Russian presidential elections are scheduled for March 4th. Natalia Karbasova spoke with Maksim Putintsev, editor-in-chief of DW Akademie partner "Echo Moskvy" in Yekaterinburg about the media situation in Russia.
Russia is at a crossroads. After numerous falsifications in the Duma elections last December, thousands of Russians vented their frustration at the biggest peaceful demonstration in the last decade. On February 4th, thousands of Russians again took to the streets despite the biting frost. Today, civil society is slowly taking shape in Russia. It consists primarily of so-called "angry citizens" - members of the middle class who have an adequate income and are striving for economic as well as political freedoms.
Have you noticed any changes to press freedom since the rallies began?
I wouldn't say so. The media which provide alternative views and opinions are still doing so. Online media are still as free as they were before. What has changed is the way state television is covering news. They've started talking about the opposition rallies, for example, although not in great detail. Leaders of the so-called "unsystematic" opposition such as Vladimir Ryzhkov, Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov have been invited to various talk shows on state television. Although their statements are shortened and heavily censored, they can now reach a mass audience. But like other observers I think this could be a temporary "thaw" to decrease social tensions. After the presidential election things may well go back to how they were before.
There's still censorship, then?
There's no doubt that TV programmes are censored. Channels which are very close to the government practice the most censorship. Nobody watches a state channel expecting true and objective coverage. Instead, people surf the web where videos of the rallies, photos and eyewitness reports are easily accessible. There'll no doubt be a huge difference between TV and internet coverage during the elections.
How do authorities try to control the mass media?
I wouldn't say our station is under pressure from the authorities. Yekaterinburg and the Ural region are known for being rather liberal. And "Echo of Moscow" is known for its independence and objectivity. As for the media in general, money plays the central role in keeping them under control. There are two approaches. In the first one, loyalty is bought privately. Formal and informal rules are then created prohibiting certain topics or invitations to specific speakers. In the second approach, state structures buy shares in a medium and then start interfering with editorial policies.
What about self-censorship?
This is, to a certain degree, a common problem. Some journalists are afraid of damaging good relations with the authorities and therefore avoid uncomfortable issues. Others go even further and identify with the authorities. They won't report on certain topics or people and never criticize the authorities.
A few independent media sites have been closed lately. How important are social media in spreading information through alternative channels?
It's no wonder that the most influential sources have been attacked by hackers. I'm sure more internet attacks will follow, especially when political tensions are high, like with the upcoming elections. That's why alternative ways of spreading information are extremely important if official websites don't work. Large social networks also allow journalists to reach an incredible number of users. This opportunity shouldn't be ignored. We are, of course, present on Twitter and Facebook. We do this to monitor relevant sources, and also to promote our station.
The latest rallies have shown that journalists are split in two camps. Some have openly supported Prime Minister Putin at pro-Kremlin demonstrations...
That's right, but the split actually occurred a long time ago. The journalists or, rather, propagandists, who spoke on stage during the pro-Putin demonstrations in Moscow, are part of the so-called Kremlin pool and support the government. Their anti-western rhetoric is well-known. Now, shortly before the elections, they're talking about the "orange danger". That means a potential velvet revolution and the risk of losing stability. They also blame "enemies" from abroad for trying to destabilize the situation. This, though, is standard practice.
Maksim Putintsev, is editor-in-chief of the "Echo Moskvy" ("Echo of Moscow") radio station in Yekaterinburg.