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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Different Views on Television

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Russians tend to disagree with complaints on the part of the political opposition that the parties aren't treated fairly by the media. The majority of people surveyed believe that the opposition receives sufficient coverage in the national media. At the same time, however, many also believe that there is a real difference in the amount of coverage on national television devoted to, on one side, the United Russia party and, on the other, to the Communist and the Liberal Democratic parties, which receive much less coverage, and the Rodina, Union of Right Forces and Yabloko parties, which have pretty much given up hope of getting coverage.

According to opposition parties, there is a clear lack of equality in the coverage afforded them in the media, particularly on national television. This situation, they claim, is responsible for their poor showing in both federal and regional elections, as well as for the positive performance in the same elections by the party of power, United Russia.

A survey conducted by the polling agency VTsIOM revealed that the public's disenchantment with opposition parties is the result of different, objective factors. Although the current government does try to undercut the opposition, with the media as one of the tools it uses, the main reason for the marginalization of these parties is that they have failed to propose any new ideas that would appeal to the electorate.

Just 25 percent of those surveyed believe that opposition parties are prevented from delivering their message on national television. Even fewer respondents -- 20 percent -- believe that they are unable to do so in the major newspapers. The majority of people -- 59 percent and 64 percent, respectively -- believes that opposition parties face no obstacles in getting their point across on television and in print.

An analysis of the responses to questions about specific parties' abilities to get their message across in the mass media identifies a greater perceived gap between the levels of access enjoyed by United Russia and the various opposition parties. Seventy-nine percent of those surveyed believed that the party enjoyed unlimited access to airtime, 8 percent believed it faced some limitations, while a mere 2 percent said that United Russia was entirely unable to get its message out.

Respondents showed less faith in the chances of the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party to get their points across. Even though the two represent the official opposition, it is more a case of opposition in form only. They are useful for the current government, as they give the country the appearance of a multiparty system characterized by real political discourse while acting as a safety valve for public discontent. Those surveyed judged the situation with regard to the Communists' access to media more negatively than was the case with United Russia, with 42 percent believing there was open access, 35 percent believing there were some restrictions, and 6 percent thinking there was no access at all. Largely as a result of the coverage generated by its flamboyant leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Liberal Democratic Party fared a bit better, with 52 percent believing it faced no restrictions in getting its views across in the media, 28 percent believing that its ability was somewhat limited, and 4 percent answering that it enjoyed no access.

Rodina's access to media coverage was significantly reduced in recent regional elections. The party's former leaders, Dmitry Rogozin and Sergei Glazyev, at some point became personae non gratae. This was particularly damaging to the party's prospects as it was positive television coverage that had helped it attract much of its electorate in the first place. The virtual information blockade contributed to the party's popularity dropping to 2 percent. With regard to Rodina, 36 percent of all respondents said they thought the party enjoyed open access to the airwaves, 31 percent thought its access was somewhat restricted and 11 percent thought it faced serious restrictions.

The numbers for the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko are all in the same range as those for Rodina. Here, the departure of the high-profile figures of Irina Khakamada, Boris Nemtsov and Anatoly Chubais from the Union of Right Forces leadership and the reduced coverage of Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky clearly played a role.

As for media policy toward opposition parties, Russians appear to be divided, with 32 percent of respondents saying that no special measures to ensure coverage in the national media are necessary, 21 percent saying that a channel should be set up devoted entirely to socio-political coverage, 19 percent believing that existing political news and analysis programs should provide more coverage of the opposition, and 16 percent saying that airtime should be set aside on national television for the opposition.

Russia is tired of intrigue and shocks, and today is clearly going through a conservative, defensive phase. Society has no interest in disturbing the peace with ideas from either democratic or nationalist voices. There is some justification to the claims by the opposition that they fall victim to a harsh national media policy, but this doesn't mean that this is the main reason behind their lack of popularity.

Leontin Byzov is the head of the analytical department at state-owned VTsIOM polling agency. A longer version of this comment was published in Vedomosti.

Russians believe that opposition parties are represented well enough in the national media and that their lack of success is the result of their own weakness and inability to compete. This is the conclusion reached by VTsIOM polling agency.

But this picture differs significantly from the one from a joint study by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations and the Slovak Republic's MEMO98, which specializes in media monitoring.

Between March and May, they carried out a study that focused on five television channels (Channel One, Rossia, TV Center, NTV and Ren-TV) and four newspapers (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, Parlamentskaya Gazeta, Kommersant and Komsomolskaya Pravda). The study determined the amount of television airtime and newspaper space that was devoted to various political themes and then evaluated whether the coverage in each case was positive, negative or neutral.

During the period of the study, the majority of the television channels provided opposition parties with little coverage and did not provide them with the opportunity to challenge the point of view of those in power. President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's government and the United Russia party received over 91 percent of the prime time coverage on Channel One and Rossia. The coverage of Putin on the three state-owned channels was exclusively positive or neutral in character. The situation with regard to pluralism was better in the newspapers, but they reach a limited audience. This in a country Freedom House ranks 158th out of 194 countries in press freedom and Reporters Without Borders ranks 138th out of 167.

It is clearly difficult to compare the results of a public opinion survey and those from media-monitoring research. All the same, the VTsIOM study seems to present a distorted picture. The public opinion survey asked respondents to compare the access to media coverage of the different parties, but power in Russia is not of the party variety and Putin and the government garner much more coverage than United Russia.

But there is an even sadder aspect to the opinion research: It's like asking someone who eats only porridge about the peculiarities of French cuisine. Only Channel One and Rossia are available across the entire country, so the only way most Russians would find out about restrictions on the opposition would be from television -- precisely where there is no opposition and nobody talks about the restrictions.

It's surprising that Russians are familiar with the word "opposition" at all. They live in a restricted news environment. It's like asking someone who doesn't smoke how he likes the taste of a particular cigarette.

This comment was published as an editorial in Vedomosti.