Have you ever wondered what the newspaper culture is like in Russia compared with western countries, such as in the U.S. and the U.K.?
With approximately 13,000 journalists approved with press credentials for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games beginning on Friday in Sochi, a city located on the shore of the Black Sea, at the foot of the Western Caucasus mountain region, the environment should be ripe for a blistering amount of newspapers, tabloids, and broadsheets being absorbed by tourists and local inhabitants at restaurants, cafes, and the lobby’s of plush hotel rooms.
But when discussing the newspaper culture in Russia, you need to keep two things in mind: The first is that the vast majority of Russians rely on state-controlled television rather than print newspapers for their information. The other is that we’re well into the 21st century and living in the age of the Internet, smartphones, and other mobile devices; so print news publications, much like the U.S. and U.K., are becoming less relevant.
If you were to pop your head into a café or bakery in any major city in Russia, you’ll likely find most customers not flipping through a newspaper, but more likely combing the Internet on their ipads , smartphones, or parked in front of an Internet bank.
According to the global market and research firm TNS; the number of Internet users in Russia has leaped to 70 million, representing 50 percent of the population. In April, 2012, Russia’s largest browser Yandex, moreover, reported 19 million visitors a day, more than the popular state-controlled Channel One with an audience of nearly 18 million.
This is not to suggest that Russia is without worthwhile print news publications.
William Pomeranz, Deputy Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., tells me, ``at the very top, there are some very strong quality newspapers that have strong economics and foreign affairs sections and discuss Russian politics and foreign affairs without getting to close to specifically discussing [Russian president] Vladimir Putin. ‘’
And though many of these newspapers have limited circulation, Pomeranz admits, ``they allow the engaged middle class to follow these debates in an informed manner. The quality newspapers have a lot of good information.’’
The problem of plummeting circulation, prevalent with so many metro dailies in the United States, Pomeranz informs me, isn’t much different in Russia; only that it’s much worse in the Russian regions, where there is markedly less money to support newspapers.
And many newspapers, some might be surprised to learn; don’t shy away from some of the more contentious issues gripping the Russian Federation. When the feminist protest band, Pussy Riot, were locked up for staging a blasphemous performance in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February, 2012, a number of newspapers in Russia editorialized about the world wide outcry and were surprisingly highly critical of the jailing, not so much of the strong arm tactics of Putin specifically, but of the process and how the law was interpreted, according to Pomeranz.
By and large, however, despite freedom of expression and of the press guaranteed in the Russian constitution, at least on paper, in practice, accessing information, whether through the judiciary or other government institutions is a mighty tall order, if not impossible, for a great many journalists. Russia's powerful and corrupt court system, many argue, are used to silence those journalists bold enough to report widespread governmental abuses.
More troublingly, according to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom around the world, ``journalists in 2012 faced the threat of intimidation or physical attack when covering sensitive topics such as the situation in the restive North Caucasus, government corruption, organized crime, police torture, electoral violations, and opposition activities and protests.''
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), two journalists were killed in Russia in 2013, Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev, a deputy editor of the independent news outlet Novoye Delo who was gunned down outside his home; the other was Mikhail Beketov, former editor of the independent newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, who died in the hospital after a choking incident.
Buck Ryan, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and director of the Citizen Kentucky Project of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center, who in September 2013 spent 10 days in Moscow speaking with journalism faculty and students at Russia's premier journalism school at Lomonosov Moscow State University, says freedom of expression in Russia is a ``negotiated dance.’’
``I've done newspaper workshops on four continents’’, Ryan told me, `` but Russia was the only place where opening remarks were provided by the government official/news media handler for the district.’’
Despite the restrictive press freedom, Ryan emphasizes that the most open forms of expression in the country can be found online, most prominently through social media, either affiliated with the few independent newspapers or through the 42 million blogs, such as drugoi [photojournalistic online magazine]; or ibigdan [news aggregator].
Another way to better appreciate the dissemination of news in Russia is to understand that newspapers are not nearly as influential as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal are in the United States. Rather, newspapers in Russia not only have much less circulation, but more importantly, they’re largely balkanized with different segments of the Russian population gravitating toward the publication consistent with their particular viewpoint. So, for example, Rossiskaya Gazeta, a Russian government daily newspaper of record, which publishes the official decrees, statements and documents of state bodies, is predominantly read by officials and bureaucrats and those wanting to understand the official viewpoint, while Kommersant a nationally distributed daily newspaper devoted to politics and business, is for the most part consumed by the business elite.
Greg Simons, a senior researcher at the Department of Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University and a lecturer at the Department of Communication Science at Turiba University in Riga, Latvia, remarked that newspapers in Russia, periodically, are bought by business elites for a variety of reasons: to gain political capital by promoting the owner’s interest, damaging the reputation of a chief rival, or other times merely to advance their own agenda through unabashed self-promotion. Such scenarios, Simon says, ``was especially obvious during the so-called Information wars of the mid-1990s when there was an all out and very bitter and open struggle between rival businessmen.’’ ``Hard news’’ Simons argues, ``is becoming more problematic to work in due to it becoming very politicized.’’
An additional reason for the sinking newspaper circulation in Russia, Simons stresses, has to do with disposable income. The price for many news publications have increased (they were subsidized during the Soviet regime); and with money being so scare-most Russians opt for the free medium in acquiring news, which is television, even though most viewers know they may not be getting the full story of a particular issue, since the Kremlin, beginning in the 2000’s, secured control over the most popular channels.
