“TV or it didn’t happen” – on Russia’s media landscape

I am currently back in Novosibirsk for a week-long exchange organized by djo, Sibirischer Bär and Jugendbund dealing with “freedom of media and the press”. Special thanks to Ira for the invitation!

Today was packed with talks on both main stream media and the blogosphere in Russia. While the country’s blogosphere is extremely huge – a count by yandex registers 12 million blogs – the internet is still of minor importance relative to Germany. This is also caused by the fact that only about 40% of the people have access to the net.

TV is still king in the information business. As Evgenij Mezdrikov quoted from a movie title, “if it was not on TV, it didn’t happen”. At the same time, online media outlets seem to lag behind in the adoption of new technology compared to Germany. According to Mezdrikov, allowing user comments and using multi media is still relatively new.

In fact, Russian journalism seems to be in a bad shape. Viktor Juketschev even announced to talk only about “the living parts” of the media landscape, i.e. the privately owned outlets. According to Mezdrikov, “media don’t produce facts”, but only distribute them. Investigate journalism is therefore hard to find.

One reason Mezdrikov gave is that the authorities in general act repellent towards journalistic requests, even though Russia’s freedom of information act is the only worldwide favoring media professionals over ordinary citizens. Officials are obligated to answer their requests within 7 days, while queue time for citizens is 30 days.

That was especially interesting for me because I recently attended a workshop on “Legal Leaks”, where we discussed the issue of privileges for journalists. There’s a very informative toolkit on using freedom of information requests in journalistic work.

Even though he highlighted their advantage of being eye witnesses, Mezdrikov agreed with me that citizen journalists cannot make up for professional investigative journalism. Viktor Juketschev later presented “Tak-tak-tak“, a “social network for civil rights” which aims to provide activists with a platform where to organize collaborative investigation and publication of issues of public interest. I am rather doubtful of its possible success, as activists lack both time and funding for bigger projects.

Elia Kabanov presented several cases of persecution of bloggers and journalists for their writing both on- and offline. Even though Russia has a bad reputation for press freedom due to a series of high profile murders of journalists, repression against bloggers is not as widespread as in other countries.

In some of the cases Kabanov spoke about, police intervention seems fungible, e.g. a fake amok threat. In general, sentences seemed quite harsh, even though prison sentences are rare. After all, local police seem to act independently, which means that there’s no national agenda for repression.

One reason for some of the arrests could be that “people think they can write everything”, as Kabanov said. In some people’s eyes, that includes threats, libel and publication of private data. Kabanov later talked very negatively about Russian blog comments, which he perceives as predominantly useless or even hateful, which could explain his argument.

On the other hand, there seem to be no examples of huge political campaigns driven by Russia’s blogosphere. I presented about Germany’s movement against internet filtering, which is sans analog in Russia. Blogs still need to bring issues to the attention of main stream media – especially TV – to make an impact, of which there are increasingly successful examples.

Or, as Elia Kabanov said, “100 years ago their was a saying, ‘the stone is the weapon of the proletariat’. Today, a blog is the best weapon of a free man.”