An independent Russian election-monitoring group has accused television networks -- primarily state-controlled -- of violating election laws by delivering free campaign advertising for President Vladimir Putin ahead of the March presidential election he is widely expected to win.
Golos, which Russia authorities have designated a "foreign agent" under a controversial law on nongovernmental organizations, alleged this week that federal, regional, and local networks have aired dozens of segments in recent weeks that constitute "illegal campaigning" for Putin.
These reports, which focus mainly on a nationwide "volunteer" drive to collect the 300,000 valid signatures Putin must submit to register as an independent for the March 18 election, feature clearly slanted reporting in Putin’s favor and, in most cases, are not connected to his job as president, Golos said in a January 16 statement.
The group attached to the statement a list of 55 purportedly offending television reports, including hyperlinks. Central Election Commission chief Ella Pamfilova said on January 17 that she had watched a few of the reports and conceded that some of those aired by regional networks feature "signs of campaigning for a particular candidate."
She added that there are "no wide-scale violations by television networks, but there are things that do, in fact, concern us and which we must pay attention to," the state-run TASS news agency reported.
There is little doubt among observers of Russian politics that Putin, whose 18-year tenure as either president or prime minister has featured a steady tightening of Kremlin control over the country's political landscape, will win his second-consecutive six-year term in March.
But Russian television networks are nonetheless churning out fawning coverage of the incumbent ahead of the poll, according to a review of the news segments flagged by Golos. Here's a look at some of these reports from around the country, several of which feature interviews of individuals whose ties to pro-Putin political forces go unmentioned as they heap praise on the president.
This January 15 report from a news outlet controlled by the regional government notes that the regional branch of the ruling United Russia party had opened up its offices for the signature drive backing Putin's candidacy. It features interviews with several people who laud the president, including Ivan Kalmykov, who is identified only as a "resident of Nizhny Novgorod":
"Today we gave our signatures in support of our leader and we hope future president, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin," Kalmykov says in the report, which does not mention any other presidential candidate.
While he is identified in the segment as merely a Nizhny Novgorod resident, Kalmykov is not just an average man on the street. He is the regional head of United Russia's main youth group, known as Molodaya Gvardiya (Young Guard), according to the website of the party's regional branch.
Lukhovitsy, Moscow Region
This January 14 local report from the town of Lukhovitsy, around 130 kilometers southeast of Moscow, includes a common feature of the pro-Putin segments cited in the Golos statement: instructions on how viewers can support a candidate's bid to get on the ballot with their signatures.
In several of these reports, this guidance does not specifically name Putin, though it is delivered alongside footage of public stands set up for backers of the incumbent. But the report from Lukhovitsy by the local INKO-TV network takes it a step further.
"In order to support Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, all you need is a passport and your willingness," reporter Yelena Zabelina tells the camera:
Zabelina then gives her passport to a female wearing a sweatshirt that reads "Putin 2018" -- and identified as a volunteer -- who proceeds to write down details from the document.
As the segment concludes, a pensioner identified as Alevtina Moseyeva tells the camera: "I only see a future for us with Putin. We have become a superpower. And we used to be nobody."
A January 14 segment by NTV, one of Russia's top federal networks, leads with on-the-ground reporting from the Far East city of Khabarovsk, where it said an "unofficial" day of signature gathering for Putin had kicked off:
The report features an interview with a man identified as Konstantin Yurov, who stands behind his young son as he comments on his decision to submit his signature at the regional United Russia branch.
"My child found out where I'm going, that I will support Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin with my signature, and he said, 'Papa, I also want to give my signature.'"
He added that while children don’t have the right to sign petitions backing a candidate, his son is “nonetheless going to give a symbolic signature."
The NTV report does not give any description of Yurov other than his first and last name. In fact, he is a member of both United Russia and the Khabarovsk city legislature, according to his biography on the chamber's official website.
Staying in the Far East, this January 9 report by the regional affiliate of state-controlled Rossia-1 television focuses on the opening of a signature-collection stand opened by Putin supporters in Blagoveshchensk:
"Among the first to leave their autographs were teachers, doctors, students, and pensioners," the reporter says.
The second person interviewed in the segment is a young man identified as Aleksei Dolgov, who praises Russia's 2014 seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula that triggered Western sanctions targeting Russian officials, companies, and economic sectors.
"It was a very important strategic step on the path to peace," Dolgov said. He did not mention the war between Russia-backed separatists and Kyiv's forces that followed the Crimea annexation, which has killed more than 10,300 since April 2014.
The report gave no description of Dolgov, who also praised Russia's military operation in Syria and said Putin was to thank for a "peaceful sky" above. But like Kalmykov in Nizhny Novgorod, he is a senior regional activist.
The state-owned federal news network Rossia-24, meanwhile, aired a January 5 report from Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya.
In the report from the republic, where Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has been accused by opponents of systematic human rights abuses, correspondent Artur Mustayev reported that everyone who came out to a mall in the regional capital, Grozny, to give their signatures "expressed confidence that it would be impossible to imagine a modern, strong Russian without the current head of government":
In another television report from Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, a man identified as Soslan Kaitukov gave the impression that he just happened to be walking by when he saw the stand reading "Putin 2018."
"When I saw what was written there, I went back for my passport. Why? Because there is a feeling of stability, a feeling of progress," Kaitukov said in the January 12 report by a television network controlled by the regional government:
Though it wasn't mentioned in the report, Kaitukov has been active in local politics in the region and serves as the head of a state-backed children's sports school, according to a local government website.
He has also served as a local lawmaker with the nationalist Rodina party.