Media


Media
   The term “media,” and its descriptive derivative medial’nyi, meaning “pertaining to media,” is a new addition to the Russian language. A more common term used both in academia and popular discourse is sredstva massovoi informatsii (SMI), which can be literally translated as “means of mass communication,” or even “means of informing the masses.” Unlike the English concept of “mass media,” SMI puts emphasis on a one-to-many type of communication, which is obviously an extension of the Soviet notion of media as a tool of political propaganda. In the Soviet Union, journalism was subject to governmental and, more specifically, Communist Party control, including censorship of and editorial control over newspapers, radio, and television. Political censorship was exercised through the Central Publishing Agency (Glavlit), as well as through editorial policies, which allowed only a small degree of editorial autonomy on matters that were not politically sensitive.
   In addition to censorship, Soviet media was controlled financially as all media outlets were funded by the state. Centralized economic planning often did not reflect local economic and social needs, and media consumers had no opportunity to support production or distribution costs, or directly participate in media production. Furthermore, Soviet citizens were not permitted to establish their own media outlets, resulting in quite passive attitudes toward media among the general public. Soviet authorities were focused on control of media production, being especially paranoid about print media and television, and they largely ignored media consumption, which resulted in the rise of the underground culture with its samizdat (self-published) practices. In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), especially in the 1970s and 1980s, audience involvement was simulated through the practice of stengazety (wall newspapers) or community bulletins, released by citizens and communities at their place of work or study. These publications were usually amateurish versions of state media like Pravda>, but at times displayed some degree of autonomy and criticism. Soviet authorities were not equipped to control new electronic media. In the 1970s, tape recorders were used to deliver oppositional messages, often taking the form of countercultural expressions.
   Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika occurred at the time when electronic media, including computers and video recorders, were first becoming available to Soviet citizens. Gorbachev’s ideas about modernizing the economic structure of the Soviet Union with the purpose of creating an information industry— often referred to as the policy of informatizatsiia—overhauled Soviet practices of media control. One of the main outcomes of glasnost was the reintroduction of live television broadcasts. In 1986, a youth television program called 12 etazh (The 12th Floor”) permitted critical statements that were aired live; it was a new practice that was immediately replicated by regional television programmers. In the mid-1980s, prompted by the Chernobyl disaster, which the Soviet public first learned about from foreign media, Soviet press and television were flooded with information about current and past technological, natural, and social disasters that the state had kept secret from the nation for decades. The revelatory mode of the perestroika media soon spread to political and ideological issues, including the atrocities of the Stalin era. Eventually the media became the public arena for debates about how to modernize the country and its political regime.
   The previously apathetic Soviet public now displayed an extraordinary enthusiasm about social and political changes that was projected onto the media. The increasing flow of information, facilitated by new means of reproduction and distribution and permitted instances of live broadcasting, prevented the state censorship apparatus with its ailing technological base from effectively controlling media and information at large. The monopoly of the state was undermined, and further availability of information, especially in union republics, contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Indeed, perestroika enabled a media revolution, and when the Law on Press was adopted in 1990, there were 600 periodicals, many of which were already privately owned.
   The new law prohibited censorship and allowed organizations and individuals to establish media outlets independently from the state. It also enabled citizens to privatize existing media outlets. Unfortunately, this law and the following “Law on Media” of 1991 did not properly regulate media ownership or the relationships between the media owners and staff, which led to widespread scandals and ownership battles of the later period. If the period before 1995 was characterized by mass privatization of media outlets and the emergence of a large number of new publications, television programs, and even new television channels, the period after 1995 was defined by the redistribution of media outlets among major business groups and corporations. While the preceding period, when the state continued to finance but no longer controlled media outlets, was marked by unprecedented freedom and glasnost euphoria, the period after the mid-1990s saw greater economic dependence in the absence of state control.
   The new conditions, including skyrocketing inflation as well as the sudden drop in living standards, significantly altered Russia’s media landscape. Circulation of newspapers and magazines was now defined not by mandatory subscription but rather by public demand, and decreased dramatically (in five years, the circulation of Trud> dropped from 20 million copies to just 1 million, and Izvestiya> plummeted from 1.2 million to 600,000).
   National and regional television channels were broken up into a number of small independent studios; production studios were rented to private businesses to enable media outlets to survive financially. Many media personnel left their jobs and started business careers; this brain drain resulted in a lower quality of media production in the mid-1990s. Television channels and especially print media were now dedicated to commercial success through advertising, promotion, and branding, rather than journalistic integrity. This shift resulted in the redistribution of content, with less attention being paid to political and social issues. In order to increase sales, media outlets began to adopt the sensationalist approach to news and topic coverage, causing disappointment in many audiences. Despite these negative tendencies, the overall number of media outlets continued to grow because new players, especially the oligarchs, were happy to support financially unprofitable media institutions as their commercial or propaganda resources.
