#5 - JRL 2009-159 - JRL Home
August 27, 2009
Putin TV -- Russia's New Reality
By Matviy Hanapolsky
Matviy Hanapolsky is a broadcaster for the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy. The views expressed in this commentary, which was written for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036

The television screen shows an elderly woman of around 80, badly dressed. She is an Ossetian, lives in Tskhinvali, and witnessed the tragic events of last year's Russian-Georgian war.

She was recalling how Georgian troops forced their way into her home. "They were wearing American military uniforms and had American weapons," she says. "There was a chief instructor with them, he gave them orders in English."

The camera continues to focus on the woman as she speaks. The journalist doesn't interrupt. He doesn't ask how someone who has never in her life seen anything except her own cow knows what kind of weapons and uniforms the soldiers wore, or how she could be sure the commands were in English.

The journalist knows, which is why he doesn't interrupt. He and his group are the authors of this disinformation series that will be triumphantly screened by Russian state TV channels.

The woman was told what to say, and she is saying what she was told to. The journalist doesn't conceal his face: state TV and radio pay handsomely, and the Russian media operate on the principle "five minutes of ignominy and you can live comfortably for the rest of your life."

The days when Vladimir Gusinsky's NTV was a byword for independent and honest investigative reporting and Russia still had a free press are gone forever. These days NTV functions as the electronic equivalent of the yellow press, and its journalists "have scattered among the population like mice" -- some have left journalism altogether, some fastidiously avoid politics, and some have pledged themselves to lying.

After Russian President Dmitry Medvedev forced through amendments to the election law that mean that from now on the new Russian president will be elected/appointed for six years not four, everything has become cynically clear. Medvedev will remain in office until 2012, then Vladimir Putin for 12 more years, which means that from now until 2024 there will be the same government, the same criteria, and the same scale of values, without any real changes.

I would add that there are barely any opposition media, and if you happen to work for one of them you risk getting killed.


Such is the reality of life in the Russian media. The journalists who broadcast yesterday's honest political reporting still work for the same TV channels, but those channels are now exclusively propagandistic, and the journalists simply collect their paychecks twice a month.

No, they have not visibly lost their journalistic ability, and you can watch investigative reporting every week. For example, about how a small businessman is treated badly in a small town.

The TV channel will show a detailed report of how and why he is victimized. Then the regional governor, who is invariably a member of United Russia, appears on the screen and assures us that those responsible have already been fired, that he personally will raise the issue of corruption with the government, and that the law needs to be changed.

These investigative reports always follow the same scenario: the villains are at bottom, the mid-level boss is good, but all hopes lie with Putin, and because Putin exists, a bright future awaits us.

No generalizations, no questions "why do we still live like this?" In the context of problems, the top leadership does not exist. There is only "Vladimir Putin visited...," "Dmitry Medvedev affirmed sharply...."

Programs that contain discussion have vanished from the TV screen completely. Savik Shuster's program on the TRK Ukrayina channel is perceived in Russia as something romantic, improbable, a fairy tale, which elicits the comment, "Yes, things are different there in Kyiv."

Pessimism among journalists is total and irreversible.

The Word Is A Weapon

There is one sphere, however, which is the exclusive preserve of propagandists: political statements and political decisions by Putin and Medvedev. There not only discussions, but even simple questions are impossible.

There is a basic Kremlin decision: Russia has embarked on an information war. From now on, lies on television are no longer lies, but a weapon against the enemy.

In the case of Georgia, they lied day in, day out, at the slightest pretext. The more absurd the lie, the better.

When the first case of swine flu was diagnosed in Krasnodar Krai, an "expert" appeared on the screen and told an improbable story. He said there "are reports" that swine flu came from Georgia and that "there was a secret biological laboratory where experiments were conducted on pigs." Then some of the pigs escaped, mated with wild boar, crossed the frontier into the Russian Federation -- and there you are!

They lied from the very first minutes of the war in Georgia. They showed Russian Hurricane rockets and said they were Georgian Grad rockets. They lied constantly about the number of casualties: first they said 2,000, then 160, then 59, then 71.

They lied when they said Georgia planned to poison the Tskhinvali water supply, which was ridiculous because the small river that supplies drinking water to Tskhinvali flows into Georgia.

The film "8/8/8" was devoted to the anniversary of last year's war, which began on that date. It was in that film that the old Ossetian woman told how the "Georgian-Americans" forced their way into her home.

No Relations, No Questions

The most important media strategy is "no questions."

Medvedev visits German Chancellor Angela Merkel and tells her that Russia will have "no dealings" with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. And no one has the right to ask what that statement means.

Breaking off diplomatic relations? Annulling some agreement or other? Closing the borders and cancelling flights to Ukraine? There was a similar statement with regard to Georgia, and flights there were cancelled.

And the main thing: will there be a war?

That's not a joke, after all, the president did say "no relations."

And the most important question: if Yushchenko is reelected president, does that mean there will be "no relations" for five, or 10, or 15 years?

But there are no answers, just as there is not a single program where the top leadership would have to answer questions and provide explanations about the most vital issues of war and peace and about their own statements, which could give rise to a new war with Russia's closest neighbor.

Russian journalists joke that: "When I watch the first channel of Russian TV, I have the impression that Ernst is looking at me from the screen as though I were trash."

Konstantin Ernst is that channel's director-general.

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