Russian (in)dependent journalism crossing through

Information war – or perhaps more validly titled information influencing – has been increasingly topical in Finnish political and public discussions. One of the most topical questions on this field is whether the Russian media coverage about the ‘European refugee crisis’ or the ‘crisis of European tolerance’ as its sometimes portrayed, is used as an instrument of Kremlin’s politics. Much of the focus is on the complex role of media. While the critical narrative about refugee situation exists in Europe domestically without ‘foreign media imports’, the media campaign from Russian media seems to be tuned in different levels.

One of the related cases was stirred by a story of Russian First Channel (Pervyi Kanal) about a Russian German 13-year old girl, who was allegedly raped by refugees this January. The story outraged masses of Russian-speakers in Germany and led to their numerous street protests against German immigrant policies. The police soon announced that after the first interrogation, the girl had changed her story denouncing her rape and changing the investigation to sexual relations with minor. Almost none of the German media reported the ‘Lisa story’, but for many Russian-speakers the Russian First Channel reportage was perceived more reliable than the opposite statements of the German media or police. The reasons for why many Russian-speakers had switched from German to Russian news, according to Julia Iwakin from the Russian-German Youth Organization, are based on the conflicting media coverages from Ukraine and the stalling reporting about the multiple sexual harassment cases on the last New Year ’s Eve in Cologne. Although this story was broadcasted only in Russian TV, German prosecutors found its’ accessibility for millions of Russian-speakers in Germany as a ground for investigation on whether the reportage had elements of incitement of interethnic hatred. This case reached even diplomatic level, as Russian and German foreign ministers have mutually exchanged critique on the matter of this subject.

Russian media has also followed very accurately the refugee situation in Finland and such minor stories as refugee dissatisfaction of their food have passed the news threshold. However, the Russian media campaigns of black-labeling Finnish authorities have – already traditionally I would say – been focused on child custody and protection cases. The information source and the expert in these news stories is often one and the same person, docent Johan Bäckman, who spreads disinformation about work of Finnish officials and politicians. This scenario was repeated this January when Bäckman argued that due to Russophobic official recommendations of the Finnish Ministry of Health, authorities can seizure children from their Russian parents simply on the basis of one phone call from their neighbor. A while later, the only Russian-language TV broadcast of Finland, Yle Novosti (which is now losing its resources for investigative journalism due to budgetary cuts) corrected this disinformation in its report, but Yle Novosti does not regularly reach much of the Russian-speaking audience even in Finland. In the beginning of February, a new story in this field was made by Komsomolskaya Pravda on a Russian mother whose 16-year-old Finno-Russian son was taken to custody of social services allegedly for the simple base of underage drinking.

So, what kind of reasoning is there behind journalism in Russia? Are they in the shock leash of Kremlin? Critical discussion of these questions among experts of this field has not provided simplified answers.

Jukka Pietiläinen has argued that visually, and by its commercial/entertainment content, the Russian media does not strongly differ from its western peers, but differences appear mostly in news, reports and topical programs. Describing the Russian journalism’s positioning towards politics, Pietiläinen finds resemblance to the old Nordic and the current South European models, where journalists openly take a stand for some political group. The reasons for the sympathies, he argues, are not so much due to the personal conviction of journalists, as they are a result of dependency from these groups and therefore the bias for and against can change quite quickly. Accordingly, it seems that the differences between Russian and the Nordic media systems have emphasized in previous years, due to the stronger globalization of the Nordic media, while their Russian peers have protected their national individuality and produced more domestic programming for the large Russian-language media market.

