Seminar Paper, 2006
14 Pages, Grade: 1
Christina Quast University of Tartu Prometheus Program Essay Ph.D Piret Ehin
Putin and the Media
Nowadays the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is the prime example for the crackdown on the oligarchs in Russia under president Vladimir Putin. In 2003, the head of the Yukos oil company was arrested and sentenced to several years in prison. However, such actions against the oligarchs started long before the well-known Khodorkovsky case, immedaitely after Putin was elected. Among the first attacked oligarchs were two men who owned media empires. Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky were pressured to give up or close their Kremlin-critical television stations. For this reason the essay on hand deals with the argument that Putin's crackdown on the oligarchs has worsen the press freedom in Russia.
Firstly a short overview of the media development under president Boris Yeltsin is given to point out that the Russian media was not completely free compared to Western standards. Then the necessary facts of the Gusinsky and Berezosky case are described and afterwards the short-term and long-term results concerning press freedom are analysed.
The topic of the essay will show that the actions against the oligarchs had strong negative effects on the media because press freedom is an initial feature of democracy. A free media is can act as a fourth power by checking the state authorities and contribute to build up a civil society, especially necessary in Russia where corruption, organised crime and poverty as well are urgent problems. II. RUSSIAN MEDIA IN THE 1990s
The media in Russia was shaped by several inconsistent developments throughout the decade. With the collapse of the Soviet Union all kinds of censorship disappeared, while the media still belonged to the Communist party or the state, but without any editorial control. This early period is described as „golden years“ 1 of the media which were marked by independent journalism protected from market forces by state subsidies.
At first privatization contributed to a positive media development because ownership diversified and new publications offered more pluralism. However, newspaper circulation in total delinced due to the overall and lasting economic crisis in Russia which affected the media in specific ways. Consumer and advertising markets both essential for financing media outlets were weak and
undeveloped meaning that revenues from purchasing and advertising were too less to survive. The economic hardship made most of the media dependent on financial support from either their owners or the state especially during the late 1990s when advertising plummeted to 43 percent following the rouble crash in August 1998. The outside fundings appeared as a third market for the media that advanced some new problems - mainly a close relationship with business and state as well as a trend to concentrate ownership.
Most of the print and electronic media went to the oligarchs „who then proceed to use the media as a weapon in their struggle against each other and to influence the policies of the state.“ 2 Actually the oligarchs acquired the loss-making media outlets for political interests and not business purposes what resulted in selective and slanted news coverage by different media - the so-called information wars. Nevertheless press freedom was existent because the equally influential media companies provided outer pluralism and the Kremlin, notably president Yeltsin, was not interfering with the media or fighting criticism of himself and his government. Naturally, the private media was critical of Yeltsin and presented probably the major form of control over the executive branch 3 . "Yeltsin became concerned about news coverage mainly when he faced an imminent political threat" 4 , that was the case with the presidential elections in 1996. The competing media companies under oligarchic control became allies to secure Yeltsin's re-election. In general the aim was to prevent a comeback of the Communists under Gennady Zyuganov and protect democracy including press freedom. The media voluntary turned into an instrument of propangada and reported exclusively in favor for the president dropping any critisim of the Kremlin. With the medial support Yeltsin managed to win the election and the temporary subordination of the media under a political issue showed the potential of the media to influence public opinion. That fact encouraged more financial and industrial groups to acquire media outlets for gaining political influence even though the media started to return to former independence and criticism of Yeltsin. Summing up, the financial crisis and the concentrated ownership mostly by oligarchs with certain political interests made the media less free than in the early 1990s, also "the latest parliamentary  and presidential  elections suggest that short-term goals of helping the 'right'
candidates and undermining the 'wrong' one outweight long-term considerations about reputation or credibility." 5
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