   In the second half of the 1990s, giant media holdings were established as a result of the redistribution of the ever-expanding media market. For example, Yury Luzhkov established a number of media organizations including TV-Center; the alliance of Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich resulted in the control over the previously state-monitored Channel 1 (later renamed ORT); Vladimir Gusinsky set up the Media-MOST holding company, which included NTV among other large media outlets. All of these individuals utilized their media institutions to their own advantage, staging public relations wars against their economic or political rivals. As a result, the media environment of the late 1990s was characterized by information wars, while discrediting and compromising materials (kompromat) were circulated endlessly in print and on television. Eventually, the Kremlin grew weary of the media situation—in practice, the government did not have any loyal media outlets at its own disposal—and with the rise of Vladimir Putin in 2000, it decided to extend its control over all television, as the most popular medium, and other media establishments.
   The government specifically attempted to regain two media-related political losses it sustained during the late 1990s. The first was the loss of control over the media coverage of the first Chechen War. Putin’s government now wanted to exercise effective management of the media with the purpose of creating a positive image of state agents, especially the siloviki>. The other was the unpredictability of the press during times of political crisis. Boris Yeltsin had to rely heavily on the financial and media support of Russian oligarchs during the 1996 presidential election, which resulted in the diminution of his powers as he promised to guarantee their economic privileges. In addition to these concerns, Putin’s government recognized the economic potential of media exploitation. With the decline of the era of oligarchs and consolidation of state power after 2000, Russian media saw more stable rules of the game and the capitalization and rationalization of media, which were introduced with the purpose of maintaining the Kremlin’s influence over major media institutions. Russian media and the Russian government, which is so much invested in the media, face two major challenges in the opening decades of the new millennium. The first challenge is that they must operate in the global media environment. Russian television channels need to compete with BBC World, CNN, and Euronews, which are widely available to Russian viewers in English on satellite television and in Russian through their Russian-language services. To counteract these global media outlets, the Russian government has adopted a strategy of intervention: it exercises greater control over television and other mass media establishments and it has boosted its presence on the Internet. The Kremlin also launched its Russia Today television channel, which broadcasts the state’s “official” views abroad in English and other major languages. As Russian media can no longer ignore information available to Russian audiences through Western media, nor suppress oppositional views, it often applies the technique of sensationalism to undermine other voices. Still another approach is the insistent depoliticization of Russian media, especially television, achieved through replacement of analytical programs with entertainment shows (the neologism “petrosianization” is derived from the name of a Russian stand-up comedian, Yevgeny Petrosian, whose programs are being constantly aired on Russian television in primetime with the purpose of distracting the audiences from political activity).
   The other challenge is the rise of user-generated media that circumvents any previously known forms of media-audience relationships and undermines the Russian traditional centripetal attitude to media. Technologically and socially, the Russian Internet, most commonly known as Runet, develops according to the patterns of traditional media, especially television. However, Runet has a completely different cultural currency and enjoys a privileged status in terms of state control compared with other media. For example, whereas satirical shows are virtually nonexistent on television, on the Internet political satire continues to thrive. In this sense, Runet continues the Soviet political and cultural project of samizdat. Unfortunately, the democratizing potential of Runet has been undermined in recent years by the commercialization of online content. Russia’s online advertising market alone grew by 67 percent in 2004 and by a further 71 percent in 2005. There has also been a tendency toward monopolization of the web environment, which has to do with the underdeveloped technical infrastructure that enables the concentration of information flows—and associated capital—in just a few nodes. The popularity and effectiveness of the Internet has prompted the Kremlin to devise approaches to use the new technology more effectively with the purpose of controlling public opinion. A set of new legislation was established between 2002 and 2004 that aims to combat terrorism-related activities online, but in practice is targeted at sites of political resistance. Despite this new legislation, Runet remains the most open medium on the Russian media landscape, with individuals and activist groups enjoying remarkable freedom of expression. At the same time, there has been a negative impact resulting from government intervention into the web space, namely, a higher degree of self-censorship that is applied by Internet activists. Furthermore, on the one hand, the government interference has hindered the technological development of Runet as many small private Internet providers have closed down; on the other, the government has facilitated the provision of web technologies to underprivileged social groups, especially in remote rural areas of Russia, as the government now provides points of access to the Internet in schools, post offices, and other regional administrative institutions. Unfortunately, the Russian public maintains a high degree of skepticism in relation to media: its nature is in the Soviet practices of media control and the post-Soviet experience of media manipulation for economic and political purposes. The lack of media awareness is apparent; media studies are not a standard part of school or university education and are normally only available to students who are planning to start careers as journalists. However, media literacy has improved in the past few years thanks to the use of media outlets, especially the Internet, in private spaces.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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