Russia: Controlled Media Support Party Hijacking

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

With Russia’s parliamentary (December 2011) and presidential (March 2012) elections quickly approaching, political battles are becoming an almost daily occurrence. But the latest scandal has disturbed the routine of the political circus and harshly reminded many bloggers that political celebrities can be discredited as fast as they're pushed into the spotlight.

The Right Cause, a liberal party, and its former leader Mikhail Prokhorov (elected just few months ago, in June 2011), a Russian billionaire and owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, are in the center of the scandal.

Formerly supported and promoted by the Kremlin, the party got attention of liberal voters and even gave Prokhorov an opportunity to contemplate an independent game. But the billionaire, likely with the Kremlin’s nod of approval, has been quickly excluded from the Right Cause by an alternative party congress that hi-jacked the control over the party. Prokhorov has quit the party, vowing, however, to fight, and publicly accused Vladislav Surkov, the Russian President's first deputy chief of staff, of playing the role of a “gray cardinal” in the country’s politics.

Media control

Mikhail Prokhorov. Photo by Igor Komarov

Mikhail Prokhorov. Photo by Igor Komarov, used with permission.

Prokhorov’s accusations also brought other issues to light. Aleksandr Lyubimov, a popular Russian journalist who played an important role in creating the independent media in the country, stood by Prokhorov and stated sadly [ru]:

Before, I would switch on Channel 1 to find out what Berezovsky [a Russian oligarch who controlled Channel 1] thought, I watched  NTV to find out what Gusinsky [a Russian oligarch who controlled NTV] thought, RTR was for opinions of the government and the president, and that is what we were fighting against. Now I don’t even have to watch anything because every radio station and newspaper will tell me what I have to know about the politics of Russian Federation. Every day governors and vice-governors are sucked into this massive propaganda campaign. A newspaper can be printed out if it doesn’t contain news about Putin, ONF [All People’s Front, Vladimir Putin's recent initiative], materials against Prokhorov and Roizman [a public activist and politician known for his controversial practices of treating drug addicts].

With this statement, Lyubimov echoed another popular Russian TV anchor Leonid Parfenov who in 2010 publicly criticized the government control in media. Lyubimov’s words were proven right when a day later one of the most popular TV channels – and a former flagship of independent reporting – NTV, in the best traditions of soviet propaganda, released a documentary “Wrong Cause,” accusing Prokhorov and his counterpart Roizman of violating many laws while conducting their businesses. The battle for the minds of voters has begun.

Not the same NTV

Drastic shift in media coverage of oligarch Prokhorov and an obvious bias in the so-called journalistic investigation of NTV reporters gave bloggers an opportunity to contemplate about the state of the media in the country.

Blogger ibigdan re-posted an ironic but accurate collage by ShirMan, which sums up [ru] the illogical and accusatory structure of the NTV documentary:

Dear viewers, here is Mikhail Prokhorov – And here is Evgeny Roizman – And here is “Right Cause” party – And here is [Chewbacca, a Star Wars character] – His homeland is planet Kashyyyk – He is known in his motherland as a destroyer of hundreds of villages – He did not have mercy for women and children – He is a terrible creature – TERRIBLE – And here are Prokhorov and Roizman – It is clear that there is no place in politics for people like them – Thank you.

Popular Russian political writer Andrey Malgin in his blog post also expressed dissatisfaction [ru] with media manipulation by the Kremlin:

В пятницу, субботу и воскресенье – три дня подряд! – Ройзман и Прохоров поодиночке сидят в эфире сразу четырех каналов, они уважаемые люди, а к середине недели за ними уже грешки обнаружились. Им уже новые роли в этой телевизионной пьесе, оказывается, подготовлены!

On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday – three days in a row! – Roizman and Prokhorov separately appear in the broadcasts of four TV channels. They are respectable people but by the middle of the week, some of their sins are discovered. And, as it turns out, they are given different roles in this TV drama!

LJ user Evgeny Shultz (eugenyshultz) recollected [ru] previous crackdowns on those who were on bad terms with the Kremlin:

В свете явно заказного характера передачи и 100% идентичности по всем параметрам с наездом на Лужкова “Дело в кепке” и на Лукашенко “Крестный батька”, еще более убеждаешься в манипуляции общественным мнением.

In the light of an obviously paid character of the TV program that is 100 percent identical with the crackdown on Luzhkov [ex-mayor of Moscow, sacked last year] in “All business is in a cap” [ru] [an NTV documentary that accused Luzhkov of using his position to promote the family's business], and on Lukashenko [the President of Belarus] in “GodPapa” [ru] [an NTV documentary that harshly critisized Lukashenko's presidency], one becomes even more convinced of public opinion manipulations.

Some bloggers, such as piligrim67 [ru], noted how drastically NTV has changed:

Давно прошли те времена, когда этот канал был выразителем объективности. Сейчас он стал сборищем журнашлюшек  легко дающих за 30 сребренников.

The times when this TV channel was an expression of objectivity are long gone. It has now become a gathering of journo-whores who can be easily bought for 30 pieces of silver.

The bloggers’ predominantly critical reaction to the documentary had another common theme: many people seemed to be offended by this obvious attempt to pass a staged documentary for objective investigative journalism. The majority of blog posts talked about how Prokhorov was being “whacked” on TV and none of the bloggers had any doubts about the paid-for nature of the documentary. As one might have expected, Russian netizens are far from being naive.

The media involvement in “whacking” oligarch Prokhorov seemed to make the distance between the traditional media and Internet even greater. The massive migration of Russians to the web will change the way political battles are fought. And there will probably never come the time when the Russian Internet turns into NTV – a place for different opinions that fell under strict government control.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

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