When it comes to content and style, there are similarities in the niches of Russian news to the main Finnish tabloids Iltalehti and Ilta-Sanomat. They all have easily digestible and bold style and quantitatively rich content. While the credibility of these media is popularly questioned in public discussions due to the commercial logic they have adopted (the shock value helps to sell stories), they are still attracting masses of audience. In her research about Russian journalists, Svetlana Pasti has noted, that while there are multitude different journalists, including independent non-conformist political critics, they generally do not see actual conflict of their professional values and custom stories made for money. This clientelism is seen as a norm of capitalist commercial system as opposed to the Soviet pro-state values and consequently, the ‘naturalness’ of this norm appears in the difficulty to tell apart what news are bought and regular. Even the publicly owned television channels operate very commercially striving for high viewer ratings and incomes from commercials. Some of the most known current pro-Kremlin propagandist media personas, such as Dmitry Kiselev and Arkady Mamontov, have been famous liberal and government critical reporters in the 1990s, but later they have radically shifted their political positions in accordance with the profitable money/power relations, in order to be successful. Pasti has argued that while most of Russian journalists sought to their profession by personal ‘calling’, they often follow the trends in order to be ‘winners’, and current trends are suggesting that the anti-system rebels often end up as ‘losers’.

Russian journalists have relatively much freedom of self-realization, but the indirect dependence networks make it complicated to evaluate the autonomy of Russian media. Elisabeth Schimpfossl and Ilya Yablokov have pointed out that the editorial guidance and rules are mostly unwritten for flexible implementation. Further, Sarah Oates and Hedwig de Smaele have pointed out, that by many indicators, the contemporary Russian journalism is actually more dependent from external influences than ever during the Soviet era. The interest groups of journalists have multiplied and the risks of being targeted to crime and violence have increased. The political authorities can pressure media houses and journalists indirectly by hampering their financing, which is a very crucial issue for them. Additively, the political and economic authorities have leverage to taxation, monitoring, facility rents, subsidies, printing houses, court processes and so on, making good relations with them very important.

Looking further at the aspect of the danger in journalist profession, the international Committee to Protect Journalists has estimated that in the post-Soviet Union Russia, 56 journalists are estimated to have been killed by contract, many of them had reported critically about the Chechen wars. By mid 2000s, most of the journalists stopped making critical stories about Chechnya, but then very many of them have gone working to the battlefields in Ukraine, remembering lessons from Chechnya. They are aware how certain risks of war journalism in the past have transcended far from the battle fields into their home yards. The murky statistical numbers of violence against journalists have been decreasing in 2000s, but one can only wonder how much of it is because Russian journalists have found the lines between danger and safety, after taking hard lessons of that in practice? The general impunity of legal processes regarding these crimes against journalists has also sent indirect signals of what has the system’s support and what does not. Additively, the organizations providing legal support for journalists have also been targeted to pressure of authorities.

The chief editor of Russian alternative journal Insider, Roman Dobrokhotov has stated that while average Russian claims that he does not believe what is on Russian television, ‘because it is all lies, like television everywhere in the world’, he still will repeat the main rhetoric from TV, because he does not get any well-grounded alternatives to that content. Indeed, in recent years, the Russian state-run TV channels have re-gained public trust and the way the annexation of Crimea (the ‘KrimNash’ phenomenon) was presented led to cross-national euphoria and feeling of unity, which can be paralleled to Finns winning the ice hockey championship, but with the much larger scale of Russia. Simultaneously, by pressing the right buttons of their audience, so to speak, the media presentation greatly boosted the public support of Kremlin’s foreign politics.

To conclude from relevant studies, Russian journalism works on the basis of the Foucauldian idea of liberal indirect power thought self-aware and self-conducting subjects. Accordingly, the journalists knowing that it is not ‘appropriate’ for them to make scandalous (=money) news about Russian domestic politics, can make scandalous stories about immigrant crisis in Europe (=money) without any ‘vertical orders’. Moreover, with social values embedded from patriotic culture and education, they are likely to act in line with their personal conviction.

It is logical to argue that what one national media decides not to present for some reason, could instead be presented in the other after better evaluation process. These editorial decisions are strongly affected not only by political and commercial interests, but by values, which, hardly surprising, are close between Russian journalists and their public. Moreover, for their professional success, the commercial journalists want to gain large audience and they are very creative and skillful at making stories that are well tailored for the taste of their audiences. It is not a bold estimation, that when a Russian journalist tells a story about family values marginalized by inefficient or corrupt public authorities, it is better related to the value-based concerns and experience-based world views of Russians, than an alternative story trying to compel to traditionally recognized integrity of Finnish or German public officials.

Teemu Oivo