Staunton, October 28 – Two senior Russian government officials have called for imposing restrictions on how the media covers ethnic conflicts, but any such move, the editors of Nezavisimaya gazeta say in a lead article will not only undermine the authority of the media but allow extremism to grow (ng.ru/editorial/2013-10-25/2_red.html).
Moreover, as new research by the Levada Center shows, most of the mistaken ideas Russians now have about the North Caucasus come from government-controlled television whose reports about that region and its people mean that many Russians often do not consider North Caucasians to be citizens of the same country.
On the one hand, Russian officials in the Putin era have blamed the media after every major terrorist incident or ethnic clash. But on the other, this latest campaign is particularly worrisome because, as experts note, the Kremlin is reaping the whirlwind of its decision in 2011 to restrict the use of its police powers to limit the growth of Russian nationalism.
Last week, Russian Procurator General Yury Chayka called for imposing administrative punishment on media which report unreliable information about the causes of conflicts and thereby intensify them into inter-ethnic ones. Meanwhile, Vice Prime Minisster Dmitry Kozak announced a specifical code of professional ethnic for journalists to prevent such errors.
Such statements by senior officials are inevitably chilling precisely because they lack clarity and specificity, the editors of Nezavisimaya gazeta say. They fail to distinguish between reporting specific facts and interpreting them in a tendentious way; indeed, they act as if it is the facts themselves that are the problem and that silence is preferable.
When interpreting facts, the editors say, journalists can be mistaken or tendentious, but “in a competitive and free meia sphere, theinfllunece of one subjective point of view is limited by the presence of other subjective points of view.” If the authorities are worried that one view has too much influence, they should suggest alternatives, not close down the first.
“Nationalist discourse in Russian society is influential if not dominating,” Nezavisimaya gazeta continues. But it”in practice is in no way connected with what the press writes. Rather, just the reverse. The media would cease to be viewed as a reliable source of information and would lose their audience if they ignored problems agitating society or use language and categories which society doesn’t find acceptable.”
Banning any reference to the nationality of suspects, for example, will exacerbate xenophobia not overcome it. On the one hand, that will lead nationalists to rely more heavily on their own websites almost entirely, sites that are typically far more tendentious than any of the mainstream media.
And on the other, because nationalists will, as they have already, view such bans as a reflection of the power of minorities, the xenophobically inclined will see that action of the state as confirmation of what they believe and become as aresult even more radical in their attitudes online and in their actions.
Attempts to blame the media for Kondopoga, Pugachev or Biryulevo will backfire. Not only will they not be believed, but they will be seen as an effort “to conceal the real inability [of the authorities] to change the situation.” Consequently, whatever the powers that be think they will gain by such steps, the paper suggests, they will lose far more.
Indeed, the Kremlin’s efforts to control the media have already cost the regime a lot because, according to the Levada Center, it is the coverage offered on state-controlled Russian television that has shaped most of the current attitudes of Russians toward the North Caucasus and North Caucasians.According to the Center’s director, Lev Gudkov, “the basic massof the population does not imagine what is really taking place in the North Caucasus and is guided [instead] by the news reports which are carried on television” (nazaccent.ru/content/9509-levada-centr-rossiyane-chasto-ne-vosprinimayut-vyhodcev.html and kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/232217/).
On the basis of these programs, he says, Russians conclude that the war there has gone into “a dead end” and that it is now spilling over into the rest of the country. As a result, many want to “stop feeding the Caucasus” and “do not view the North Caucasians as citizens” of the same country.
Natalya Zorkaya, who heads the social-political research department at the Levada Center, says that a more thoughtful consideration of recent developments would show that there is not “a direct connection” between violence like that in Birylevo and what is going on in the North Caucasus. TV coverage implying otherwise exacerbates both problems.
But the Russian government seems less concerned about that than it does about lashing out at media reports that accurately reflect the fact that inter-ethnic relations in the country are getting worse and getting worse fast, at least in part because of what the Russian government itself has been doing.
Natalya Yudina, a specialist at the SOVA Analytic Center which monitors xenophobia, said last week that xenophobia had been growing in Russia up to 2008 but then it had been reduced somewhat by the decision of the authorities to arrest major nationalist leaders and use repression against extremist nationalist groups (altapress.ru/story/118674).
“But in the last two years, the authorities unfortunately have let up on thi police of force toward the nationalists,” and that has allowed such extremist groups to re-energize,Yudina added. She suggested that now that authorities are resuming the earlier crackdown but against a broader spectrum of people, including “migrants, nationalists, and ordinary citizens.”
And that shift, while she did not say so, carries with it the risk of pushing the country into a vicious cycle in which the nationalists will provoke the state and the state the nationalists, a dangerous situation which will be in no way improved by efforts to prevent the mainstream media from reporting about it.