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How many people watch Russian media in the former Soviet Union countries?

Article by Rasťo Kužel

March 21, 2017

How many people watch Russian media in the former Soviet Union countries?

Television remains the most efficient method of influencing public opinion in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) countries. So what is the real impact of Russian TV channels in these countries? The situation differs from country to country. This essay takes a closer look at the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries. The role of the main Russian channels is more significant in Armenia, Belarus and Moldova, where these channels are still freely available[1] and remain quite popular, than in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine, where the potential impact of these channels is more limited. In Ukraine, and to some extent also in Georgia, the popularity of Russian media has been undermined due to the armed conflicts in 2014 and 2008 respectively.[2]

 

Notwithstanding the war with Russia nine years ago, the potential impact of Russian propaganda in Georgian society is still significant. During the 2016 parliamentary elections, unlike in previous campaigns, there were more parties that directly or indirectly pursued anti-Western views and openly advocated closer relations with Russia. One of them, the Alliance of Patriots, which favoured greater integration with Russia and opposed Georgia joining NATO, was able to narrowly pass the 5 percent threshold needed to get into the parliament. By comparison, many smaller parties with a clear pro-Western orientation failed to win any seats.

 

According to National Democratic Institute research, twenty percent of television viewers in Georgia watch via satellite, cable and the internet the news and current affairs programmes on foreign channels, with the majority of these people relying on Russian channels, notably Channel One, RTR and Russia 1. English speaking channels, such as CNN, Euronews and BBC World Service were only the fifth, sixth and eighth preferred information sources on the list.[3] The pro-Russian narrative can be found in some Georgian media as well. Monitoring conducted by the Media Development Foundation (MDF) in 2014 and 2015 found that Russian propaganda was present in the form of anti-Western rhetoric on three media outlets. More specifically, it was Georgian channel Obiektivi, which is a general broadcast licensee available via cable networks, and two websites, sakinformi.ge and geworld.ge. The study further revealed that this type of reporting was not present on the mainstream media.[4]

 

The potential impact of Russian media is more significant in ethnic minority areas, where Georgian language media does not have a good outreach. For example, in the Javakheti region, people have always had problems receiving local news, so they mainly watch Russian channels. The majority of the population in minority-settled areas use Russian channels as their primary source of information. Regrettably, the central Georgian media do not report stories that are relevant to the minority-populated regions. The situation is even worse in Abkhazia with almost no Georgian mainstream media present there. According to a poll conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) for National Democratic Institute (NDI) in 2016, as many as 30 percent of people in minority settlements opined that Georgia’s foreign policy should be pro-Russian, with only 7 percent favouring a pro-Western orientation. By contrast, 16 percent of respondents who lived in urban areas with access to Georgian mainstream media preferred pro-Western foreign policy orientation against 8 percent who preferred pro-Russian.[5] As such, it is clear that Russia’s influence is more significant in those areas where there is no alternative information to Kremlin narratives.

 

In Ukraine, some measures restricting Russian media have been introduced as a result of the conflict in the eastern part of the country, including a ban on Russian channels introduced by the broadcasting regulator in July 2014. In a survey by the NGO Detector Media 13.2 percent of Ukrainian households could receive the Russian channel Channel 1, 12.2 percent could get NTV, 11.6 percent Russia TV and 6.8 percent Dozhd. Of these viewers the mechanisms through which they access Russian media is via satellite (78.7 percent), the Internet (7.8 percent), cable TV (5.8 percent) and using an analogue antenna (37.4 percent in the east of Ukraine).[6] According to Diana Dutsyk, executive director of NGO Detector Media, the information war carried out by Russia against Ukraine has been a dominant factor influencing the quality of reporting. Some journalists drawn into this conflict started performing a counter-propaganda role, which, in her opinion, consequently makes media discourse biased, engaged, and emotional.[7] As a result, people are often confused and not able to tell the facts from controversial points, which is the principal aim of Russian propaganda. For example, when asked who was guilty of shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in a poll by the Levada Centre, as many as 81 percent of ethnic Russian respondents living in Ukraine put the blame on the Ukrainian military. Notwithstanding the evidence that the plane was downed by a Buk-M1 anti-aircraft missile fired from rebel-controlled territory, their positions appeared to be aligned with the Russian channels’ reporting which suggested that either a Ukrainian missile or a Ukrainian aircraft was responsible for shooting down the plane.[8]

 

