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Broken News

What citizens are seeing in print and on television is more advertising campaign than election coverage. by Yelena Rykovtseva 29 November 2007 MOSCOW | Regular viewers of Russia’s most-watched television channel have learned recently that President Vladimir Putin’s parliamentary party, United Russia, was the first to sound the alarm over an unexpected price rise. It also helped ensure fairness for property owners as the government begins the process of appropriating land in Sochi to build facilities for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and it reached an important accord with businesses on financing social projects, the channel reported.

In other stories on Channel 1, a poor family moved from wooden barracks to a two-room apartment in the Tyumen province in Siberia, and water pipes were replaced in the village of Urshelsky, east of Moscow, for the first time in 20 years, thanks to the Russian Local Self-Government Council established by United Russia. On 18 October, the channel broadcast a three-hour call-in radio and television show with Putin, No. 1 on the party’s list of candidates.

What did viewers learn about the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, United Russia’s main rival? It was the subject of 15 mostly neutral segments like “Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov has left for Omsk.”

If they didn’t know it already, savvy viewers could probably guess that State Duma elections are approaching.

The media environment in the run-up to the election on 2 December is a bizarre combination of tight legal restrictions on the press and newspapers’ disregard for those restrictions. The country’s election law prohibits the media from campaigning for candidates. News organizations can run news and analysis about elections, but they cannot allocate candidates space and airtime beyond limits set by the Central Election Commission.

But it seems that the state-controlled and pro-Kremlin media can break all the rules.

United Russia features prominently on the country’s major state-controlled television networks, which together make up the single most-consulted source of news and information for Russians. The party gets positive coverage well beyond the limits imposed by the election authorities. It is sold to voters under all possible pretexts and by all possible methods, including a type of product placement.

Channel 1 broadcast 43 segments on United Russia in October. Some were neutral and legitimate, like the news that Putin would head the party’s list of Duma candidates. Others were overtly positive, like reports from rallies of United Russia supporters across the country and conferences in support of “Putin’s plan,” a long-term strategy for Russia. Although some segments were not directly linked to the election, they praised United Russia.

“Maternity and parental benefits will be raised in Russia,” one story said, crediting the pro-Putin party.

Another report lauded a new long-term space exploration strategy proposed by the party.

Election coverage has been similar on another major television channel, Rossiya, which together with Channel 1 reaches nearly every television viewer in the country. For instance, the news show Vesti featured a story about the sacking of the chief physician of a regional hospital in Vladimir, a town just east of Moscow. The program often covers the resignations or dismissals of senior officials, but hardly ever the job problems of ordinary people.

But this physician is a member of United Russia, while the Vladimir province governor who sacked him is a Communist. The doctor reportedly voted against some governor-sponsored legislation when he was a member of the local legislative assembly and the governor allegedly fired him out of revenge. The network showed the physician’s colleagues holding signs that said “United Russia for Dr. Kiryukhin.”

Meanwhile, print and broadcast media seem to have launched a massive smear campaign against the Union of Right Forces (SPS). Government-controlled television channels allegedly have staff members responsible for criticizing the party, while papers run, for a fee, negative stories sent in by public relations agencies and credited to fake correspondents.

Rossiya's Vesti program recently included a special report severely critical of SPS. Komsomolskaya Pravda ran a story headlined, “Union of Right Forces loses supporters." Izvestiya told readers that “SPS has passed the point of no return to Duma." Another Izvestiya story even blamed the party’s election campaign for rising food prices. Moskovsky Komsomolets repeated the theory on the same day in a story headlined "Election is to blame for price hike." It said, "Experts link the rise in milk and other food prices to the Duma campaign of the Union of Right Forces."

The bylines on these stories appear in multiple papers, and attempts to reach these authors at any of the newsrooms in question usually meet with the reply that the writer uses a pen name because he or she does not want anyone to know his or her real name.

