Pulling Back the Curtain on Media in Putin’s Russia


On October 27, the Center for the National Interest hosted an event focusing on the relationship between media and the state in Russia. Center Executive Director Paul Saunders moderated a discussion between Anna Redkina of Russia 24 and Maria Snegovaya of Vedomosti, two prominent Russian journalists. A summary of the event can be found below. Footage of the event was broadcast by C-SPAN and can be viewed online here.

Pulling Back the Curtain on Media in Putin’s Russia

Deteriorating U.S.-Russian relations and growing Western concerns over Russia’s influence in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has refocused attention on the relationship between state and media under President Vladimir Putin.

Prominent Russian journalists Anna Redkina and Maria Snegovaya appeared at the Center for the National Interest on October 27 to discuss the complex relationship between the Kremlin and Russian media outlets. Snegovaya, a columnist at the business newspaper Vedomosti, assessed the Russian government’s tactics and domestic practices and its tools in managing the media. Instead of trying to silence and/or dismantle media platforms that aggressively promote opposition viewpoints, Snegovaya argued, the Kremlin made examples of select media outlets in order to encourage self-censorship. The primary criteria, according to Snegovaya, was the size of their audiences. For example, independent outlet TV Rain at its high point in 2012 had access to 12 million Russians. The Kremlin, concerned over independent views being broadcast to such a large audience, made the channel no longer available on cable broadcasting. According to Snegovaya, its audience subsequently dropped to between 1 million and 5-6 million, which was more acceptable to the Kremlin. Open-ended legal codes also facilitated moves to install pro-Kremlin owners at the head of her own paper and others, thus blunting their opposition. Finally, Snegovaya pointed to the proliferation of dubious news stories as a way the Kremlin manipulates media coverage to serve its strategic objectives. This is in part an effort to sow confusion by presenting multiple competing narratives, she said.

Redkina, editor-in-chief and anchor at the state-owned Russia 24 news channel, contended that other factors were at play in the changing media environment. Expert journalists and reporters, she stated, are in increasingly short supply in Russia: this has led to some “objectively shameful” news coverage. On the state-media relationship, Redkina described how senior media leaders meet regularly with government representatives to discuss how certain issues are to be reported. Redkina emphasized that these meetings produce only “advice” and that some limitations on coverage are due strictly to national security considerations, such as Russia’s operations in Syria. In other cases, like the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in July 2014, Redkina argued that the government needed to conduct its own investigation of what happened and restricted coverage in the interim.

Redkina disputed the idea that Russian state media have a unified message. Because the Kremlin and the government are internally divided, Redkina suggested, the state does not have a single, unified narrative that it then passes on to the media. Instead, various ministries and departments press their own messages. Snegovaya also touched on the conflict of interests within the Kremlin itself, concluding that these mixed signals create incentives for low-level bureaucrats to overzealously perform their duties in order to please their superiors as they try to appropriately represent Putin’s overall perspective.

When pressed on whether media outlets owned by anti-Kremlin oligarchs contribute to a truly free media, Snegovaya argued that media freedom is defined by the variety of owners and opinions. Because the “truth is always subjective,” diversity in ownership leads to the voicing of alternative views and greater freedom of information. Interestingly, Snegovaya stated that confirmation bias—the tendency to select information that confirms existing views—in Russia has led viewers to limit their engagement with conflicting viewpoints. Conversely, Redkina contested the notion that state owned media inherently lacks independence. As a journalist, Redkina said that she tries to avoid state manipulation by thinking critically about the world and searching for her own understanding of events.

Widespread internet access and growing use of social media may challenge the Kremlin as it expands its efforts in monitoring and censoring online media, Snegovaya said. Snegovaya questions whether it will be possible for the security services going forward to both process the increasingly massive volume of data from online sources and maintain the state’s predominance in the domestic information space.