The first two months of Vladimir Putin’s latest presidency have effectively ended the dialogue between the authorities and opposition forces. Putin’s administration has passed stringent new legislation on non-profit organizations; imposed de facto censorship on the Internet; and publicly persecuted opposition leaders and demonstrators, among other anti-democratic offenses. Against this backdrop, the state is also finally creating a public television network. Presumably, this new outlet will be another tool the government uses in to attempts to turn public opinion in its favor instead of a forum for building a healthy media environment Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the Center for Political Technologies analytics department, explains why public television as it is understood in the West won't thrive in Russia.

 

 

Former President Dmitry Medvedev first proposed the creation of a Russian public television network this past December. This proposal was a part of the package of reforms he put forth before the Federal Assembly. The package also included the return of direct elections for governors and the liberalization of the legislature regulating political parties. These proposals represented the government's response to the unprecedented demonstrations in protest of the rampant voter fraud the December 4th parliamentary elections.

Since the adoption of the law mandating that NGOs engaged in political activity and funded from abroad must register as “foreign agents,” as well as the law on information security (which in fact concerns Internet censorship), the idea of establishing a public television network seems to belong to the bygone era of “Medvedev’s thaw.” Along with many other of Dmitry Medvedev’s projects, it is currently being subjected to serious revisions.

The idea of creating a public television network has been under discussion in Russia for a number of years. Television journalist Vladimir Posner had first proposed this idea to Vladimir Putin during the latter's first two presidential terms. The Kremlin's response was lukewarm. Medvedev, in his role as Deputy Prime Minister until 2008, made television a priority only as far as developing digital capabilities and improving access to state-owned television networks across the country.

When it comes to public television as a political project, the Kremlin only began discussing it seriously once the rift between the state and the public became all too apparent. In response, instead of democratizing the media market and reducing government influence on the information policy of state-controlled television networks, the authorities decided to set up yet another “special project” to tackle this task. This project was intended to serve as one of the vehicles for dialogue with the opposition just as the dialogue itself began to peter out. The less democracy there is in Russia, the more imitations and “special agencies” the government establishes in aims of concealing the deterioration of the institutions of civil society.

The recently published list of candidates drawn up by the Public Chamber destroys whatever hopes there were for a public television network that would even remotely resemble its Western counterparts.

There are two principal issues with establishing a public television network. First, Russian authorities are almost one hundred years behind in this compared with developed Western nations. To name some examples, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was established in 1922, Polish TVP in 1935, Canadian CBC in 1936. With the introduction of mass broadcasting media states sought the optimal formula for balancing government, business, and public interests on radio and television. We should bear in mind that, as a rule, public television is neither government-owned nor private, but has a unique legal profile and is accountable to special boards comprised of figures carefully chosen out of ethical considerations.

For example, the BBC is an NGO with a controlling board (the Trust), consisting of 12 Trustees appointed by the Queen. Financially, both the BBC and the German ARD are funded through a special tax paid by all British or German residents who own a television set. In the case of the BBC, the net sum of the funds collected in support of it comprises 3.4 billion GBP (nearly 5.4 billion USD). Polish TVP receives one-third of its revenue from a similar tax, while the rest comes from for-profit activities and sponsors. The Canadian National Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is funded through advertising as well as revenues from the national budget. Its board of directors is directly accountable to the Parliament and the Department of Canadian Heritage. The CBC’s president is appointed by the country’s Governor General at the Prime Minister’s recommendation. In one of his meetings with Putin, Posner used the example of Canada in support of his argument. When he explained to the President that the CBC remains independent while being financed by the national budget, Putin retorted “You are very nice man, but very naïve.”

