Thursday, March 05, 2015

New Censorship in Russia

(From Censoring to Constructing the Agenda: on the current state of Russian media)

Who is controlling and directing Russian media today? How and to what degree such control is being executed? A general idea may be derived from various episodes and comments but a joined up picture of how separate media stories develop and link up with more general lines in propaganda and with underlying ideology needs specialist study. From the false story of the ‘crucified little boy’ in Ukraine to ‘gayrope’ ('gay Europe') and to an anti-American interpretation of the idea of a ‘monopolar’ world, is there a coordinating centre, a media politbureau where ideas, arguments and clichés are coined and then spread throughout a seemingly diverse media?

Vasiliy Gatov, a Russian journalist, media manager and researcher, has published an article on the development of new censorship in post-Soviet Russia. The article, entitled ‘Putin, Maria Ivanovna from Ivanovo and Ukrainians on the Telly’, is on and Radio Liberty sites. (In English here and in Russian here.) 

Tetradki recommend this study to all those who are interested in how Russian public discourse is developing, the role of the press and the situation within the media. Gatov gave us permission to republish a few excerpts from his article. (Translation by Arch Tait.)

Censorship returns (90s to naughties) 

When in 1991-2 the old “Soviet” newspapers collided with the economic difficulties of the time, they rushed for assistance to the very president and government they so relentlessly criticised. Izvestiya, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Trud, Argumenty i Fakty and other publications which regarded themselves as “the foremen on Perestroika’s building site” pointed to the “duty of the State to promote freedom of speech”, and demanded they should be paid for providing support during the turbulent events of those years. Boris Yeltsin’s Administration decided to oblige and, for example, awarded the editors, many of whom were members of parliament, premises on a “gratuitous use” basis. [...] The foundations for future adverse changes were thereby laid, in the form, on the one hand, of politically motivated privileges and, on the other, of a deliberate intermixing of journalists with the political and economic elite. Government subsidising of the media began very early, and was to became one of the cornerstones of the New Censorship.‘

Gleb Pavlovsky [a leading media strategist and advisor in the 90s] claims that, already in summer 1996, the Foundation for Effective Politics proposed that the concept of media management should be, not a short-term emergency measure to get round the election problem [Russian presidential elections in 1996, narrowly won by Boris Yeltsyn - Ed.], but a permanent policy of the Presidential Administration. More detailed proposals were made in 1997 when information wars between the oligarchs’ media empires were at their height.

The coming of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin in summer 1999 required another media mobilisation. The individual chosen as Yeltsin’s heir was not a well-known politician. Indeed, his public profile was all but non-existent. Quite when Yeltsin would decide to step down nobody knew. They prepared to rally round at a moment’s notice. There were teams of officials, spin doctors and creative executives in the Presidential Administration and, crucially, around it, at the ready to solve the problem. 

The nature of the Friday policy planning meetings changed at this time, and directors of the main television channels began being invited to attend. At first the meetings were chaired personally by Alexander Voloshin, director of the Presidential Administration, but the job later passed to Alexey Gromov who was first Putin’s press secretary, then deputy head of the Administration. From 2000 to 2008 there were also “Surkov planning meetings”, especially where the activities of the United Russia party or regional policy were concerned. If “Gromov meetings” were essentially coordination of the week’s agenda and the apportioning of responsibilities between the key information channels, “Surkov meetings” were, according to those present at them, effectively a dictating of required content. 

The “Gromov meetings” created a new in-group of media managers linked by the fact of being allowed to attend them. After NTV was brought to heel, the channel’s new management were also invited to the Friday meetings, and in 2006 the conclave was extended to include Margarita Simonyan [of Novosti Press Agency] and the managers of REN TV and TVTsentr

Fundamental to the New Censorship was the post-communist personal loyalty of editors, key journalists and professional groups, and that was delivered by Gromov and [Mikhail] Lesin. [former Minister of the Press, President’s adviser and up until recently chief of Gazprommedia group - ed.]

“Redaction No.6”: open vs secret management

In late April 2000, at the height of the presidential election campaign, a document came into the possession of Veronika Kutsyllo, head of the political section of the magazine Kommersant-Vlast’ (Kommersant-Government). The headline writers of [Kommersant] Publishers promptly baptised it “Version 6”. [In the Russian original - “Редакция N 6”, an obvious allusion to Chekhov’s 1892 short story ‘Ward No.Six’ about a lunatic asylum where constructed reality clashes with real life. ‘Палата номер шесть’ - Ward No.Six is used figuratively in Russian to describe a place or a situation bordering on insane. - Ed.]  Gleb Pavlovsky, at the time more than close to the Kremlin’s politics, responded to a request to reminisce about Version 6 with a mixed memoir. On the one hand, he said, he had doubts about the document’s provenance; a little later, however, he added he could remember that kind of language being used and the details, but could not put a name to the authors. 

Version 6 hypothesises that the future administration of President Putin will live in a situation where there needs to be a distinction between overt and covert policy. Overt policy will declare adherence to the norms of the Constitution, law, international obligations and political standards. The covert component will almost completely restore the ideological and organisational control of every element of civil society.

“The moral state of society,” its anonymous authors write, “currently rules out any direct statements or actions by the president of the Russian Federation and his Administration aimed at suppression of the opposition and its leaders, or gaining control of the media and communication of news. Accordingly, the designers of the present programme identify as a key tactic that the political department of the President of the Russian Federation should adopt a dual approach to accomplishing its tasks: one official and overt, the other covert.” 

