Saturday, August 18, 2007

Russia: Going Off the Air or Out of Air?

When the BBC goes off the air, civilisation is at an end. At least, so seems to have been the British view during the Cold War, as submarine captains had orders to open the envelopes for the nuclear arms' codes when the BBC fell silent. Now, this bastion of free speech and independent media is silenced by authorities in Russia, BBC reports.

On Friday, the BBC announced that its Russian partner, Bolshoe Radio, has been ordered by the authorities either to take Russia's last FM-relay of the BBC's Russian Service off the air or be shut down. That would make Bolshoe Radio the third and final Russian radio station, in the last months, that has been forced to quit BBC broadcasts in Russian.

Bolshoe Radio, which was recently purchased by the Finam investment group, was "allowed for 18% of --- content to be foreign-produced." Now, the radio station has been ordered to produce all its programming itself. The new owner of Bolshoe Radio denies that the decision to take the BBC off the air was made with outside prompting, and instead states that the radio station cannot send foreign propaganda. According to the BBC, a spokesman for Bolshoe Radio said it is "well known that the BBC was set up to broadcast foreign propaganda" and that "any media which is government-financed is propaganda."

However, it is beyond doubt that the BBC Russian Service was taken off the air by the Russian Federal Media Monitoring Service, Rossvyazokhrankultura (cf. "Russia silences its free voices?"). The head of the Russian authority, Boris Boyarskov, thus plainly states that his agency was behind shutting down the BBC in Russia, according to Interfax news agency:

The licensee who was organizing broadcasting on this frequency should have indicated the name of the mass media outlet, the BBC, in its plan, which it failed to do. We carried out checks on this and issued the broadcaster with a warning that it should only be giving air time to those mass media outlets which have been stipulated in the programming plan and that it should bring its broadcasting into line with this programming plan.
The statement that the BBC would broadcast "state propaganda" is surely a novelty in fabricating pretexts for smothering media freedom. The BBC is renowned throughout the world for its independent news coverage, and any attempt by a British government to limit the BBC's freedom would likely result in its eventual resignation. Such is considered the power of the free word in Britain, that when the BBC goes off the air - freedom is presumed at an end.

Thus, another free voice is silenced for Russians, eventually smothering the souls of the people. Is it a coincidence that the lyrics of Vysotsky's song "Спасите наши души" (Save Our Souls) come to mind?

Спасите наши души! - Мы бредим от удушья.
Спасите наши души! - Спешите к нам!
Услышьте нас на суше! Наш SOS все глуше, глуше...
И ужас режет души. - Напополам...

Save our souls! We are slowly smothered. Save our souls! Make haste to us! Hear our sorrows! Our SOS grows unheard... And horror cuts our souls in halves.


W. Shedd said...

Should I even point out that the BBC is practically non-existent on the radio in the US? I suppose that makes no sense in pointing that out, given that we're some supposed bastion of democracy.

I think BBC television is still available throughout most of Russia and Central Asia, isn't it? I've seen it on every TV in every hotel or apartment where I've stayed in those regions. Also some channel like Eurosport, which I take as the European equivalent of ESPN (sports).

Plus, they do still provide short wave broadcasts.

So in that sense, I don't think the BBC is really gone from Russia. They were such a small part of the radio market in Russia to begin with.

I think there are many indications of the Russian government putting the news media in Kremlin-friendly, "right thinking" hands where possible. The BBC radio depature is more a symbolic than significant sign of that, in my opinion.

Then again, given the recent Russia-UK events, symbolism might be all that was required of the gesture.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Wally,

Russa is not the US, and this blog is not about the US. If it were, there would probably be aspects of US society that would be treated in much the same way as the Russian dito.

As for BBC televised penetration in Russia, it presupposes:

1. A modern TV-set;
2. Access to cable-TV and BBC as part of it;
3. Command of English.

It is true that the BBC Russian Service can still be heard on short and middle wave. However, this for all practical reasons presupposes having a short wave radio and being able to receive broadcasts regardless of weather conditions and disturbances. Regrettably, shortwave radio penetration is most likely significantly lower than that of TV.

Another option is listening to the BBC Russian Service by way of the Internet.

As might be discerned from the above, limitations mount:

1. 99% of Russian households own a TV. However, only 9.7% have access to cable-TV, and the BBC cannot be assumed to form the basic contents of cable supply.
2. Internet penetration in Russia is estimated to - at the most - 16.5%. Broadband access is however very limited outside of major cities.
3. Knowledge of English in Russia is still relatively low. Among comparable countries, only China has a lower percentage of English speakers.

So, I still believe that this is an important development, even if it is largely symbolic. Access to the BBC is limited to an even smaller - English speaking - élite than previously was the case. It may well be that people like you and me watch the BBC at hotels and that the kind of people we meet is the sort of élite that watches the BBC. For the remainder of the people, barring BBC broadcasts in Russian, limits the possibilities of independent reporting even more than before.

Essentially, it is a case of narrowing opportunities, choice and free access to independent media. Of course, this may be considered symbolic and insignificant, but I have difficulties in realising why.

So, it seems that independent media reporting would again seem to be narrowing to the same sort of élite in Moscow, Piter, and Nizhny, as during the soviet era. The paradox today is however that the flow of information cannot be controlled - only managed. How well the Russian leadership succeeds in such management will be a question for the future to decide, as will the effects of its success or failure in doing so.



varske said...