 

Alexey Venediktov (left), a Russian journalist, editor-in-chief and host at the Echo of Moscow radio station who recently resigned from the board of Echo TV in protest agains Gasprom-Media, and Vladimir Posner (right), a Russian journalist who grew up in the US and is best known in the West for appearing on television to represent and explain the views of the Soviet Union during the Cold War

 

This response is typical of the mindset of the today's Kremlin, which does not want to cede control over the projects it approves. The most recent dialogue between Vladimir Putin and Alexey Venediktov, Editor-in-Chief of Ekho Moskvy Radio, is a spectacular example of this. In mid-January, while still in his capacity of Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin met with the top management Russia’s leading radio station to harshly criticized them, accusing them of a lack of professionalism and a preconceived bias against the authorities (see video.)

Putin’s conversation with Venediktov was extremely adversarial. “Before going to sleep [...] I turned on the radio, and found myself listening to your station. I didn't even know that it is your radio station,” Putin told Venediktov. “As I listened, I thought to myself, ‘What nonsense!’” The program Putin had come across happened to be about missile defense systems. “It’s not important for us, your stations says, how far anti-missile sites are located from our national borders. Not important? How can it be not important? If they are close to us, they will be able to shoot down our ground missiles, but if they are far away, they won’t. How can this be unimportant? It's a key issue! It is hugely important!” The Prime Minister was clearly agitated. Putin ended his tirade with a now-familiar punchline: "Clearly, this so-called information is being spread in service of foreign interests." That is, the station was being anti-Russian.

Alexey Venediktov later tweeted that Putin’s ire was provoked by a show broadcast on January 4th, 2012, hosted by Svetlana Sorokina and Yury Kobaladze. The comment on missile defense systems had come from Alexander Konovalov, a political scientist and President of the Institute for Strategic Studies and Analysis. Later, the station invited Dmitry Rogozin, the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the military industrial complex, on the air, and he explicated Russia’s official position on the issue. Thus, Ekho Moskvy clearly demonstrated its willingness to give voice to every viewpoint.

The less democracy there is in Russia, the more imitations and “special agencies” the government establishes in aims of concealing the deterioration of the real institutions of civil society.

Putin’s primary charge against the radio station was that its editorial policies were not in line with the interests of its major shareholder, Gazprom-Media. Putin frequently cited the example of the Fox News network, the American network that traditionally reflects the politics of the Republican Party and is sharply critical of the Obama administration. Following the discussion between Putin, Venediktov, and the station’s board of directors, Venediktov and his first deputy Vladimir Varfolomeyev refused to run in the election for the new board. As a certain anonymous source explained to the media, “This is no news. This situation is most likely related to two independent board members, Yevgeny Yasin and Alexander Makovsky, being removed from the board at Gazprom-Media’s request. Venediktov decided to leave the board in protest of their removal.”

The Kremlin firmly believes that he who pays the piper calls the tune. There are few naïve people among either the liberal public and the supporters of the Putin regime. However, both sides agree in their criticisms of Medvedev’s initial public television network project. Paradoxical as it may seem, neither the regime nor the opposition need a television network with the ambiguous status of an agency that is under government control yet at the same time imitating the freedom of the press. Stanislav Govorukhin, the chief of Vladimir Putin’s election headquarters, called it counterproductive. Duma representative Robert Shlegel, former leader of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, said that the Internet is a more of a priority than television. Finally, Anton Krasovsky, a former NTV talk-show host, said the establishment of a public television network was simply another way for the ruling elite to appropriate government funds for their own private benefit.

Another major issue with the creation of a public television network is that the idea emerged in the preceding political period, under Medvedev, when it was acceptable to speak of modernization and give lip-service to human rights. Today, when human rights advocates are equated with “foreign agents” (meaning “spies”), the ideas of the ruling elite are much less coherent. On one hand, the Kremlin maintains its grip, directly or indirectly, over all federal networks, while on the other hand, it pretends that it is about to create a Russian version of the BBC in order to meet public demand. What public do the authorities have in mind?

