A great deal has been said in Russian and Western media alike about the set of new Russian anti-terrorist policies.i This package of laws (often referred to as the “Yarovaya law”ii) have catalyzed proliferous debates regarding, among other issues, concerns about online anonymity, private communication, and religious practices.iii While it is certainly difficult to remain impartial to the legislative changes that are already starting to affect real people,iv I nevertheless believe that we as a global society owe it to ourselves to get to the root of the strategies that different media sources employ when talking about changes in policymaking that have been enacted in Russia over the past few years. Doing so is especially important if we as readers are interested in pushing against our own predisposition to “selective exposure.”v
The Kremlin Position: Russian Government-Affiliated Media
The official stance of Russian policymakers, followed by the pro-government media, has been to cull the most beneficial reasons for enacting the new laws. Stressing the urgency of the security threat that terrorism poses globally, in its 2014 overview of what was back then only a proposal of the new legislation, Channel One emphasized the necessity of the changes by centering on the fact that the new policies will “increase the severity of punishment for the preparation and financing of acts of terrorism[,]… establishment of terrorist organizations[, and]… assistance in preparation and organization of terrorist attacks.”vi In 2016, shortly after the set of new laws was signed by the President, Channel One released another brief report hailing the policies as “important amendments to the law meant to combat terrorism.”vii
Akin to Russian government-oriented news sources that have been consistently stressing the positive aspects of the new policies without much regard for the more controversial components (e.g. lowering the age of criminal liability for certain crimes to fourteen years oldviii), Western news media sources also seemed to favor certain unanimity in their coverage of these legislative changes. In the best traditions of the Red Scare,ix one of the most widely used techniques appears to be an invocation of the Cold War image of the oppressive USSR regime. The “Yarovaya law”x is referred to as being “reminiscent of Soviet-era surveillance,”xi “[re-enacting] …very infamous provision[s] of Soviet law,”xii and forcing the country to regress to “Soviet-era practice[s].”xiii
Presenting the law as an acute infringement on human rights emerges as another trope. Human Rights Watch underscores that “[the new] provisions… severely undermine the right to privacy and are particularly detrimental to freedom of expression on the Internet.”xiv A review by Forbes paints an even gloomier picture: “Hello, brave new world …with jails for children, with global surveillance and prison terms for non-snitching.”xv
Preoccupied with George Orwell’s “Big Brother”xvi narrative, Western Media aims at portraying the new anti-terrorist legislation as an alarming and unequivocally backward movement on the part of the Russian government.
The (Unbiased?) Russian Media: Export Vs Import
How should one view sources like Meduza which claim objectivity?xvii In fact, a close analysis of Meduza’s English and Russian pieces quite unambiguously reveals this resource’s aim to not only express its own stance on the “Yarovaya law”xviii but also to appeal to two different audiences. Meduza is consistently pursuing the familiar Western trope of Soviet tyranny for its English readers, while with regard to the Russian-speaking audience it passes judgement on the new policies and brings this message home to a general news content consumer. Specifically, Meduza’s English-language publications are often filled with buzz-words and tropes which are common in Western news sources. Conclusive examples of this strategy can be found in Meduza’s Englishxix and Russian-languagexx articles on the “Yarovaya law”xxi which are based on Levada-Center’s public opinion survey available in Russianxxii and in English.xxiii
Contrary to Meduza, Levada-Center clearly prioritizes impartiality in its publications. Both articles basically represent an assortment of tables filled with survey data – there is no judgement or assessment whatsoever – and this is precisely what Levada-Center’s translation strategies reflect. With regard to their subject matter, both English and Russian versions of Levada-Center’s piece are virtually identical; the only difference lies in the resource’s assumption that its English-speaking readers might need more context for the report, hence the more detailed English headline.xxiv
Meduza, on the other hand, not only chose to make its English headline more informative but also took this approach one step further by including the familiar “Big Brother” trope and mentioning Vladimir Putin for greater effect.xxv With regard to content, Meduza has definitely done away with Levada-Center’s objectivity; the original report was transformed into a rather evocative piece by selecting and organizing Levada-Center’s findings in a way that was most reflective of Meduza’s own agenda. Unsurprisingly, the English version of Meduza’s article seems to have taken the brunt of this tactic. Namely, in the English article the new anti-terrorist regulations are referred to as “controversial,” as well as “[echoing the] Big Brother [surveillance technique],” and “grant[ing] the government sweeping new powers,” whereas none of this expressive language can be found in Meduza’s Russian-language post.xxvi
All of this is not meant to suggest that a news source should not have their own stance on the events that they are reporting on. Besides, the effectiveness of objectivity as a concept is debatable. What good is an article with no specific message? However, while this might be true to a certain degree, one would do well to be aware of the existence of such selectivity bias on the part of a given informational resource. In fact, the next question we should be asking is: Whose interests are being represented by a certain source?