Among the covert tasks, Version 6 identifies gaining control of the media and journalists. It proposes, for example, under the auspices of the political department:  
“To influence the activity of the media ... by collecting and making use of special information on the conduct of each media outlet’s commercial and political activities, its personnel, those managing its organisations, its sources of finance, economic, material and technological resources, formal and informal contacts, financial partners, etc.; 
“To influence the work of journalists ... by collecting and making use of special information on the conduct of their professional journalistic, commercial and political activities, sources of financial support, place of work, formal and informal contacts, financial and personal partners and others.” 

Even more blatant is the authors’ proposal of two approaches to working with the media. The first should see the setting up of an agency (making use of the Administration’s resources) to investigate, accumulate and process information obtained and recycle it to the public “appropriately retouched”. The second approach would be to “induce a financial crisis in opposition media, or media sympathetic to the opposition, rescind their licences and certificates, and create conditions under which their operations became either manageable by the state or impossible.” 

Intervention intensifies

In 2005, the practice of managing the media in Russia achieved a stable form that has survived almost unaltered until the present time. The model has proved effective, and even able to adapt to progressive (at least in technical terms) trends. And the system has been obliged to evolve: having felt its way to the levers of power in the field of news coverage, it went on to begin intervening in the news agenda. The system has also been forced to extend its reach from traditional media to the “new media”, from broadcasting and the press to the interactive sphere, from a domestic agenda to an international agenda. 

The system has to operate in an environment where, on paper, the laws ban the practice of censorship. The interests of the censorship system, however, coincide with the interests of the political establishment: to ensure maximum conservation and maximum survival of the existing model, irrespective of what justifications may be put forward at a particular moment by its leader. These can be, as in 2000-2015, “countering terrorism”, “constructing a pyramid of power”, “innovational development”, and even “spiritual supports”. The mission of the New Censorship is to change the agenda in such a way that a substantial majority of the public support the accompanying ideas, regardless of their opinion yesterday or today in respect of their local, professional or social agenda. 

Insiders and outsiders

Svetlana Mironyuk, chief editor of the Novosti News Agency in 2003-2013, characterises the period: “[...] From the outset of the 2000s, the authorities distinguished three broad categories: foes (Vedomosti, Forbes,,, and a few others (most recently Rain / Dozhd’). There was no point in asking foes to do the Kremlin any favours, or to ask them to refrain from doing something. With them, as with the Western media, there was either a brisk, business-like relationship or no relationship at all. 
Then, there were friends: the state-owned media, although the warmth of the friendship varied greatly. Initially, for instance, there was respect for Vitaliy Ignatenko at ITAR-TASS and he was not particularly pressured. Konstantin Ernst [at Channel One] always occupied a special niche. Friends included Komsomolskaya Pravda and its editor, Vladimir Sungorkin, who were outwardly independent. There was Interfax and [its head] Mikhail Komissar. Later, “friends through thick and thin” included Aram Gabrelyanov [head of Izvestia and News Media group which owns LifeNews, a popular internet and TV news outfit. - Ed.]. In terms of his degree of intimacy with the Kremlin, Sungorkin was always a closer confidant than I [Mironyuk] was. It was all a matter of personal chemistry between Gromov and his group, and the editors, as well as a bit of horse-trading. “We’ll put an exclusive interview your way, and you can do us a favour in return.” 
Finally, the third category were the half-friends, or half-foes. Initially, that list included Kommersant, Moskovsky Komsomolets and Echo of Moscow radio [Russian original also includes Argumenty i Fakty in this list. - Ed.]; that is, people you might be able to do a deal with, but not always. 

A return of direct line

In addition, in 2004-2005 one further crucial element of governmental media management appeared. Mironyuk notes, “Some time around 2002, before I [was appointed to Novosti], Lesin wired up himself and all the editors-in-chief of state-owned media with a direct, dedicated cable. [Such direct lines existed in Soviet times and were refered too as ‘vertushka’. - Ed.] A line was laid specially from the Ministry of the Press in Moscow on Strastnoy Boulevard to all the editorial offices. That was done by Koryavov, who was deputy minister at the time. Then, in 2004-2005, for all the output [to news desks - Ed.] of agencies and television a special cable was installed on the closed ATS-2 network. This was a one-way yellow telephone without a dial which could only receive calls. [At present] all these non-dialling telephones go straight back to Alexey Gromov’s office. This is now the main mechanism for managing the media. [...] 

Manufactured reality

The main innovation during the latest period of the New Censorship has been a clampdown in the government-control media, especially television, on any generation of their own news agenda. Russia, as understood by the “collective Putin”, or as those who for the time being are his loyal lieutenants would like to see it, does not need real news. On the contrary, the only tool used for managing imperfect Russian society is a manufactured news agenda which is literally stamped into the minds of the public by the TV channels. 

The New Censorship does not merely exclude real events from the news agenda: it replaces them with simulated communications whose purpose is to create in viewers a sense of dependency on the principal hero in the stories. Even during the Ukrainian crisis, the model has not been modified, except that the “pole” [thrust - Ed.] of the messages has been changed [...]

[...] secondment [of members of the media team of the Presidential Administration - Ed.] certainly goes on, and many of the texts read out on Vesti (News) or Vremya (Time) are aired, or appear on the websites of the channels, without any involvement of the channels’ editors. And indeed if, after all the filtering of staff that has gone on, editors were permitted to correct the artistic efforts of that faceless “creative team in the Administration”, things would only get worse. A distinguishing feature of the New Censorship is that it encourages journalists (the word should probably be in quotes) not only to serve up the news agenda they are handed by the Kremlin, but also to creatively embellish it themselves.
[...] The authentic, natural, real news agenda has not disappeared, it is just excluded from the “reality” communicated to Russia’s citizens. 

Image: a drawing by A.Anichkin, after The Girl with an Oar statue by Ivan Shadr, one of the symbols of Russia, albeit sardonic.

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