Cleaning Up the Media Gabage

(The Moscow Times, November 24, 2009)

By William Dunkerley

President Dmitry Medvedev should start his modernization program by taking a hard look at the sorrowful state of the media in the country. Russia’s media are awash in a corrupt culture of paid-for news stories — propaganda masquerading as news. Few news outlets are free to tell the whole truth. Instead, they are subjugated by those who put money into the loss-making media companies in return for an opportunity to color the news in their own favor. They constitute a pluralistic but conscripted press, hardly a free press.

Articles are paid for not only by businesspeople, but by mayors, governors and natural resource monopolies controlled by the state. The government is clearly a big part of the problem.

With little free press, it is difficult for the electorate to make informed choices during elections, and the people are deprived of the aid of a Fourth Estate in exercising vigilance over their government.

Medvedev says he wants to make developing information technology a national priority. But without first normalizing the media sector, that sparkling new technology may succumb to the old garbage-in, garbage-out phenomenon.

Medvedev also says he wants to institute zero tolerance for corruption. Yet he seems willing to leave the nation’s most conspicuous center of corruption — the media — to continue with business as usual.

It’s hard to imagine that Medvedev’s hope for a better Russia will ever be realized if he doesn’t address the issue of media corruption. I’d like to offer him a simple, two-step prescription for turning things around:

Step 1: Get the government out of the media business. It may be debatable whether there is anything fundamentally wrong with government media ownership. Nonetheless, it looks bad and plays into the hands of those who use it to tarnish Russia’s image internationally. Government ownership in the media sector sends an ominous signal, as well, to legitimate entrepreneurs who might like to get into the media business. The government’s role in the well-documented corrupt business culture that dominates the media also casts a dark shadow upon Medvedev’s vision of a less corrupt future for Russia.

Step 2: Clean up the other corruption in the media. When a consumer buys a bag of potatoes, he doesn’t want to find that the bag is also full of garbage. Similarly, when Russians watch news broadcasts, they deserve not to have the news intermixed with disguised propaganda.

In reality, the disguise isn’t fooling anyone. Any Russian can spot phony news. Not only do Russians recognize paid-for news stories. They also despise it. They know that the media are not serving the needs and interests of the people.

Many Russians have been quietly irate over this for years. They would rather see a return to censorship than a continuation of the current nonsense. That would seem to be an important mandate for change. And clearly cleaning up the corruption would be a more productive choice than reimposing censorship. The Russian Media Fund, a private sector initiative, has even developed a plan that the administration can use to bring about the change.

Paid-for news content makes Russia’s media a megaphone for corruption. Kicking off an anti-corruption campaign with the media sector will touch every citizen and every segment of commerce. That would be a strong start.