Unfortunately, at the time of writing this blog, all I was able to confirm was that while this newspaper is primarily targeting a Russian-speaking audience, it is actually officially registered in Latvia.”xxvii As for the issue of ownership, one of Meduza’s own articles claims that the founder of the company, Galina Timchenko, remains and has always been its sole owner.xxviii As for Meduza’s funding, I could not locate its exact source (and this alone sends a certain message).xxix
Where Does This Leave Us?
It would not be a revelation to suggest that bias is deeply ingrained within the industry of news media reporting,xxx and Russia is certainly not an exception. As I have attempted to demonstrate, even the seemingly objective sources might still be culpable for manipulating public opinion. It is also important to be aware of the fact that, especially when it comes to reading about Russia, English-speaking audiences may be at a disadvantage. Without a comprehensive knowledge of the Russian language, the readers are often denied the opportunity to access less ex parte content, or at the very least compare the English and the Russian-language publications, and thereby risk falling prey to agendas beyond their control.
i Here I am referring to a set of two laws: “Федеральный закон (от 06.07.2016 № 374-ФЗ) о внесении изменений в Федеральный закон “О противодействии терроризму” и отдельные законодательные акты Российской Федерации в части установления дополнительных мер противодействия терроризму и обеспечения общественной безопасности,” Pravo.gov.ru | Государственная система правовой информации. Официальный интернет-портал правовой информации, July 6, 2016 and “Федеральный закон (от 06.07.2016 № 375-ФЗ) о внесении изменений в Уголовный кодекс Российской Федерации и Уголовно-процессуальный кодекс Российской Федерации в части установления дополнительных мер противодействия терроризму и обеспечения общественной безопасности,” Pravo.gov.ru | Государственная система правовой информации. Официальный интернет-портал правовой информации, July 6, 2016, which were created to modify the existing anti-terrorism law “Федеральный закон (от 06.03.2006 № 35-ФЗ) “О противодействии терроризму”” Pravo.gov.ru | Государственная система правовой информации. Официальный интернет-портал правовой информации, March 6, 2006.
iii A comprehensive overview of the specifics of these legislative changes and what they might entail for regular people as well as for companies interested in doing business in Russia can be found here: The Meduza Project, “Russia’s State Duma Just Approved Some of the Most Repressive Laws in Post-Soviet History,” Meduza.io/en, June 24, 2016.
iv Rebecca Flood, “Russian Man Arrested under Anti-Terror Law after Talking about Philosophy of Yoga,” The Independent | Independent.co.uk, January 14, 2017.
v Florian Arendt, Temple Northup, and Lindita Camaj, “Selective Exposure and News Media Brands: Implicit and Explicit Attitudes as Predictors of News Choice,” Media Psychology, July 17, 2017, 1–18, https://doi.org/10.1080/15213269.2017.1338963.
vi My translation of several excerpts from the following article: “Госдума рассмотрит в первом чтении антитеррористический пакет из трех законопроектов,” ПервыйКанал | Новости | 1tv.ru, February 28, 2014.
vii My translation of several excerpts from the following article: “Президент Владимир Путин подписал пакет поправок в антитеррористическое законодательство,” ПервыйКанал | Новости | 1tv.ru, July 7, 2016.
viii See Article 1.2.2. in “Федеральный закон от 06.07.2016 № 375-ФЗ.”
xi Anna Borshchevskaya, “‘Brave New World’: Russia’s New Anti-Terrorism Legislation,” Forbes.com, July 8, 2016.
xv Borshchevskaya, “‘Brave New World’: Russia’s New Anti-Terrorism Legislation.”
xvi George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (New York: Knopf, 1992).
xix The Meduza Project, “Almost Two Thirds of Russians Have Never Heard of the New Anti-Terrorist, ‘Big-Brother’ Laws Recently Signed by Putin,” Meduza.io/en, July 28, 2016.
xxviii Илья Жегулев, “Корпорация «Ходорковский»: Что сделал бывший олигарх за два с половиной года на свободе. Репортаж Ильи Жегулева,” Meduza.io, August 11, 2016.
xxix Елизавета Сурганова, “Галина Тимченко: «Никто из нас не мечтает делать «Колокол»,” Forbes.ru, September 15, 2014.
xxx For more information on this topic see Chun-Fang Chiang and Brian Knight, “Media Bias and Influence: Evidence from Newspaper Endorsements,” The Review of Economic Studies 78, no. 3 (2011): 795–820 and Tawnya J. Adkins Covert and Philo C. Wasburn, “Measuring Media Bias: A Content Analysis of Time and Newsweek Coverage of Domestic Social Issues, 1975-2000,” Social Science Quarterly 88, no. 3 (2007): 690–706.
Katya Tikhonyuk is a graduate student in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at The Ohio State University. Her current research focuses on Russian new media and culture of dissent. After the completion of her undergraduate studies at Moscow State Regional University in 2012, Katya spent an academic year at Davidson College in North Carolina, teaching Russian as a recipient of the Fulbright FLTA grant. Her time in Davidson was followed by two years in Wuhan, Central China, where she taught English and Russian at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law prior to arriving at Ohio State
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