The news bulletins on Russia’s sterile television networks, which are almost all run by or connected to the state, bear striking resemblance to Soviet-era newsreels, just with better looking presenters and slicker graphics. The evening news usually leads with long, rambling reports about the tedious meetings of the day that were attended by President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, followed by fluffy social subjects and the occasional gritty crime story. There is little real analysis and no voices critical of the country’s ruling duo that make it onto the airwaves.
But there is a sense that Russians, including the people who work in TV themselves, are getting impatient with the tedious propaganda that passes for news and that the growing discontent might finally lead to some kind of change.
A major signal that all is not well came in November when the renowned television journalist Leonid Parfyonov was given a new award for achievement in television. Parfyonov was one of Russia’s most prominent television stars in the 1990s, until his current affairs programme was taken off the air in 2004, as Putin’s Russia cracked down on independent television. Parfyonov was never a crusader – for the past few years he has been making history documentaries instead.
But his acceptance speech, in front of the entire Russian television establishment, was a searing indictment of Russian television’s lack of edge. For journalists, he said, top officials were no longer news subjects, but instead “their bosses’ bosses”. The speech quickly went viral in the Russian blogosphere, the place where most educated, progressive Russians get their news.
The vast majority of the population rely on the television, however, and given their notorious docility, it seems that the best chance for change comes from within the journalistic community. It might be too early to talk about a revolution from within against self-censorship, but there are definite signs that the country’s television journalists – many of them bright, talented and independent-minded – are sick of doing the Kremlin’s bidding.
“Almost everyone I know who works on the television knows that they are part of a propaganda machine and doesn’t like it,” one journalist who works for a state-controlled channel tells Monocle.
A sign of things to come could be TV Rain, a new television station broadcasting on cable that has attracted many journalists deemed too controversial to work on the state channels. Operating on a shoestring budget, and often with a student journalism feel, it nevertheless covers topics that other stations wouldn’t dare to.
“Of course, when you see big stories happening and all you can cover is nonsense about Putin’s and Medvedev’s meetings that day, it’s frustrating. But you can’t really say anything if you want to keep your job,” says the journalist. Interestingly she has recently been in negotiations to move jobs – to TV Rain.