Staunton, July 31 – Vladimir Putin’s drive to control Russian television did not start from square one when he became president, Vasily Gatov says. Instead, it built on Boris Yeltsin’s program of forcing the channels to reregister and thus brought them back under the structural control of the state to prevent them from attacking the Kremlin.
The former deputy general director of the Novosti news agency who now teaches at the University of Southern California told Radio Liberty’s Yaroslav Shimov that Yeltsin’s moves, albeit generally taken in a “soft” fashion reflected the same desire to limit media freedom and expand government propaganda as Putin’s have (svoboda.org/a/30081192.html).
Putin expanded and toughened such control but the basic parameters were put in place by Yeltsin, Gatov says. Yeltsin’s moves and Putin’s initial ones were largely defensive, that is, they were intended to prevent the media from being used against either of them. But after Putin’s first term, he began to use it offensively, to set the national agenda and generate support for himself.
The media’s utility for those goals was shown and proposed by Aleksandr Oslon and the Public Opinion Foundation, which linked the study of public opinion with its formation and showed that the media could become an important adjunct to other control mechanisms of the Russian state.
Because of their experience in Soviet times when most people dismissed the ostensible message of the media and learned to read between the lines, Gatov continues, it took some time for the people around Putin to understand how all this could work given that they projected their own cynicism onto others.
As they gained in their appreciation of the ways the media could be used to control the situation, the Putin team also came to recognize that they needed a far larger and more ramified structure to do so than the relatively small group they had employed up to then within the Presidential Administration.
At the same time, Gatov says, the Putin regime did not want the media to become too powerful relative to itself or the structure controlling it an alternative center of power. The regime is comparatively weak. If it were stronger, it would have closed down immediately alternative sources of information “in two minutes.”
That it hasn’t done this shows that it is weak: a strong dictatorship would long ago have done that and ceased to worry abut it. But a weak power feels its limits and chooses other methods, including those based on definite and well-known effects” of different kinds of media strategies,
These include “priming,” the promotion of particular views by commentaries, “framing,” the structuring of presentations to lead people to draw the conclusions the regime wants, and the use of Putin as a focus of attention via his direct line programs and the line to reassure Russians that the Kremlin leader watches television as well.
In the last few years, Gatov argues, Putin has moved to increase regime control of the media and to eliminate its competitors for the mass audience; but as he has done so, there is as yet no answer to the question concerning just what kind of a regime Putin’s is – a personalist dictatorship or “the occupation of state institutions by one structure,” the FSB and its allies.
There is evidence for both, he continues, because in reality the regime moves back and forth between the two. That means the regime is weaker than it might otherwise be, and it means that in the event of a serious crisis, the media arm of the state may fracture along with its other parts.