Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Russian media and the spy story

It looks like the acerbic Yeltsin years were a rare glimmer of press freedom, as Putin's Russia has descended back into authoritarianism:

On Russia's main national state-run television channels, the spy story led broadcasts only on the first day the news broke. The reports, delivered in a neutral manner, focused on official statements from Russia and the U.S. As both the Kremlin and the White House played down any impact from the scandal on relations, it faded from newscasts in Russia. The reports that did run adopted the ironic tone set by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who joked about the cloak-and-dagger nature of the accusations in a meeting with former President Bill Clinton.

"Americans Don't Understand Who the FBI Has Caught," was the July 1 headline in the official Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper on a story about reports in the U.S. that questioned whether the accused spies had obtained any sensitive information.

Meanwhile, the public apparently has a sustained interest for the story, as the WSJ's chart indicates that online searches about the scandal haven't abated since the story broke a week ago. Broadcast TV is by far the most common source of media in Russia, and the government generally doesn't try to censor smaller news outfits and those existing only online who repeat stories (though it does come after their reporters).

Interestingly enough, Russia Today – the government's English-language channel shown abroad – has maintained focus on the story, which seems like an obvious (but effective) way to portray Russian media and society as open:

One Russian state-run network has stayed with the story: Russia Today, the Kremlin's English-language news channel mainly distributed outside Russia. "Ever since the first reports....this has been the top story on RT," Margarita Simonyan, Russia Today's editor-in-chief, said in an email. "More than 250,000 people have watched RT videos about the spy scandal on YouTube," she said.

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