Russian TV dodges bad news

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Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the growing trend of major Russian TV channels ignoring or playing down bad news. A massive fire in a Siberian shopping mall on 25 March was left uncovered for half a day while other dramatic events in recent months have been played down. President Putin’s activities meanwhile get systematic coverage.

More than 60 people were killed in the shopping mall fire in the Siberian city of Kemerovo but it was ignored for hours by the three leading TV networks – Pervy Kanal and Rossiya 1, which are mainly state-owned, and NTV, which belongs to the mainly state-owned natural gas company Gazprom.

Some privately-owned media outlets began live coverage from the disaster scene from as early as midday, but the major TV channels did not report it until their evening news programmes and then only gave it brief mention after long reports about the results of the previous week’s presidential election.

Playing up good news

Several studies have shown that in recent months the federal TV networks have covered certain “negative” events only partially or belatedly or have ignored them altogether. This was the case with two deadly attacks in schools in Perm and Ulan-Ude in January. They were front-page news in the national newspapers but the three big TV networks dedicated a total of only five reports to each attack. And none of the Sunday new programmes mentioned these tragic events.

A knife attack in Siberia in August 2017 in which at least eight people were injured received only sporadic coverage by the big TV channels although it was claimed by Islamic State. Instead the news programmes covered the terrorist attacks in Catalonia, nationalism in the United States and reports that Ukraine had been sending arms to North Korea.

Regardless of the possible ad hoc explanations, dissimulation of bad news is consistent with the Russian government’s media policies, of which the federal TV networks are the main tool. On the eve of the 2018 presidential campaign, the leading TV channels were strictly forbidden to broadcast “negative” stories without prior approval from senior media officials in the president’s office.

The media were also encouraged to play up positive news chosen by the Kremlin by means of a news exchange system with the regions and leading companies, which was set up before the start of the campaign. According to a BBC Russian service interviewee, the ban on negative TV news has probably been extended until President Putin is sworn in for another term in May.

Waiting for management’s green light

At the federal TV networks, which are still the main source of news for most Russians, self-censorship is the rule and their executives are often summoned for briefings at the Kremlin. But officially the Kremlin keeps its distance and claims that the TV networks decide their own editorial policies.

Asked why the leading TV channels were so slow to cover the Kemerovo fire, presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov, who is also in charge of media relations, said “at first no one imagined the scale of the tragedy.” But Peskov himself had said in January that coverage of tragic events “needs a very delicate approach.”

“There is no shortage of irony in the government’s repeated condemnation of rumours about the Kemerovo fire,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “By saying nothing about the fire for so long, the state-controlled TV channels were partly to blame. We call on the authorities to respect their own laws, which ban censorship and guarantee the absence of state interference in media editorial policies.”

Contradictory explanations

According to a Rossiya 1 employee, the newsroom waited for a green light from the management before starting to cover the Kemerovo fire, and this took time because it was a Sunday. Senior staff at the TV channels and in their newsrooms either said that there was already “too much news” to add another report or that “the federal TV channels cannot sow panic in the absence of official information.”

Rumours and conspiracy theories were nonetheless already getting a lot of circulation the day after the disaster, along with wild estimates of the death toll. Much of the official message was moreover given over to denouncing a coordinated “campaign” to “destabilize the situation.”

Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.

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Updated on 03.04.2018