Hail, Censor! How limitations on free speech are boosting Putin’s legitimacy

By Anna Nadibaidze 

The presidential election campaign is in full swing in Russia. A series of debates between seven candidates took place in late February (with the notable exception of the incumbent), while Vladimir Putin delivered a speech full of promises and goals for his expected new term.

Despite being officially forbidden, censorship has become an important strategy of the state to fulfill certain political goals during the campaign in preparation for Putin’s new mandate. Throughout the last weeks and until the election this Sunday, the presidential administration has been carefully manipulating the information available to the electorate. This manifests itself in several tactics targeting the press, television, and internet.

No negative news allowed – only “Putin, prices and weather”

Censorship in the media has become stricter in preparation for the election. The Insider reports that chief editors of many press agencies and media outlets have been instructed to clear their broadcasts of any negative news until after the election is over. Since January, all news has gone through stricter examination than usual.

State news outlets are being used to send a message that everything is working well in the country in order to strengthen people’s trust in Putin’s ability to lead Russia in his next term. Social problems and events that reflect poorly on Russian society are not allowed to be covered, meaning many big stories are almost completely ignored. On 15 and 19 January, two brutal attacks took place in schools in Perm and Ulan-Ude, but federal channels barely covered the events. Instead, they focused on Putin and Epiphany ceremonies. The crash of a Russian military plane in Syria on 6 March also barely appeared on state television, as Putin was meeting with women entrepreneurs ahead of International Women’s Day celebrations.

Journalists have been told that their audience needs to hear about only three themes: “Putin, prices and the weather”. Anything related to any other topics is carefully edited, if not completely deleted. Naturally, Navalny’s name must not appear, and Putin can only be associated with positive events. In its pre-election media monitoring, the Movement for the Defense of Voters’ Rights Golos reveals that in recent weeks, Putin was mentioned in federal and regional media almost ten times more than the next most mentioned candidate, Ksenia Sobchak. Putin was also mostly presented in a positive light: 54% of news about Putin was purely positive; in contrast, 41% of news about Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin depicted him negatively.

Moreover, the televised debates currently taking place are meant to portray the seven other candidates as clowns and by contrast, present Putin as the only reasonable choice on the ballot. During the first debate, LDPR Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky swore at Civic Initiative Party candidate Ksenia Sobchak, who in return threw water at him. In the next session, Pavel Grudinin said the debates were a farce and left the studio. Watching these “freaks” screaming at each other on television, the average Russian voter is expected to support Putin, the strong, stable leader presented in the media. This strategy has been partly successful, as VTsIOM polls have shown a decline in support for the seven candidates and an increase for Putin when the debates have started.

Silencing the Internet

Censorship is not only getting tighter in the media: Moscow is also engaging in active efforts to regulate the internet. Last year, human rights group Agora registered 115,706 cases of internet freedom restrictions in the country, with an uptick in activity immediately prior to the election campaign. Investigations into corruption, already ignored in state media, are also being censored more actively across the web. The website Russiangate, which reported Russian officials’ corruption, was shut down in January.

Censorship of opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s YouTube investigation into oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s bribing of Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko shows just how quickly Russian authorities can act when it is in their interests to do so. Navalny published his video on 8 February and the next day, Russia’s telecommunication surveillance agency Roskomnadzor ordered YouTube and Instagram to take down photos and videos related to the case. These urgent measures were classified by Reporters Without Borders as a “blatant act of censorship”. They are also part of the state’s efforts to silence scandals before the election in order to maintain the image of a well-functioning country. The bigger picture we get from these strategies is a Russia free of bad news and corruption under Putin’s leadership.

Increasing turnout

The presidential administration is clearly worried about turnout and has launched a media marathon to encourage people to vote, as well as to strengthen Putin’s popularity. A few professionally-made videos encouraging people to vote have been appearing on the web. While it remains unclear who stands behind them, Meduza reports these creations could be part of the administration’s attempts to get more voters to the polls.

Putin has also occupied much of the media space in the last weeks of the campaign, starting with the Federal Assembly Address, and then being featured in an interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly, Vladimir Solovyov’s online film “World Order 2018”, as well as journalist Andrey Kondrashov’s documentary “Putin”. Not all of these efforts have had the intended effects. The Address, for instance, has not added much to Putin’s support.

At the same time, the final polls show a small decline in support for Putin (from 70% on 4 March to 69% on 9 March), with the proportion of voters who say they will definitely vote having increased from 71% on 26 February to 74% on 9 March. According to VTsIOM, final turnout could be around 63-67%, not very far from the Kremlin’s unofficial 70/70 scenario. Therefore, it’s possible that some of these tactics may have had an effect on the electorate.

Such manipulation of information and censorship are not only part of the election campaign: they are long-term phenomena. During Putin’s fourth term, we should expect the opposition to be increasingly silenced, and people to have less access to alternative versions to what they see in the state media.

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