Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Freedom of Speech Exists in Russian Media Despite Little Demand for It, Journalist Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 12 – Most discussions of media freedom in the Russian Federation focus either on the ways in which the government has imposed control over television or on the remaining possibilities for relatively free discussion on the Internet or in the relatively mall tirage print media.
But in an essay posted online today, Irina Yasina, the head of the experts council of the Club of Regional Journalism, looks not at the supply side but on the demand, and she argues that while media freedom does exist in Russia, 95 percent of the Russian people show little or no interest in it, preferring instead to rely on government-controlled television.
While there is little or no freedom of speech on television, which the government tightly controls because that is the source of information for “the basic part of the so-called electorate,” Yasina says, there is some media freedom on other TV outlets, radio, the print media and the Internet (www.specletter.com/svoboda-slova/2010-01-12/ljudjam-zhvachka-skoro-nadoest.html).
REN-TV provides examples of this, as do Ekho Moskvy and City-FM radio, she argues. But tragically, Russians on the whole are not showing much interest in or making much use of these or similar electronic mass media outlets, preferring instead the “pablum” offered to them on the First and Second channels of television.
Newspapers also provide many examples of relative media freedom, but ever fewer Russians are reading them. And there numbers are likely to dwindle as over the next 10 to 15 years, “the press in general disappears” not so much as a result of a government conspiracy as from the development of the Internet.
The situation with regard to media freedom is not significantly different in the regions than it is in Moscow, at least if one is speaking about cities with a population of 100,000 or more. That is because “the border passes not along the red zone or other geographic or political division.”
The dividing line with regard to media freedom, she says, “passes where access to the Internet ends. There where there is broadband Internet, there is freedom of speech.” But “again” in the regions as in Moscow, Yasina observes, only “if you need it.” Consequently, while technology is on the side of media freedom, that lack of demand represents a serious challenge.
“The problem in our country is not that we want something that the authorities won’t allow us;” she insists. “The problem is that we do not want” what media freedom can provide. “You and I,” she writes directing her comments to Russians “can by going online or turning on the radio find out in five minutes everything that is happening in the world.”
“But 95 percent of the population [of the Russian Federation] does not need [this information] at all,” or so it appears from the media that Russians are interested in and actually turn to on a regular basis.
As long as the current powers that be remain in office, Yasina says, they will try to control the media people turn to in order to protect their positions. “But technology is on our side. Both the Internet and digital television which whether you like it or not all the same is coming to Russia,” thereby opening new possibilities.
But realizing these possibilities, the expert on journalism says, will require Russians working in the new media and Russians more generally to work hard and to change, something that requires acknowledging that “the powers that be are [not] guilty in every case … that [Russians themselves] are guilty” because “we ourselves are not interested.”
Approximately 1.5 to 2 million Russians listen to Ekho Moskvy, read “Novaya gazeta,” use the Internet for news, and tune in to REN-TV. That is not a small number in one sense, but relative to the total population, it is not very large, one reason why the authorities don’t close down such outlets because they are not a threat.
However, as soon as the tirages of the publications with such news grow or the viewership of freer sources of news increases, then, Yasina writes, the powers that be “will become concerned.” But until that happens, they don’t need to be, something that shows that “for the time being, the question [about the future of media freedom] rests with us, not them.”

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