Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Putin's hold on the media slips, but for how long?

Photo courtesy of the Moscow Times.

The New York Times ran a fascinating piece today about how TV news shows in Russia - which are almost entirely state-controlled - are being forced to acknowledge the changing political situation.
A concentrated dose of Russian television — still where 70 percent of Russians get their news — shows that the ferment is too big to ignore: The Kremlin-loyal networks that at first airbrushed out the protest movement are including it in their newscasts.
Now, brisk updates on voter fraud, anti-Putin rallies and opposition candidates share a news hour with long, choreographed tableaus that showcase Mr. Putin as prime minister, hard at work inspecting factories, raising pensions, scolding lazy bureaucrats, and doing what it takes to preserve stability and spread prosperity. He has taken to publishing long mission statements for Russia’s future; each one is framed on the news like a tablet from Moses.
For viewers the effect is bipolar: a little bit NPR, a little bit North Korea.
(via the New York Times)
The Times piece illustrates a fascinating dynamic at play in recent resistance to Putin. Because of the rise of digital connection - the article notes that "Bloggers and political Web sites not only contradict government-tailored newscasts, they also offer an alternate, unscripted reality - live, via cellphone camera and Skype" - the Putin administration can no longer rely on TV news to promote their agenda while ignoring all others. In the same way that the recent election fraud was immediately brought to the attention of the world, anti-Putin sentiment can't be glossed over by the news programs unless they want to lose all credibility with the Russian people.

Another thing I liked about this article was that is acknowledged Putin's continued dominance in Russia. Many media outlets have implicitly (or explicitly) compared the current protests to the Arab Spring, while failing to report on the very high percentage of Russians who support Putin. Having spent time in Russia, I can assure you that Putin's popularity isn't driven purely by his autocratic tendencies, but by actual voter approval. Regular Russian people love Putin, and they have some fairly compelling reasons to do so that I won't go into here. This isn't to condone the man's authoritarian tactics, but merely to offer some perspective. As the Times put it:
Many Russian journalists and media stars have leapt at the chance offered by the government’s tactical shift. Yet few reporters predict that the freedom will survive beyond the elections, since nobody expects Mr. Putin to lose.
“The institution itself hasn’t changed,” said Leonid Parfyonov, a well-known journalist and producer who has attacked the government’s control of the media. “Everyone sees that it will last only till March 4.”
 Vladimir Putin is many things, but stupid is definitely not one of them. He'll probably adapt to the new media environment and keep himself in power. That's going to be harder, however, now that he knows someone is watching.

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