Eager to preserve his vast political influence, he is now putting all his energies into the preparations for the next presidential elections.

It follows that none of the cases of election law violation will ever be investigated. Of course this fact will only please those who have grown sick of watching lengthy coverage reports with only one protagonist, President Putin. Even though the number of such reports has marginally diminished 10 days after the elections, the gap has been filled by an equal amount of reports regarding Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s chosen successor.

It was televised news that caused one of the first conflicts regarding election law violation. According to statutory law, all the political contestants (the majority voting system has been dropped in Russia) are entitled to free airtime for coverage of their platforms and political agenda via promotional clips. They are also entitled to take part in moderated television debates. The United Russia Party that supports President Putin refused to participate in any such debates.

The law states that ‘free broadcasting time for promotional clips should be made available by relevant television or radio channels to all political contestants in equal measure during the prime-time news programmes’. However, the free political promotional clips were shown at either seven in the morning or after eleven at night.

Objective and balanced information about the contestants and their platforms could have been made available through everyday news coverage, shown every 2-3 hours on all five national channels. Instead, the audiences were fed the propaganda of one single party.

At this point, another speciality of Russian election law should be explained. The party puts forward their lead candidates at the top of the proposed party lists. Yet those candidates have the lawful right to drop their deputy seat after the elections. In this way regional party lists were headed by the governors who eventually dropped their deputy seats in the Duma, whereas United Russia’s chosen top candidate was Vladimir Putin, who was not even an official member of the party.

This is one of the main reasons we can regard United Russia as enjoying administrative privileges during the pre-election campaign season. In addition, we must point out that all five national TV companies are controlled by the government. The state exerts direct influence on the First Channel, Rossiya Channel and TV Centre. All three are state-managed or at least consulted by government officials. Two other channels, NTV and Ren-TV, are officially independent channels. However, NTV belongs to state fuel company Gazprom and Ren-TV is owned by a financial company with close connections to the Kremlin.

Russia has no public television and the legislation for its creation has been gathering dust in the Duma for about ten years. Besides, Russians do not pay television license fees, hence they do not have any influence over the management of the TV companies. The government does though, and so does the presidential administration. Private television companies are initially pressured into obedience by negotiation. When this fails, the uniformed services get involved and the company may end up completely ruined, as happened to the only independent national channel NTV in 2002. This company was taken over by Gazprom.

Another speciality of the mass-media environment in Russia is its relationship with the audiences, who have trusted everything that is shown or said on television since the Soviet era. Seven generations of Soviets have grown so used to propaganda and its ‘objective nature’ that Putin did not hesitate to use this to his advantage. During his first term as president in 2000, Putin’s initial goal was to gain total control over television and radio channels. He then proceeded to create a massive media-holding, which is currently comprised of 89 regional TV companies and a few channels in Moscow.

Control over television suggests complete power over the information provided to the audiences, to the point where the state could actually make sure that the public would remain oblivious to certain unfavourable news, such as the events in Chechnya, governmental corruption or the true facts surrounding Russia’s economic development.

More so, the independent newspaper market is extremely weak, as the most popular publications are also state-controlled. Besides, the standard of life in Russian provinces is extremely low. So when faced with a choice between a decent newspaper and a loaf of bread, a provincial dweller will naturally choose the latter.

As far back as a year and a half ago, the Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES) began monitoring the content of the prime-time news programmes of the five national channels. Usually such investigations are conducted during the pre-election campaign season in order to establish the fairness of the elections. Our aim, however, was to evaluate the mass-media’s overall performance, with the hope that come the pre-election time, the government might consider imposing changes for the best.

We were astonished by the amount of propaganda shown on television. Around 91-93 per cent of the total news coverage (news programmes being 25-30 minutes long), save the news on culture, sports and weather, was dedicated to the activities of Vladimir Putin (30-35 per cent); the government (35-40 per cent), and United Russia (20-22 per cent).

The CJES proceeded with the monitoring project up until October 2007, the month before the pre-election campaign. By then the amount of propaganda had increased even more (by 1-1.5 per cent on average). We witnessed the blatant violation of statutory law on elections, which requires a fair amount of media coverage for all party candidates. However, the Central Election Commission ignored our investigation, and even proclaimed it to be non-objective.

The worst violation of election law was the totally unrestricted coverage of the activities of President Putin. The law forbids governmental officials, who run for a seat in the Duma, from enjoying special privileges. More so, the officials are required to go on leave, yet the Central Election Commission decided this provision did not apply to President Putin.

History repeats itself. The next presidential elections will be held on 2 March. However, Russian television is already breaking records with regard to the amount of coverage dedicated to Putin’s successor, Medvedev. The pre-election campaign has not even started, the list of candidates has not yet been established, but TV and newspaper coverage is already presenting Medvedev as the incumbent president.

More and more Russia is starting to resemble the Soviet Union, and the Russian mass-media is being overrun by Soviet-style propaganda.

Translated by Olia Hercules