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This Week in Info War

Russian media copes with a more volatile political environment

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Russian tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov is reportedly in talks to sell his RBC media holdings, which include an information agency, business consulting firm, internet news portal, business newspaper, monthly business magazine and RBC Television. Russian businessman Grigory Berezkin, who has stakes in utility and media companies, is the likely buyer, Berezkin spokeswoman Marianna Belousova said on 9 May. Berezkin owns shares in the daily newspaper Metro and is co-owner of the Komsomolskaya Pravda publishing house. Prokhorov’s media outlets reportedly angered the Kremlin in 2016 with its reporting on the business interests of people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the time, Russian law enforcement searched Prokhorov's offices and several top editors had to leave their posts, though Russian authorities denied any connection.

Current tensions between RBC and the Kremlin over coverage of recent anti-Putin protests also likely play a role in the transaction. According to one press report, Aleksey Gromov—deputy head of the presidential administration—is pressuring Prokhorov to sell. Gromov considers as a “personal insult” both the extensive coverage of the opposition rallies and RBC’s 5 April report that the Kremlin was considering allowing greater coverage of Russian domestic politics.

Control over the media, especially TV, is a key instrument of Putin’s rule: it generates public support for the system and Putin’s personal popularity, on which the legitimacy of the system depends. It can also mobilize the population behind favored regime causes such as the invasion of Ukraine, and it earns Kremlin elites huge amounts of revenue. There appears to be grounds for Kremlin concern regarding each of these rationales. A recent survey by the state-run polling agency VTsIOM shows that TV continues to lose its hold on the public. For the past two years, the share of Russians who say they get their news from TV has dropped by 10 percent, while the share of Russians who rely primarily on the internet for news has grown by the same amount. Though TV is still the primary source of information about current events in Russia, 32 percent of respondents said they now go online for news. About half (52 percent) of Russians currently watch TV news—down from 62 percent in 2015. News websites, blogs and social media are all gaining popularity in Russia, according to the VTsIOM study.

Unsurprisingly, younger people are far more likely to rely on the internet for information; 65 percent of Russians between the ages of 18 and 24 get their news from the web, as do half of Russians between 25 and 34. Yet for now, trust in TV is still significantly higher than faith in online sources, with 70 percent of Russians telling VTsIOM they have confidence in the national networks, and 63 percent saying they rely on local TV news. Fewer than half of Russians believe in any other media source, according to the survey.

Political commentator Valery Solovey suggested in an 8 May interview that the authorities have convinced themselves that the recent spate of opposition activity is only temporary, and that the trouble will pass. He notes that with the repression of political activity, an obedient, toothless parliament and little in the way of independent media, there is no channel for feedback from the public. The Kremlin does not actually know what is going on in Russia, he said. Even structures that are supposed to provide objective information indulge in wishful thinking, and they accommodate the views of their bosses.

It is difficult to know, of course, if Russia’s leadership is out of touch. But the Kremlin appears to have accepted the widespread view that young people relying on social media largely spurred the March demonstrations. On 11 May, Putin issued a 27-page executive order that would treat the internet more like official news media, which face restrictions not applicable to many online outlets. It instructed the federal government to devise new mechanisms to rein in online media and limit internet users’ anonymity. It also specifies that the new policing mechanisms should apply to internet TV networks, news aggregators, social networks and instant messengers, as well as “any websites.”