United Russia Rules the Airwaves

United Russia's dominance on national airwaves ahead of Sunday's State Duma elections appears to be playing with people's minds.

Eight percent of Russians polled in mid-November said they saw United Russia officials debating candidates from other parties, while 69 percent of those who watched the debates said they were impressed with the party's performance there, according to a poll released this week by the state-controlled VTsIOM polling agency.

The thing is, United Russia did not participate in a single debate.

"We can't complain about how television channels are covering United Russia," a campaign official with the party said Thursday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Indeed, United Russia -- whose ticket is led by President Vladimir Putin -- has received the lion's share of television coverage among the 11 parties on the ballot, according to separate studies by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations and the Medialogia think tank.

Together with coverage of Putin, who has consistently and emphatically called on voters to cast their ballots for the party, United Russia received from 57 percent to 62 percent of all prime-time political news coverage from Oct. 1 to Nov. 22, according to the CJES study. Prime time was defined as from 6 p.m. to midnight.

"This can't be called a fair representation," CJES head Oleg Panfilov said at a news conference Thursday.

The Communists, for example, received a 1.2 percent slice of prime-time coverage on NTV and 3.4 percent on Rossia television -- compared with United Russia's 19.1 percent on NTV and 20.2 percent pm Rossia, Panfilov said.

Other parties fared even worse than the Communists.

Medialogia, which tallies the number of times parties are mentioned in broadcasts -- not airtime -- showed a similar disparity, with United Russia receiving twice as many mentions as the Communist Party, its closest competitor.

As of Nov. 2, parties on the ballot were provided with free airtime for campaign ads and debates, and could also dip into their campaign fund coffers to purchase television ads. This, the Central Elections Commission stated, would ensure equal access to all parties.

But only 1.5 percent of the television audience watched the debates, which were broadcast at 7 a.m. and after midnight, according to the latest study by TNS Gallup Media.

Airing debates in such time slots while maintaining the usual news coverage by state-controlled television channels rendered any pretense of equal access for parties obsolete, Panfilov said.

"We see how the channels are minimizing the effects of campaign efforts by any party that is not United Russia," said Alexander Morozov, a senior official with A Just Russia, which like United Russia is a pro-Kremlin party.

Channel One television's evening news last week featured a 16-minute report on Putin's aggressive speech to 5,000 supporters in which he described his political opponents as greedy "jackals" taking orders from foreign patrons.

Federal elections chief Vladimir Churov told a subsequent news conference that he saw nothing wrong with the coverage of the speech. But at a meeting with foreign journalists Tuesday, he dodged a question about why Putin had been given the generous airtime but no national television channel had carried a speech by Boris Nemtsov, leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces, at a rally a few days later. Pressed for an answer, Churov paused and finally said the question should be posed to television executives, not to him.

Medialogia and CJES noted an increase in references to the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, in November, though almost every reference was in a negative context.

"It began in early November after our party firmly asserted itself as an opposition force," SPS spokeswoman Anna Solodukha said.

SPS filed complaints to the Central Elections Commission over what it said was United Russia's dominance of the airwaves thanks to Putin's use of his position as president to campaign for the pro-Kremlin party. It also asked the Supreme Court to take Putin off the ballot. Both complaints were rejected.

News broadcasts have repeatedly shown people claiming that SPS broke promises to pay them for participating in the party's protests, as well as denunciations from various public figures of Nemtsov as a useless first deputy prime minister under then-President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

Churov told the foreign journalists Tuesday that overall his commission was satisfied with how the parties were covered by the media.

"If a party does nothing, how can we expect the media to cover it?" Churov said.

Manipulating television campaign coverage can give a party an additional 10 percent at the ballot boxes, said Andrei Buzin, an analyst with the Nikollo M think tank and a member of the Moscow city election commission.

"It is more effective than direct election fraud and cannot be easily proved," he said.

Golos, a nongovernmental organization that receives EU and U.S. funding and conducts election monitoring, said in a statement Wednesday that United Russia's domination of media coverage constituted a serious violation of election laws.

Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information, warned that voters could end up being annoyed by the party's overwhelming dominance of the country's television screens and could vote against United Russia in protest.

United Russia's stalled ratings among voters in recent weeks could be a sign that they are weary of seeing the party on television, Mukhin said. "In the meantime, SPS -- which is being ostensibly destroyed on television -- could earn some sympathy votes," he said.