How Vladimir Putin Weaponized Russia’s Media

After decades of wielding Soviet-style hard power, Moscow is developing a subtler form of influence.

Vladimir Putin is a news junkie.

The Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, didn’t use that expression when we talked by phone, but that’s what he described to me: a man at the center of an ever-churning machine processing vast amounts of news and data at his command.

“Sometimes we’re wondering what is the limit for a human being for absorbing this huge amount of information,” Peskov told me, “but, well, it’s really a very, very, very heavy job.”

Peskov, speaking fluent English, described the operation. “First of all, the information and press department of the presidential administration prepares digests on print media, on Internet sources, on domestic media—federal and regional.

“We have special people working around the clock, preparing TV digests. We’re recording TV news on the [Russian] federal channels for him during the day. Obviously, it’s very hard for him to watch news so we make digests, let’s say, zip versions of TV news, divided into issues.”

Putin views these summaries in his car, plane, and helicopter, Peskov said.

“It’s quite convenient when he’s going home, let’s say, from [the] Kremlin, when he is not spending a night here … he can use this 20 minutes for really understanding what happened during the day in terms of information.” He watches TV news channels in English and German—a language he speaks fluently thanks to his posting in Dresden as a KGB agent in the late 1980s—and receives English- and German-language newspapers.

“Frankly speaking, I wouldn’t say that [Putin] is a fluent user of [the] Internet,” Peskov added, “but he is fluent enough to use some resources, plus, definitely, he is comparing what he sees and hears from [the] press … with the news he’s receiving—when it comes to foreign affairs—from his foreign ministry, from his special services, from intelligence, from various ministries, and so on.”

As a former KGB officer and head of the KGB’s successor agency, the FSB, Putin knows the value of information. His concept of the media, however, is a far cry from the First Amendment. For him, it’s a simple transactional equation: Whoever owns the media controls what it says.

From his first days as president, Putin moved quickly to dominate the media landscape in Russia, putting not only state media but privately owned broadcast media under the Kremlin’s influence.

Putin pursues a two-pronged media strategy. At home, his government clamps down on internal communications—primarily TV, which is watched by at least 90 percent of the population, but also newspapers, radio stations, and, increasingly, the Internet. State-aligned news outlets are flooded with the Kremlin’s messages and independent outlets are pushed—subtly but decisively—just to the edge of insignificance and extinction. At the same time, Putin positions himself as a renegade abroad, deploying the hyper-modern, reflexively contrarian RT—an international news agency formerly known as Russia Today—to shatter the West’s monopoly on “truth.” The Kremlin appears to be betting that information is the premier weapon of the 21st century, and that it can wield that weapon more effectively than its rivals.

When Western news outlets report on a “takeover” of the press by the Russian government, it usually evokes images of Putin, a puppet master behind Kremlin walls, ordering armed men to break down doors and haul away journalists. But in Russia, there are other ways to control the media—less dramatic, less obvious, but just as potent.

You can, of course, take a gang of men, give them some guns, and send them off to seize a broadcasting center. That’s what happened in October 1993 when Russian lawmakers revolted against Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. They failed, but 69 people died in the attack on the government’s Ostankino Television Center. In 2000, shortly after Putin was inaugurated as Russia’s president, government security forces arrived at the offices of the parent company of NTV, an independent channel generating high ratings for its investigative reporting, and began seizing documents. The authorities chalked the raid up to a business dispute, claiming that NTV’s owner, media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, owed his creditors $300 million and wouldn’t pay them back. State-controlled Gazprom-Media took over the channel less than a year later. While NTV is still one of Russia’s biggest channels, it has been politically neutered and now hews closely to the Kremlin’s viewpoint.

But there’s also a bloodless, modern approach: apply pressure, and wait. Pass laws that constrict the space available for independent media. Set legal traps, citing anti-terrorist legislation. Send the tax police to carry out endless inspections of a recalcitrant broadcaster or their business associates, denying that political views have anything to do with the investigation. Don’t kill them, just maim them. Try to squeeze them into irrelevance.

In other words: in Russia, it’s complicated. Writing for Global Voices, Dozhd’s chief editor, Ilya Klishin, observed that, when he visits the United States, people “expect horror stories about the daily nightmare I endure under the pressure of a totalitarian regime.” But, as he described it, “Many aspects of living in Russia are strangely difficult to explain to someone who’s never experienced life here.” For instance, Klishin wrote, “You can’t say Russia has no independent media; I work at an independent TV station, after all. But the devil is in the details, and, in this case, we’re hopelessly outgunned.”

“What’s happened in Russia would be like Fox News taking over the airwaves in the U.S., booting MSNBC from cable TV, and reducing liberals to broadcasting online from a small private apartment in Brooklyn,” Klishin said.

Full article: How Vladimir Putin Weaponized Russia’s Media (The Atlantic)

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