Russians are increasingly choosing the Internet over other media outlets in their pursuit of "objective" news, a reflection both of their judgments about the quality of reporting, and their dwindling ability to purchase increasingly expensive newspapers and magazines during the current economic crisis.
On January 28, the Russian Business Rating Agency published online the results of a poll conducted on behalf of Pro-Vision Communications in 12 major Russian cities in November as part of a countrywide assessment of the level of trust
Russians have in various media outlets. According to that survey, 47 percent of the sample called online publications "important" sources of news, while only 33 percent said the same of regional and federal media outlets. Its authors argued that this result showed that Russians "trust" online news more than that carried on other sources, but the data, at least as published, do not necessarily support that conclusion.
Another explanation, one offered by those involved in other sectors of the media, is that these numbers simply reflect the impact of the current economic situation, which has driven prices for print media up, even as the incomes of many Russians have fallen
. And it is clear that the print media have suffered in Russia, as elsewhere, as a result of the economic crisis. Since October, sales of Russian newspapers and magazines have fallen 40 percent, and with smaller print runs, many of these outlets have been forced to raise prices, reducing still further the number of people who can and do buy them.Key Juncture
But at the same time, these new poll statistics highlight two other developments likely to continue to have an impact on Russians' media habits. On the one hand, the Russian media are now "more unfree than free," according to the Moscow Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations
. Russian officials are exercising ever tighter control over the electronic media, the Center suggests, and both high- profile killings of journalists and attacks on websites like Portal-Credo.ru (which was blocked, apparently on orders from the highest level, during the patriarchal elections) have increased suspicions about the reliability of many outlets.
As a result, the conclusions based on the November 2008 poll are important, even if they may be too broad. That is especially the case given that over the past five years, the number of Internet users in Russia has risen 2.5 times: one in six Russians now goes online every day, up from only one in 50 in the fall of 2002
. While not all those who go online do so to obtain news – many use the Internet to engage in chat, seek advice, purchase goods, or be entertained – an increasing number clearly do so. And that means that in the future, this still relatively free portion of the Russian media market is going to be both more important and more subject to government efforts designed to control it.New Focus
The former trend means that more and more people, groups, and governments interested in learning about developments in Russia will need to focus on this medium, and they will need to use the Internet, especially its most sophisticated new forms, if they hope to reach Russian audiences. But the latter trend means that, as has been the case in China and elsewhere, Russian officials will try to impose their control on this form of mass media lest the lack of such control not only reduces the importance of the media they do control, but also fuels challenges to their own power.
Despite that latter trend, one that will involve a struggle between offense and defense on line, there has been one piece of potentially good news for the Russian media this week: the Federation Council is set to approve Russia's very own version
of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Once approved, that measure, which will take effect January 1, 2010, is supposed to guarantee Russian citizens the right to obtain a wide range of information about government bodies and activities. That is a step forward, even if here too there will be another struggle between those who favor openness and those, mostly inside the government, who don't.Paul Goble, a longtime specialist on the former Soviet space, is director of research at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy (ADA). The views expressed in this analysis, which was first posted on Window on Eurasia, are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the ADA or RFE/RL