Vienna, June 19 – A majority of Russians want to see the re-introduction of state censorship of the media in their country, according to a new poll, with nearly half of them saying that Moscow is already censoring the Russian media at least in part and that many Russian journalists now engage in self-censorship lest they be subject to more restrictions.
Yesterday, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), known for its close ties to the Kremlin, released the results of a poll on Russian attitudes toward censorship of the media. No one who hopes that Russia will become a democratic society can be pleased with what this survey shows (wciom.ru/novosti/press-vypuski/press-vypusk/single/10282.html).
In its write-up, VTsIOM said that “Russian media need state censorship!” Fifty-eight percent agreed, with 26 percent of the total saying that it was absolutely necessary. Only 24 percent were inclined against the re-introduction of censorship, with only eight percent “categorically against” that step. And this pattern existed across all age groups.
Forty percent of the supporters of censorship said they back it in order to block the spread of violence and bad behavior in Russia, 22 percent of them said they believed it would help limit the amount of slander and disinformation to which Russians are now subjected, and 11 percent said that it would help eliminate stupidity and raise the cultural level of the media.
Only one Russian in four opposes censorship, VTsIOM reported, with 11 percent of them saying it violates the principles of democracy, 18 percent saying that it would prevent their receipt of timely and accurate information, and four percent saying it would contradict the Russian Constitution or lead to a return to Soviet times.
(Intriguingly, the survey found that only about a third (35 percent) of all Russians know that their Constitution bans censorship, while slightly more than half (51 percent) believe that it doesn’t. Both those who knew and those who did not know about the constitutional ban divided almost equally between those who support censorship and those who do not.)
The poll also found that 28 percent of Russians believe the media there is not subject to some censorship, as opposed to eight percent who believe that all media are. Most have an intermediate view: 20 percent say there is unofficial censorship, 20 percent say it is not applied to all media outlets, and seven percent think there is “simply self-censorship” by journalists.
Not surprisingly, this poll has sparked a lively discussion in some parts of the Russian media, with a few outlets expressing horror, others welcoming what such support for censorship means for the future of Russia, and still a third group challenging both the VTsIOM poll and the way in which its findings might be used by those in power.
Among the last is today’s “Gazeta.” Andrei Milekhin, the president of the ROMIR polling agency, told that paper that the VTsIOM poll “does not reflect the real opinion of the population because the question was posed incorrectly,” something he said VTsIOM “typically” does to get the results the Kremlin wants (www.gzt.ru/society/2008/06/18/225941.html).
The basic problem with the VTsIOM poll is that it failed to clearly define the terms it used. “If one understands censorship to be about a certain observance of moral norms, restrictions on showing violence or protecting children from such information,” Milekhin said, then of course an absolute majority supports it.”
“But if [polltakers] formulate the question in the following way – is it necessary to limit freedom of speech in such a way to restrict the expression of various points of view on existing problems, then,” the ROMIR head said, “the majority [of Russians] would agree that censorship is not necessary.”
Unfortunately, few Russian leaders are going to make that distinction, especially if they are not pressed to do so by those abroad who are concerned with democracy and freedom of speech. And consequently, media freedom may continue to be at risk in Russia, however much many now celebrate President Dmitry Medvedev’s commitment to democracy.