A poll conducted by the Kyiv International Sociology Institute for Detector Media in December 2016 found that some 87 percent of Ukrainians receive news primarily from Ukrainian national channels, while almost 8 percent use Russian TV channels. As for the military conflict in Donbass, Ukrainian TV is trusted the most (40 percent), whereas trust in Russian television is very low (only 1.3 percent). At the same time, however, when asked to what extent they believed that the Kyiv events of winter 2014 were an illegal military coup d’état, as many as 34.3 percent of respondents agreed, and about 48 percent disagreed.[9] The Kremlin-sponsored narratives have the biggest impact in eastern Ukraine, including in the territories controlled by Ukraine, given the availability of the majority of Russian media. Only about half of the population in the ATO zone has access to Ukrainian channels, with people from several districts near occupied Crimea being able to watch only Russian television channels.[10]

 

In Belarus, Russian content is dominant in the media with television channels relying on entertainment and other programming provided by Russian television networks. Pro-Kremlin media continues to play a significant role, with their news and entertainment shows available on TV channels that are free of charge (including on so called hybrid channels, such as NTV Belarus or RTR Belarus). For example, when answering a question on their opinion about the accession of Crimea by Russia, 59 percent of Belarusians opined that it was a reunification of Russian lands with Russia, a restoration of historical justice which was the official Russian version of the story pursued by the main Russian TV channels.[11] Interfax-Zapad and Prime-TASS, two Russian-owned information agencies, sell newswire services to other media in Belarus. As for non-Russian foreign ownership, it remains very limited, with Russian companies in charge of two popular newspapers, Komsomolskaya Pravda v Byelorussii and Argumenty i Fakty, two news agencies, Interfax-Zapad and Prime-TASS, and VTV, an entertainment television channel.

 

In Azerbaijan, only a small segment of the population uses Russian TV channels as their information source, and they are available only through cable television, satellite antenna or the Internet (the same as in Georgia). At the same time, however, when reviewing the content of Azerbaijani TV channels, it is possible to find similarities with the Russian media narratives in the way they portray foreign affairs. The mainstream media in Azerbaijan defend the state from the global information war being waged by Western countries. Russian, as well as Turkish media outlets, contribute to such conspiracy theories. Several resources in Russian serve the Russian-speaking minority. It has to be said however that none of these differ in content from those broadcast in Azerbaijani. Almost all the main news media also broadcast in Russian.

 

According to studies conducted in Moldova, Russian media has the highest credibility among 15 percent of the population. By comparison, 13 per cent of the population trusts Moldovan media and 7 percent Romanian.[12] The propaganda from Kremlin-controlled Russian TV channels that is rebroadcast in Moldova, as well as a launch of an online portal Sputnik in 2015, further influenced the media sector. The media in general adapt the editorial content knowing that Romanian language speakers have a more pro-Western orientation, while those that speak Russian are usually pro-Russian.

 

In Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan, reporting by the leading local media on key local and global issues offers an alternative to reporting by Russian channels and thus helps to ‘balance’ their impact. The media in the countries that are members of the Eurasian Economic Union, Belarus and Armenia, are not able to offset the impact of Russian media as the leading local TV channels (with comparable viewership to the Russian channels) are constrained in covering controversial external political problems.[13] In Armenia, the coverage of the armed conflict in Ukraine clearly demonstrated that it was mostly presented by the mainstream media in a similar way to that of pro-Kremlin channels. The major proportion of international news broadcast by television outlets is based on that provided by Russian channels.

 

Ethnic Russians form the largest minority group in many Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries. Moreover, many people were taught in the Russian language which makes a significant portion of the population bilingual – and thus able to follow the Russian media. When it comes to particular programmes, it is the news programmes on Russian TV channels that are particularly attractive to audiences. People consider them to be more professional than the available local alternatives. Russian media have sufficient facilities and equipment for the production and distribution of news. Four major state television channels that receive both state funding and advertising revenue provide programmes of a very high technical quality, creating high audience expectations in this respect. The Russian media best succeed in influencing public opinion particularly in those countries where their broadcasting is not restricted. This is apparent in how people in the EaP countries perceive what is happening in Ukraine as well as the confrontation between Russia and the West.