All this attention paid to SPS seems curious, given that polls show the party enjoying anywhere from 0 to 3 percent support among registered voters. Some commentators speculate that SPS came under fire because those who ordered the attacks relied on confidential surveys by a unit of the Federal Security Service, rather than on polls done by mainstream polling organizations suspected of being under the Kremlin’s control. The confidential polls allegedly suggest that SPS has a chance to reach the 7 percent threshold to enter the Duma, something the authorities are determined to prevent.

According to one theory, Putin made his decision to head United Russia’s list of candidates based on results of a confidential poll that found support for the party lower than reported in open surveys.

Polls play a major role in the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign, which seeks to persuade voters that United Russia enjoys overwhelming public support, the Communists can win only a few seats, and other parties have no chance at all. The campaign seems to have influenced some traditionally liberal voters who have told pollsters that they will vote for the Communists because it is the only party capable of competing with United Russia.

Pollsters are also used by the government-controlled media to make United Russia seem like the natural choice for reasonable people. Izvestiya recently quoted Valery Fyodorov, director of the government-controlled All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, as saying that democratically minded people back Putin. “Democratically minded voters have changed their priorities,” he explained. “They choose stability and order, things that most of them associate with Putin and United Russia.” With this article, both Izvestiya and Fyodorov broke election coverage rules by failing to specify where and when the survey was conducted, and the number of people interviewed. It also failed to mention what methods the center used to distinguish between “democratically minded” and other voters. The story was clearly campaign rhetoric designed to whip up votes for United Russia, but the Central Election Commission failed to react to Fyodorov’s remarks and the story in general.

On the other hand, the Central Election Commission immediately demanded explanations from the liberal newspaper Novy Izvestiya over failure to mention a survey date in a story reprinted from the Interfax press agency.

WATCHDOG ON A LEASH

Supposedly, Russia has a mechanism for righting such an imbalance. “If someone suspects bias, he or she should ask us to investigate. The commission has a working group on coverage disputes that includes many journalists,” said Maya Grishina, a member of the Central Election Commission.

But the makeup of the panel might discourage a complainant. The journalists on the working group are managers of Channel 1 and Rossiya; the head of the TVTs television network, whose founders include Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, a United Russia leader; and editors of the pro-government newspapers Izvestiya and Rossiyskaya Gazeta. By contrast, REN-TV, a network that still dares to criticize the government, and big and relatively independent periodicals like Kommersant and Vedomosti are not represented.

As in other countries, those frustrated by such a tilted media landscape have sought an alternative online. Some websites, such as www.newsru.com, www.grani.ru, www.gazeta.ru and www.izbrannoe.ru, try to provide unbiased coverage of the election, and campaign information can be found on various blogs.

In one particularly high-profile use of the Internet, a group of writers and actors posted an appeal for signatures of prominent people to an open letter urging the president to step down after his term runs out. The letter was in response to another one calling on Putin to run for a third presidential term, signed by a famous Russian film director and artist, among others. Major government-controlled newspapers like Rossiyskaya Gazeta ran the pro-Putin letter, while the other letter was quoted on websites and by one or two small newspapers and one or two radio stations.

Otherwise, the director of the Central Election Commission has a blog, and there is a “For Putin” site, www.zaputina.ru, that is clearly part of United Russia’s election effort.

How many voters are paying attention is an open question. On the one hand, the ratio of Internet users to registered voters has grown from about 1 in 13 in 2002 to about 1 in 8 this year, according to a Roper Reports survey. But most Russian voters are older people who do not use the Internet, and the medium suffers from low credibility because of the many unreliable, unconfirmed, and libelous posts online.

On the whole, the story of election coverage in Russia is one of blatant bias, grotesque fabrications, and regulatory favoritism. It has been that way in every election since 2000, with no real public protest.

Perhaps the public does not believe that campaigns can be waged fairly, and perhaps United Russia believes it can win only by manipulating friendly media.
Yelena Rykovtseva is a media analyst and host of the Press Hour show on Radio Liberty.
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