Vienna, January 28 – Russians are increasingly choosing the Internet over other media outlets for “objective” news, a reflection of both their judgments about the quality of reporting and their ability to purchase increasingly expensive newspapers and magazines during the current economic crisis.
Today, the Russian Business Rating Agency published online the results of a poll conducted on behalf of Pro-Vision Communications in 12 major Russian cities last November as part of a country-wide assessment of the level of trust Russians have in various media outlets (http://www.sostav.ru/news/2009/01/28/s1/).
According to this survey, 47 percent of the sample called online publications “important” sources for news, while only 33 percent said the same of regional and federal media outlets. Its authors argued that this result showed that Russians “trust” online news more than that carried on other sources, but the data at least as published do not necessarily support that conclusion.
Another explanation, one offered by those involved in other sectors of the media, is that these numbers simply reflect the impact of the current economic situation which has driven prices for print media up even as the incomes of many Russians have fallen (http://www.ia-centr.ru/publications/3683/).
And it is clear that the print media have suffered in Russia, as elsewhere, as a result of the economic crisis. Since October, the sales of Russian newspapers and magazines have fallen 40 percent, and with smaller print runs, many of these outlets have been forced to increase prices, reducing still further the number of people who can and will buy them.
But at the same time, these new poll numbers highlight two other developments likely to continue to have an impact on Russian media habits. On the one hand, the Russian media are now “more unfree than free,” according to the Moscow Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (www.iamik.ru/?op=full&what=content&ident=501137).
Russian officials are exercising ever tighter control over the electronic media, the Center suggests, and both the high profile killing of journalists and attacks on websites like Portal-Credo.ru which was blocked, apparently on orders from the highest levels, during the patriarchal elections, have increased Russian suspicions about the reliability of many outlets.
As a result, the conclusions based on the November 2008 poll are important, even if they may be too broad. That is especially the case since over the past five years, the number of Internet users in Russia has gone up 2.5 times and one in six Russians now goes online every day, up from only one in 50 in the fall of 2002 (mediarevolution.ru/audience/1807.html).
While not all those who go online do so to get news – many use the Internet to engage in chat, get advice, purchase goods or be entertained – an increasing number clearly do so. And that means that in the future, this still relatively free portion of the Russian media market is going to be both more important and more subject to government efforts designed to control it.
The former trend means that more and more individuals, groups, and governments interested in learning about developments Russia will need to focus on this medium, and they will need to use the Internet and especially to its most sophisticated new forms if they hope to reach a Russian audience.
But the latter means that as has been the case in China and elsewhere, Russian officials will be trying to impose their control on this form of mass media lest, having not having control of this portion of the media will not only reduce the importance of the media they do control but also increase the challenges to their own power.
Despite that latter trend, one that will involve a struggle between offense and defense on line, there was one piece of potentially good news for the Russian media this week: The Federation Council is set to approve Russia’s very own version of the US Freedom of Information Act (www.politcom.ru/article.php?id=7524).
Once approved, that measure which will take effect January 1, 2010, is supposed to guarantee Russian citizens the right to obtain a wide range of information about government bodies and activities. That is a step forward, even if here too there will be another struggle between those who favor openness and those, mostly inside the government, who don’t.