Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Window on Eurasia: New Media, Print and Electronic, Aid Moscow Demonstrations

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 3 – Like Russia’s most important human rights organizations, the “traditional opposition mass media” have not proved to be “the most important resources of information and mobilization” behind the new wave of demonstrations in Moscow, according to two leading Moscow analysts.

            Instead, Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan of Agentura.ru wrote in “Yezhednevny zhurnal” last week, the place of these outlets have been by “urban publications directed at the middle class” with news about future meetins appearing on the site of the capital journal “Bolshoy gorod” and the entertainment publication “Afisha” (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=11652).

            Facebook, the two experts said, “played its role” in the organization of the meetings as well, registering participants and organizing the agenda of speakers, but contrary to expectations, after the meetings, “no constantly active protest group on Facebook was created” and hence the kind of discussions familiar from the past did not take place.

            This shift in the kind of media outlets on which protesters are now relying, Soldatov and Borogan added, had another and possibly more important effect: It means that these journals “began to call active citizens to get involved with small tasks” such as helping prisoners, invalids and orphans rather than focusing on larger political questions.

            The situation with the regime is similar – the Putin system has not allowed any genuine place for discussion on serious issues to emerge – and “in these conditions,” the two analysts suggested, “the process of the appearance of politicians from the people and the establishment of new parties could take several years.”

            While Soldatov and Borogan downplay the role of “Ekho Moskvy” as an organizer – they acknowledge its importance as a source of reliable reporting on the demonstratins – that radio station’s Internet editor today reported on the unprecedented spike in visits to the station’s blogs (echo.msk.ru/blog/mp_echo/845344-echo/).

            The number of visits to Ekho Moskvy’s various websites jumped from 60.9 million in November 2011, already the highest number up to that point, to 113 million in December, almost twice as many.  The number of unique visitors rose from 4.7 million to 6.5 million of the same period. And the number of visits to its blogs rose from 15.9 million to 34.6 million.

            Quite obviously, as Muscovites became more involved in political action, they turned to the Internet to keep track of what was taking place, a reflection of the increasing reliance of those in the Russian capital on real time news sources which have a far lower marginal cost than do traditional print media outlets.

            But another aspect of the interrelationship of the media and the demonstrations concerns the existence of an information gap between Moscow and the rest of the country, another gulf that the powers that be clearly hope to use to block challenges to their positions but one that some among the opposition believe they now must work to overcome.

            In an essay on the Kasparov.ru site today, Nikolay Rozov, a senior scholar the Siberian Division of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, says that Muscovites in general and the protesters in particular need to understand that “not everyone in the remainder of Russia considers them compatriots (www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=4F02E866B9EF9).

            The events of the last month indicate, Rozov says, that Moscow “in a civic and political plane has woken up sooner and advanced much further than have the provinces.” And that in turn means that the opposition if it hopes to grow must reduce the gap “in political and civic self-consciousness between residents of the capital and those in the provinces.”

            That goal can be achieved and the desired political results obtained as well, he suggests, if Muscovites devote the necessary effort to providing “a broad access as possible to the provinces to the open space of information and communications which [Muscovites] already have access to.” 

            Obviously, Internet outlets maintained in Moscow can play a role in this, Rozov says, but “one must not overrate the level of Internet access in the provinces.” Instead, Muscovites need to compile collections of materials and form alliances with local groups of journalists and activists who can then republish them locally.

            A place to start is to work with representatives of the regions in Moscow as students or workers, Rozov argues, but Muscovites who support the demonstrations can also act as if their city is “a microcosm of Russia.” In either case, they need to recognize that “virtual contacts” with the provinces are “insufficient.” They need to meet “off line as well.”

            In providing information to provincial groups, the Novosibirsk scholar says, Muscovites must take steps to defend “local publications and activists from the inevitable pressure on them by the powers and the special services.”  Publicity is a key weapon, but those who spread information must know that they will have at least that defense from the Muscovites.

            As more open politics returns to the Russian Federation, some regions are already taking steps on their own. The Siberian outlet Sibirnet.ru has launched a program called “the Battle of the Cities” to overcome existing news patterns in which people in one place know about it and Moscow but less about neighboring locales (sibirnet.ru/bitvagorodov).

            And some regional portals, such as Irkutsk’s Babr.ru, are taking additional steps, including opening branches in various cities – in Babr.ru’s case in Angarsk (angarsk.babr.ru), Chuna (chuna.babr.ru) and Elantsov and Olkhon (olhon.babr.ru). These will report local events as well as regional and national ones on the basis of Babr.ru’s tape.

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