 

Politicians in the Kremlin make no secret of the fact that they are spending millions of dollars on messaging that supports their worldview and their larger strategic goals. When looking closer at the content of Russian TV channels, it becomes clear that the Kremlin has taken information propaganda into the national security context to significantly influence the opinions and dispositions of local and international society. The Russian narrative consists of emotional messages aimed at creating negative stereotypes of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, discrediting the Western political or cultural space and supporting homophobic and xenophobic opinions among the public. By pursuing these myths, Russia posits itself as the only real ally to FSU countries with a collective identity, faith, history and culture. Simultaneously, it portrays the West as an existential threat to all the values mentioned above.[14]

 

While it is not easy to estimate the real impact of Russian propaganda in FSU countries, it is clear that the lack of objective reporting, as well as a lack of diverse views among Russian-speaking audiences, poses a real challenge across the region. The various monitoring exercises of Russian media revealed that the Kremlin does not appear to aim so much at justifying its domestic and foreign policies, but rather at undermining the confidence of international audiences in the legitimacy of their governments and, in more general terms, Western liberal values.

 

Russian TV channels still matter in most of the FSU countries. It is also possible to conclude that Russia’s influence is more significant in those areas where there is no alternative information to Kremlin narratives. It is however important to have good quality reporting as a real alternative and not channels which defend the state and serve as its propaganda tools. The national media enjoying high level of trust and popularity in the EaP countries would serve as a good tool against the Russian media propaganda. Regrettably, EaP countries have done very little or nothing to encourage the existence of an independent, vibrant and competitive media landscape, which is essential for providing a variety of news and views. The former Vice President of the United States Hubert Humphrey once said: “Propaganda, to be effective, must be believed. To be believed, it must be credible. To be credible, it must be true.” In the times when we are exposed to lies, half-truths and disinformation, we need good quality reporting which should be supported in all countries affected by Russian propaganda.

 

 

[1] Mainly through terrestrial transmitters but also in the form of localized version of Russian TV channels (for example NTV – Belarus).

[2] Monitoring of Russian channels by MEMO 98, Internews Ukraine and Yerevan Press Club,  Independent Journalism Center (Moldova), Yeni Nesil Union of Journalists (Azerbaijan), Belarusian Association of Journalists (Belarus), and Georgian Charter for Journalistic Ethics (Georgia), Final report 2015 http://memo98.sk/uploads/content_galleries/source/memo/russia/full-report-in-english.pdf

[3] Public Attitudes in Georgia, National Democratic Institute. April 2016, https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/NDI%20Georgia_April%202015%20Poll_Public%20Issues_ENG_VF_0.pdf

[4] Anti-western propaganda, media monitoring report, Media Development Foundation. 2014-15, http://mdfgeorgia.ge/eng/library/Anti-Western+propaganda

[5] National Democratic Institute, Public Attitudes in Georgia, Nov 2016, https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/NDI_November%202016%20poll_Issues_ENG_vf.pdf

[6] Survey of Russian propaganda Influence on Public Opinion in Ukraine was conducted by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology for NGO Detector Media in December 2016 http://osvita.mediasapiens.ua/detector_media_en/reports_eng/survey_of_russian_propaganda_influence_on_public_opinion_in_ukraine_findings/

[7] IREX Media Sustainability Index, Ukraine 2016 https://www.irex.org/sites/default/files/pdf/media-sustainability-index-europe-eurasia-2016-ukraine.pdf

[8] Gerard Toal and John O’Loughlin, Russian and Ukrainian TV viewers live on different planets, Washington Post, February 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/02/26/russian-and-ukrainian-tv-viewers-live-on-different-planets/?utm_term=.08bd4269803f

[9] Survey of Russian propaganda Influence on Public Opinion in Ukraine was conducted by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology for NGO Detector Media in December 2016 http://osvita.mediasapiens.ua/detector_media_en/reports_eng/survey_of_russian_propaganda_influence_on_public_opinion_in_ukraine_findings/

[10] ATO zone or Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone is a term used to identify Ukrainian territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions under control of Russian military forces and pro-Russian separatists.

[11] A public opinion poll conducted by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies in March 2015 available at http://www.iiseps.org/analitica/829

[12] The Barometer of Public Opinion of the Institute of Public Policy in October-November 2014 at http://www.ipp.md/?l=en

[13] Monitoring of Russian channels by MEMO 98, Internews Ukraine and Yerevan Press Club,  Independent Journalism Center (Moldova), “Yeni Nesil” Union of Journalists (Azerbaijan), Belarusian Association of Journalists (Belarus), and Georgian Charter for Journalistic Ethics (Georgia), Final report 2015 http://memo98.sk/uploads/content_galleries/source/memo/russia/full-report-in-english.pdf

[14] Ibid.

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