Independent and free media are a key instrument in fighting corruption. But in today’s Russia, this instrument has itself been corrupted and misused. The Russian government has deliberately taken control over the major national media outlets, including TV channels, radio stations, print media, and Internet resources. Only a few publications remain free and are able to fulfill their duties. As competition on the world media market becomes fiercer, traditional media in all countries are looking for new ways of surviving and are becoming more susceptible to corruption. The problem is universal, but in Russia’s case it is aggravated by president Vladimir Putin’s corrupt political regime. Corruption has poisoned Russian media on both levels—institutional and individual. The objectives of this research are as follows: to investigate the main methods of corrupting the media and the journalists that the Russian government has employed; to trace the effects that such corruption can have on media content and, as a result, on public opinion; and to determine whether the few free media can contribute to overcoming this negative trend.



The research framework

Ten years ago, corruption as a subject of study was quite a small field. Today, numerous academic and media articles on the issue are being published almost daily. The research field on corruption has expanded, and this trend reflects growing public concern for the effects that corruption has on people’s lives. Another reason for the growing interest is development of the new media (mostly, internet) that allowed for better access to information and data exchange and, therefore, led to a greater awareness of the scale of the problem. Despite the fact that media made an invaluable contribution into exposing corruption, unfortunately, media themselves could not be spared from the corruption. This paper will explore the correlation between the specifics of the Russian political system and corruption practices in the Russian media.
The media are often referred to as “the fourth estate”—an institution that monitors and shapes the political process. Sometimes the media are called “the fourth pillar of democracy”—an institution established to complement three other pillars, or branches of power—legislative, executive, and judicial. There is a universal consensus that the media have become an integral part of modern societies, and their impact on everyday life has only been only gaining momentum. The media exist in all types of countries—from the poorest to the richest, but they are also associated with democratic states where they serve not as tools of propaganda or mere sources of information, but also as watchdogs. In the latter capacity they play an essential role in fighting corruption.
Due to the wide spread of the mass media, almost every moment of people’s public and personal lives is currently being mediated through television, radio, the press, internet, social media, et al. The media help to create the public space where personal interests meet public interests, where these interests can be discussed and eventually transformed into policies [Habermas]. In a sense, a study of modern politics and political issues is a study of how these issues are presented and interpreted in the media. Political agendas are shaped and promoted through the media. In developed democracies, the media aspire for meeting the standards of information accuracy and objectivity. “A mature democracy depends on having an educated electorate, informed and connected through the parliament,” and it’s the media’s public duty to inform and educate the public [Sampson]. As a prominent political reporter Walter Lippmann once noted, “if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news,” the democracy falters.
In democratic countries, the media are responsible for providing information to citizens so they could participate in process of governance, “to maximize the opportunities for citizens to make political decisions and cast ballots on the basis of informed choice.” [Gunther and Mughan]. Democratic media model means that there is a significant degree of pluralism in the media; access to the media is not obstructed; the media represent a wide spectrum of views, ideas, opinions, and ideologies; and they are not controlled by the government and/or limited number of private owners in a way that limits the media’s freedom or pluralism [Becker].
However, under conditions of other types of political systems (authoritarian, totalitarian), the media are incorporated into the state apparatus and usually serve merely as tools of propaganda. In closed regimes, the state use the media to sustain state policies, impose influence on the public and manipulate public opinion to maintain the current order. National media need to be studied in the context of the political system in which they are compelled to operate. It would not be correct to expect North Korean Central TV to report on the faults of Kim Jong Un’s policies, or the Cubavisión (one of Cuba’s two official TV channels) to criticize Fidel Castro for his anti-­Americanism. The media of these countries are not free to choose what to report, as they are, in essence, branches of the government.
Russian political system is currently described as authoritarian (or hybrid authoritarian), which is characterized by “the great power” agenda, neo-­imperialism, militarism, and dominance of a personalized authority [Shevtsova]. In this context, the media cannot be considered “the fourth pillar of democracy.” But at the same time they are not under total state control. The state allows for “islands of freedom,” a.k.a. independent liberal media, to operate at the margins of the public political discourse, as long as their audience is insignificant and therefore irrelevant at the national scale. These media exist so that political opposition can channel their criticisms and frustrations and “blow off steam” without posing real treat to the regime. One of the gravest problems of the modern Russian state is corruption, and it was acknowledged by many international organizations and even by the Russian government. Transparency International ranked Russia 133rd out of 177 countries in its 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index1. And according to official estimates2, in 2013 only, the country lost $312 million to corruption practices. Anti-­‐corruption campaign has been on the state’s political agenda for years, but no real effort to overcome the problem has been made yet.
Most scholars and observers agree that corruption in Russia penetrated every level of people’s life, and no institution has been spared, including the media. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian media have undergone substantial ideological and economic changes, but they have not developed enough to become a strong independent institution that would be able to resist pressure from the new political elites or business structures.
At the same time, Russian media joined the international media community and were exposed to a number of global trends—convergence, tabloidization, commercialization of content, shift from informing to entertaining (“infotainment”). This paper argues the spread of corruption in the Russian media was caused by a combination of two factors—authoritarian rollback under Vladimir Putin’s presidency and commercialization of the media content.