On Friday the Russian parliament passed a bill to crack down on the country’s last remaining independent media outlets in the wake of last week’s invasion of Ukraine and the blowback that the government has received for its actions. In order to stifle critical cover, the government is introducing sentences of up to 15 years in prison for intentionally spreading “fake” information about military action.
Ahead of the vote, Variety spoke to Boston-based Russian media analyst Vasily Gatov, who is a Senior Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication, about how President Vladimir V. Putin has been dismantling Russia’s free press. Here are some of Gatov’s observations on the situation.
How would you describe the situation for independent media outlets in Russia until now?
Russia was a thriving market for independent media from the mid-90s up until 2011. Although Putin constantly tried to limit it, during the first ten years of his reign, independent media was thriving. Only in the TV field, Putin’s ideology led to wanting to somehow control editorial policy. Not the content itself, by censoring it. But wanting to be able affect editorial policy when the Kremlin didn’t like it. In any event, this was primarily directed towards television. Then starting with the Winter Protests of 2011 [the largest anti-Kremlin protests since the fall of the USSR] they started a sustained policy of taking control over all mass media.
And then with the eruption of the first stage of the Russian/Ukrainian conflict in 2014 they started to act much more aggressively.
First they implemented an amendment to the Russian media law that literally forbade foreign ownership of media in Russia. This also coincided with the expansion of Russian state influence over Internet organizations, primarily Yandez [the Russian Google-like search engine] which agreed, after some deliberation, to censor its news service, which was the main source of information for dozens of millions of Russians. Currently, if you go to Yandez you will see almost no news about the war. Between 2015 and now, on a national level, literally only several dozen independent media have continued to exist.
These include the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose editor Dmitri A. Muratov shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
They haven’t touched that yet; I think mostly because it’s connected with Mikhail Gorbachev, and the editor is a Nobel prizewinner as well. That would be a sign that the country is finished in terms of any independent and mostly uncensored voice. But it could be just a matter of days before this happens.
How pervasive is the influence of Russian state media and the narrative they are currently propagating about the war?
There are two major types of media audiences in Russia. The Russia of television, and the Russia of the iPhone. By this I mean digital Russia; the people who get their news from the Internet, social networks, and other foreign sources. Today it’s becoming more difficult for Russians to maintain access to the foreign news sources, though it’s not impossible.
A lot of people in Russia became cord cutters, so they don’t watch TV. They prefer to seek news where they want, rather than have it pushed on them. So I would say that currently the proportion would be 60% of Russians are mostly affected by television — and that means by propaganda — and about 40% are not.
But government regulators are reportedly blocking access to these outside sources?
Yes, basically in many cases this 40% needs to have a VPN [virtual private network] to access them.
Regarding Ukraine, I found it significant that in trying to advance on Kyiv the Russian military first targeted a large TV tower there. I also believe the war has prompted Ukrainian media groups of different stripes to join forces.
Ukraine has an extremely politically diverse media sphere. It’s different from Russia. In the West of the country it’s very Austro-Hungarian. In general, the local press is more important than the national one.
And broadcast television is much less important in Ukraine than it is in Russia because Ukraine is a cable country. In Kyiv cable covers 85 to 90% of households. It’s several different networks that are sometimes interconnected, and in such hard times they just joined the networks.