300 Years of Russian Propaganda: Flashbacks from History
767 views   /  7 Jul 2015
Nowadays many suggest that the Russian journalism is an unprofessional, agenda-driven, propagandistic machine. But what are the roots of this trend and where did they come from? Did Russian media always serve in the interest of the state or did periods of liberal relief occur? And, most importantly, how did the Russian government influence the media?
By Daria Zakharova
In 2003, Russia celebrated the 300-year anniversary since the publication of the first printed newspaper called “Vedomosti”. It was founded in 1703 by Russian Emperor Peter the Great, blazing a trail to the Russian journalism. Just like the history of every country passes through its ups and downs along the bumpy road of development, the history of the Russian journalism, which is often, like everywhere in the world, referred to as the “fourth power,” is not an exception. While many critics suggest that the Russian government’s measures against freedom of speech are innovative and unprecedented, a lot of them are in fact the blueprints of measures taken in the country centuries ago.
In January 2015, the Russian State Duma enacted a law that prohibited commercial channels to run advertisements on TV. The law significantly aggravated the activity of the already small amount of alternative media. It seriously hit the major non-governmental TV Channel “Dozhd” (Rain) which had been previously banned by the majority of state-owned cable operators. “Dozhd“,which covers 18 to 20 million people and is one of the few TV-channels independent from the government’s control, faced serious funding problems and started plunging into online broadcasting, being less and less capable of competing with government-sponsored channels.
Let’s reflect on the past: in November 1917 after the Great October Socialist Revolution and on the brink of the Russian Civil War the temporary government of the Bolsheviks, Vladimir Lenin’s party, proclaimed principles of equality and freedom, including freedom of speech and media.
Unfortunately for the Bolsheviks, a dozen of years of political and social instability boosted the pluralism of political parties. Hence, the diversity and a great amount of the media reached its peak. In order to undermine competitors’ activity, Lenin’s government enacted a decree “Over the State Monopoly in Advertising.” The decree prohibited all non-state media to run any kind of advertisement under the penalty of disbandment, the loss of property and imprisonment for up to 3 years. Met with fierce resentment from the bourgeoisie and alternative rightist and centrist parties in 1918, the decree eliminated more than 300 non-Bolshevik newspapers. Thus monopolizing the media field, but not gravely violating the principles of freedom of speech proclaimed earlier, the Lenin’s government easily got rid of the majority of competitors. Among them were such bourgeoisie media as “Russkoe slovo” (Russian opinion), “Novoe Vremia” (The New Times), “Rech” (Speech) and many other “undesirable” newspapers. The decree was abolished only in the early 1990s along with other Lenin’s media reforms.
In 2008, in an attempt to deter the growth of media pluralism on the Internet and the increase of its audience, the Russian government created a special controlling and monitoring unit. The Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications (Roskomnadzor) was created to monitor newspapers and the internet-media on the subject of violation of Russian laws. The body was both authorized to prohibit and shut down media outlets, as well as to closely cooperate with government’s prosecution offices instantly banning violators. Surprisingly, except for child pornography and drug abuse, lots of alternative new media were blacklisted. Among them: one of the oldest online daily “Grani.ru“(Edges), popular writer’s Viktor Shenderovich’s blog “EJ”, political activist Garry Kasparov’s media platform “Kasparov.ru” and a blog run by anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny.
Roskomnadzor was unprecedented for Russia since Perestroika and was oddly reminiscent of the Soviet General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press under the Council of Ministers of the USSR (Glavlit) that operated along the entire Soviet Union’s existence. Though the Glavlit’s main responsibilities were initially similar to those of Roskomnadzor – monitoring media over the subjects of potential increase in nationalism and religious extremism, secret military and economic information, pornography – it quickly became the major and clumsy juridical body of censorship for all types of the Russian media. Not a single article, broadcast or a book could be published or edited without the Glavlit’s “blessing”. It was disbanded under Gorbachev’s reforms during the Perestroika times as well.
The attempts to create government bodies monitoring media usually happened to counter rebellions and public outrage. Back in 1825 after the suppression of the Decembrist Revolt, when around 3,000 young soldiers protested against Nicholas I, the new Emperor imposed repressions against media, believing it was the reason for the uprising. Same type of committee was created with same functions – monitor, censure, prohibit. The body was called “The Third Section of His Imperial Majesty’s Own Chancery”. It persecuted libertinism and observed censorship besides other functions. The new censorship law, passed in 1826, prohibited political topics in the press.
The recurrence of event in the short history of Russian journalism shows that the most repressive government policies towards its “fourth branch of power” – journalism – didn’t only coincide with the public concern and social instability, but eventually gave ways to more a democratic media climate. Nicholas’s media and social repressions were replaced by more liberal reforms of Alexander II that abolished previous prohibitions. The 70 years of Soviet media censorship ended with Perestroika and the 1991 media decree proclaiming comprehensive freedom of speech. There can’t be monopoly for truth, because it changes into either propaganda or media dictatorship. Instead there should be eternal pluralism of opinions – commercial, state and socially-funded media all competing in a healthy environment.
The 21st century opened a new page for Russian journalism introducing not only new media, but, unfortunately, new (thought partially old) forms of the state control. The way Russian media will develop under new laws and circumstances depends not only on the historical circularity which should bring new developments, but also on alternative, thorough and scrupulous journalists. “The fourth power“ must serve autonomously and independently.
The views and opinions contained in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of Russian Accent.
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Very informative and succinct review of Russian censorship from the 18th century until today. Keep up the good work!