According to the Kremlin, the best representative of the Russian public's interests is the Public Chamber. Created in 2004, the Public Chamber was a fake concession to the people that found themselves deprived of direct gubernatorial elections and other political liberties as a result of the decisions made in the aftermath of the Beslan hostage crisis. Entirely loyal to state interests, the Public Chamber serves as a venue for discussing (and condemning) various initiatives that the Kremlin chooses to be evaluated by this false surrogate for public opinion. Now, it is this Public Chamber that will decide who is to be nominated for the board of the public television network, its top management. The final decisions will be made by the President. Incidentally, the channel will most likely be established on the basis of Zvezda (“Star”), a network currently under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense.

The recently published list of candidates drawn up by the Public Chamber destroys whatever hopes there were for a public television network that would even remotely resemble its Western counterparts. On July 6th, members of the Chamber selected 25 candidates out of the 78 from the previous list and submitted them for President Putin’s consideration. The names of these 25 lucky individuals cannot be found in official government sources. Even this procedure was clouded in secrecy. What kind of public television is the Kremlin creating, if the public doesn't even have the right to know the names of the candidates to its board?

Today, when human rights advocates are equated with “foreign agents” (meaning “spies”), the question arises: is the ruling elite certifiably crazy?

In Russia, there is a singular “institution” participating in the dialogue between the authorities and the public. It is known as “anonymous sources.” Information is routinely “leaked” to the media through government officials who do not want to expose themselves (or take responsibility). It may also be spread through various agencies that also fear exposure. Thanks to anonymous sources, the Russian public can find out more than they are officially permitted to know.

In the case of the public television network, it was an “anonymous source” that disclosed the tentative list of 25 candidates for its board. The list holds no surprises: according to RIA Novosti, it includes prominent cultural figures (such as film director Karen Shakhnazarov, director of the Moscow Chekhov Theater Oleg Tabakov, Dean of the State Cinema Institute Vladimir Malyshev, director of the Karelian Art Museum Natalya Vavilova), athletes (gymnast Alexey Nemov), government-friendly journalists and writers (author and TV anchor Sergey Minayev, president of the International TV & Radio Academy and of the advisory council of the Federal Press Agency Anatoly Lysenko, editor-in-chief of the ultra-nationalist newspaper Zavtra ('Tomorrow') Alexander Prokhanov, TV anchor Timur Kizyakov, author Darya Dontsova, military affairs columnist at Komsomolskaya Pravda Viktor Baranets, TV anchor Svyatoslav Belza), as well as former politicians and government officials (former Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev, former president of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev), and finally, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church (chair of its Synodal department Vladimir Legoyda and first deputy chair of its education committee Maxim Kozlov).

The list does not include a single figure who is publicly critical of the authorities, nor any of the prominent human rights advocates, let alone anyone recently allied with the opposition movement. As for the latter, not only do the authorities deny the opposition's role in the political process, they also do everything in their power to neutralize it. There can be little doubt as to the kind of information policy that will be implemented by the public television network under the management of such illustrious board members.

Last, but not the least: the bill for this new gift to the public will be footed by the government (read: taxpayers), business (in the usual 'semi-voluntary' manner), as well as by certain anonymous individuals. According to Medvedev, at the initial stage, “The government will have to launch the financing mechanism through a loan arrangement; after all, the state has to extend its helping hand in this situation.” But, Medvedev continued, “In the future, this loan should be replaced with an endowment, a donor-advised fund that will enable the network to exist without asking the government for money.” The endowment will be no less than 3 million rubles. It will grow through public fundraising campaigns, including fundraising from private donors. It is not known whether a special tax will be introduced, like in some Western countries.

Perhaps under different political conditions, the idea of establishing a public television network would actually come to fruition. In that case, it could involve finding a compromise between the interests of the target audience, advertisers, and government authorities. The network should have been a commercial channel, within a certain accountability to public needs. Alas, at the moment Russia seems to be incapable of resolving the conflict between the authorities and the most active opposition minority. The ruling elite wants to keep all information under their control, while the activist minority claims its right to be presented with a closer reflection of reality. This latter demand translates into public television airing stories that are inconvenient for the authorities. So far, this conflict seems impossible to overcome. For Russia, a public television network in the Western mold will remain a distant feature of another world. To live in this world, Russians will need a different government and a different society.

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