So as we inch closer to the official start of the Winter Games in Sochi; let's hope the biggest stories splashed across a good number newspapers around the world involves the herculean efforts of the athletes from 88 countries valiantly competing for medals; and not about the repressive climate for information gatherers and that full media freedom will be extended to the estimated 13,000 journalists with press credentials.
February 4, 2014
Brief Historic Overview of Newspapers in Russia
• Vedomosti was the first printed newspaper in Russia, issued by the decree of Emperor Peter the Great on December 16, 1702.
• Russia's first privately daily newspaper was the Severnaya Pchela (Northern Bee) which started publishing daily in 1838, a publication chiefly charged with echoing the imperial prerogatives of Emperor Nicholas I.
• Nicholas I appointed a special committee to censor the press, forcing writers such as I.G. Golovin and Alexander Herzen to publish their journals and books in other major cities outside of Russia, such as Paris and London.
• In an effort to improve education and increase literacy, Russian Emperor Alexander II, beginning in 1855, encouraged the creation of privately owned newspapers through the relaxing of censorship restrictions, permitting street sales, and extending freedoms to commercial advertising.
• The first independent commercial newspaper was Golos (The Voice), a reformist daily founded by Andrei A. Kraevsky in Moscow in 1863.
• By 1870, there were 79 Russian-language newspapers in operation, nearly five times as many as a decade earlier.
• In 1881, Alexander II was assassinated by nihilists of "Will of the People" only to be succeeded by Alexander III, who enacted a series of anti-terrorism laws, restricting civil rights and freedom of the press.
• After the 1905 revolution, the press for a brief period, was freed from prepublication controls, resulting in increased newspaper circulation.
• Once Bolshevik publications such as Iskra and Pravda founded by V.I. Lenin in 1900 and 1910 respectively, increased their hostile attacks on the imperial regime, a fresh crackdown on independent newspapers ensued.
• When Lenin assumed power in 1917, he closed over 300 opposition papers and established a system of tight controls, including the banning of the conservative American press from Russia.
• During the Leninist period (1917-1925), an official newspaper for the Soviet state (Izvestia) was founded to go along with the Communist Party paper Pravda.
• A formal censorship office, referred to as Glavlit was established in 1922.
• A state information system run by the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) was created in 1925.
• 1990: 28th Party Congress; Supreme Soviet passes a law to lift censorship from the press.
• 2006: Two Russian newspapers closed after publishing the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that ignited worldwide demonstrations with one of the editors being charged with inciting hatred.
• Most recent figures suggest that there are 8,978 newspapers in Russia, with a total annual circulation of 8.2 billion copies.
Source: ``A Historical Dictionary of Journalism’’ By Ross Eaman; ``The Media In Russia’’ By Arutunyan, Anna
• Sochi is a southern Russian city located in the Krasnodar Region, stretching approximately 90 miles along the eastern coast of the Black Sea.
• Founded in 1837 as a military fortification.
• In 1898, the Special State Commission designated the region as an ideal setting for a health resort.
• In 1909, the first real estate complex, Caucasian Riviera, consisting of four hotels, a restaurant, a theatre, a hydropathic and an electric power station was introduced.
• Helped by generous state subsidies, the region experienced rapid growth beginning in the 1930's, transforming the city into a flourishing health-resort, receiving 4,000,000 tourists annually, including 200,000 from abroad.
• During World War II, given its large supply of hotels and sanatoria, one of the largest military hospitals was established in Sochi.
• In the early 1960's, the coastal strip encompassing several towns, some tens of villages, including the city of Sochi were incorporated into a new administrative unit-of Greater Sochi.
• Greater Sochi is some 93 miles long, making it the world's second-largest metropolis after Los Angeles.
• Most of Sochi's territory consists of mountains and foothills of the Western Caucasus, covered with forests.
• Sochi is reportedly the warmest place in Russia. The climate is subtropical and the city records about 200 sunny days a year. Temperatures average 24 ˚ C (75 F) during the day in the summer and 5 ˚ C (41 F) in the winter. Tourists typically take to the sea for swimming from April until October with skiing taking place from October through May.
• Sochi has a population of more than 400,000, comprised of more than 90 nationalities, including Russian, Armenia, Ukrainian, Georgian, and Greek.
• Over two million tourists visit Sochi annually with its spa facilities numbering over 250.
Key Facts about the Winter Games
• 88 countries will participate in the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi.
• 98 sets of medals will be awarded in 7 Olympic sports.
• 6,000 Olympic athletes and team members are expected in Sochi for the Olympic Winter Games.
• An estimated 3 billion television viewers throughout the world will be watching the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.
• There will be 17 days of competition.
• Seats at the opening ceremony on February 7 are priced at between $793 and $1,838.
• About 213,000 visitors are expected to come to Sochi, which borders Russia's tumultuous North Caucasus republics. Two suicide bombings killed 34 people in Volgograd on December 29, 2013, roughly 434 miles north of Sochi.
• The North Caucasus, approximately 62 miles east of Sochi, is considered the most dangerous place in Russia, ranking it among the top five most dangerous places in the world involving terrorism.
• The Washington Post recently reported that from January to September of 2013, 375 people were killed and 343 wounded in the North Caucasus region, including 68 civilians, 100 police officers and 200 terrorists. Between October and December, three suicide bombers-trained in Dagestan (300 miles east of Sochi)-killed more than 40 people.
• President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly indicated security will be guaranteed in Sochi, with about 40,000 personnel firmly entrenched in the area.
• According to The Wall Street Journal, the price tag of holding the Olympics in Sochi has reached $50 billion, making it the most expensive Olympic Games in history, more than the approximately $40 billion spent by China on the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, by contrast, cost more than $7 billion.