Whatever we say at home in the UK about the BBC and its pro or anti Government bias, its international reputation of broadcasting in the local language is something else. It has a sort of brand name for some kind of reliability or even just an alternative perspective on events, or simply information on events that took place but which the government wants hushed up.

So to close up the Russian service maybe a coincidence in terms of timing but it can only be intentional. Gloomy perspectives!

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Varske,

Yes, the closure of the BBC Russian Service truly offer gloomy perspectives. Somehow I wonder why it was deemed necessary to silence the weak voice of the BBC in Russia, but control is perhaps what it is all about.



An-Lu said...

It gives me the creeps...

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Angela,

Yes, doesn't it? Creepy news indeed.



Minter said...

Technical complications? Bad luck? Bad press? It would appear that the BBC’s difficulties can only be more evidence of Putin’s shutting down of the free press. As the IHT reports, these BBC problems come on the heels of many other more or less covert clamp downs, including Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and Voice of America. The IHT reports that the Deutsche Welle has also had problems. All told, it just doesn’t bode well. The unspeak, double talk and lack of transparency seems to be growing at leaps and bounds. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be anybody (perhaps other than the Brits) putting up any resistance. What’s to be done? Insofar as the internet is terribly difficult to control, I don’t see how Putin will manage to shut down all the non-favorable commentary. What is he preparing that he doesn’t want anyone to talk about? His next Presidency?

Dmitri Minaev said...

When I was a schoolboy, I was appointed a "political informer" at school. I was supposed to prepare digests of the newspapers and TV news and once a week I read them to the class. For some years I got school prized as the best political informer. Nobody knew why. Want to know a secret? I didn't use Soviet TV news. My sources were BBC, Voice of America and Radio Sweden. I do hope that some of my former schoolmates listened to what I was saying. I like to think that there was a part of my efforts in the job of informing the Soviet people taken by BBC, VoA and other news agencies.

One day, the Western governments decided that these radio stations have done their job. Budget of Radio Liberty was cut. In spite of the changes on the media market, nothing really changed for BBC and VoA. I recently posted an outline of a book of Yegor Gaidar in my blog, and he quotes a KGB report: ""A significant share of the persons who committed politically harmful misdemeanours were under foreign ideological influence. The main factor was propaganda by radio. 80% of university students and 90% of undergraduate schoolchildren listen foreign radiostations regularly (32% of univesity students and 59% of schoolchildren listen them 1-2 times a week and even more often." A report of 1970: "5 years ago most of illegal printed materials were ideologically vicious fiction books, but now we see widely popular political documents and programs. Since 1965 we were aware of about 400 books and articles which criticize the historical experience of building of communist in the USSR, revising the politics of the CPSU, offering oppositional political programs."

Now, the presence of these stations in the Russian media space has decreased manyfold. In my opinion, it is time to restore the funding of these information agencies and to invent new ways to bring information to the Russian citizens. Internet is OK, but this is not enough. I would like to see Russian-speaking TV channels on cable and satellite TV, that would concentrate on Russian news and problems.

Dear Vilhelm, I think this topic deserves a serious discussion.

Michael Averko said...

"The statement that the BBC would broadcast 'state propaganda' is surely a novelty in fabricating pretexts for smothering media freedom. The BBC is renowned throughout the world for its independent news coverage,..."


Dear Vilhelm:

Actually, the BBC has had its share of not so objective reporting on a number of issues. Especially some of their segments dealing with the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia. BTW, Russia Today ( has had far more restrictions with the US market than Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has had with the Russian market.

We aren't dealing with a level playing field as the two mentioned English language mass media venues have greater clout.

As per your comments to Wally, the greater censorship is what doesn't get discussed. If Russian media is so bad, then it shouldn't be hypocritically put under the microscope. As is, it isn't as bad as many claim without being challenged.

Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Michael,

I leave this reply just to let you know that I have read your comment. Regrettably, I have no time to respond at this moment, as I have a deadline to meet.

However, you seem to have a lot of views and ideas, and I can only encourage you to publish them on your own blog. That would be so much more interesting than simply engaging in a discussion by way of blog comments - with the atomistic character that has. Then I and other readers may also get a broader perspective of what you think about various things.



Michael Averko said...

Dear Vilhelm

I gather you're uncomfortable about lengthy discussions at your blog. One can find my views on such matter written throughout cyber.

As an example, this link will lead to a plethora of them:

Unlike some people (I'm not saying you specifically), I truly believe in an open society and not bully pulpit like environments of overwhelmingly one sided presentations that go largely unchallenged.

One reason why I've frequented: and

Once again, I'm not interested in having an unpaid blog. I've other ways of communicating.



Vilhelm Konnander said...

Dear Michael,

As you yourself so eloquently put it about your own blogging: "I'm not interested in having an unpaid blog."

So, logically, I gather that you have some understanding for the fact that I who do have an unpaid blog must prioritise the time I use for making money to that used for blogging.

Then discussions in comments come far down on the scale; beneath work, travel, free time activities and blogging. So, this is not a question of being uncomfortable with any discussion per se. It is simply a practical matter of how to appropriate one's time in a rational manner.

I also want to underline that it in no way is a method of putting the lid on any discussion pertinent to the so called "open society" or avoiding debate, and that nobody should feel scorned for me not engaging in a deeper discussion - when views part - than what I have time for.

It is as simple as that, and judging from your own statement of not wanting to have an unpaid blog, you will certainly understand this.



daniel john said...

I enjoyed reading this post, thanks

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