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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Elections to Be Tough Test




In moments of optimism, I like to think that it is still not too late for the Russian media to participate constructively in the election process. I like to imagine that the elections - rather than further eroding the media's already shaky status with the public - might actually be an opportunity for journalists to strengthen ties with their audiences. After all, both the media and average citizens want most of all to avoid being victimized by a closed political process dominated bythe candidates.


But journalists have the deck stacked against them. The laws governing the media's role in the campaign process are obviously designed to protect the rights of candidates rather than the freedom of the media or the public interest. One commentary even describes the candidates and parties as the media's "partners" in the election process - a chummy relationship that doesn't sound much like democracy to me.


The election laws obligate all state-subsidized media to reserve free space or air time for unedited statements by all registered candidates and parties. For subsidized newspapers (any paper receiving at least 15 percent of its revenues from state budgets), the law stipulates that at least 10 percent of its total weekly volume must be set aside for the virtually uncontrolled use of the candidates. In addition, at least another 10 percent must be available for paid political advertisements.


For those who live in Moscow and other large cities where there are many non-subsidized newspapers, this might not seem particularly ominous. However, for the majority of Russians who live in small towns served by only one municipally controlled newspaper, this law amounts to a severe restriction of the amount of information available during this period. Many such towns get just 16 or 24 pages of news each week as it is.


The Russian media will have to conduct its coverage of the elections against the background of this flood of campaign propaganda. Moreover, journalists will have to work under libel laws that are even more intimidating than those under which they are constantly persecuted even during less sensitive times. With so much space reserved for the posturing and mud-slinging of the candidates (does anyone out there think that candidates will use their allotted space for a substantive discussion of the issues?), it will be very difficult for journalists to play a constructive role unless they think consciously and strategically about what they want to achieve.


If the press hopes to emerge from the next 10 months with any public credibility at all, it should think now about what it can do - even under such adverse conditions - to draw Russia's cynical and largely disenfranchised population into the process. I believe that there are ways, some big and some small, of making progress toward this goal and, if it happens, journalists could emerge with the public support they will surely need no matter who wins the election.


To take just one seemingly small example, consider the media's use of "horse-race" election polls. Week after week, NTV television's "Itogi" informs us exactly what would happen "if the elections were held today." The rest of the national and local media regularly follow suit.


I have a strong bias against hypothetical events masquerading as news. For instance, I thought it was questionable journalism when a newspaper in St. Petersburg marked Pushkin's 200th birthday by publishing a picture of a bare-breasted black woman with an article speculating that this is what the great poet's grandmother may have looked like. Such horse-race polls have about the same news value.


They stifle the election process before it begins. Candidates automatically become either "electable" or "unelectable," and endless space is wasted discussing fluctuations that don't even exceed the poll's margin of error. What is worse, the public is left with the impression that the election is already decided and that further deliberation and participation is unnecessary.


All this plays into the hands of the established candidates, who hijack the process and leave the media crippled and the public disgusted. As I said, I don't think it is too late for the media to begin reversing this trend. But journalists need to think a lot more about how they cover the elections and about how their coverage influences the process.


Robert Coalson is a program director for the National Press Institute. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflectthose of NPI.