Written by Daria Gordeeva

Back to Country Selection


  • Area: 17.075.200 square kilometers
  • Population: 144 million (2016)
  • Capital: Moscow
  • State form: federal semi-presidential republic
  • Official language: Russian
  • Religion: Russian Orthodoxy (41 per cent, 2012)

  • Flag of Russia

    Russia, as the largest territory and one of the most populous countries in the world, has always played a significant though varying role in regional and global politics. That is one of the reasons why the Russian media system deserves closer attention. After the fall of the Soviet Union, an old, “ideologically driven and print-based” media system transformed to a new one ‒ “commercialized and digital” (Vartanova, 2015: 129). However, all major national television and radio networks, wide-reaching national newspapers as well as national news agencies are still controlled by the state or dependent on it. Pro-Kremlin media continue disseminating propaganda and stressing patriotic themes, while the most popular alternative voices are suppressed. The current political, economic and legal environment and, inter alia, new draconian laws, oblige Russian journalists to practice self-censorship. Although television remains the main source of information for 78 per cent of Russians (Public Opinion Foundation, 2016a), the public’s trust in the media is falling. The following report is based on document analysis, reports of NGOs, results of research on the Russian media system, survey data and an expert interview with the senior lecturer at MSU’s Faculty of Journalism, Ekaterina Sivyakova.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Political Environment

    Media-state relations and the context, in which the media have been developed, have always defined the nature, functions and roles of the media in Russia (Vartanova, 2015: 137). Since the appearance of the first Russian newspaper Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti in 1703, the media in Russia have often been “tools of social and ideological management”. They created the tradition of mass media serving the nation and the state “in all historical periods from Imperial Russia, through Bolshevik Russia to the USSR” (Vartanova, 2015: 138; Vartanova, 2012: 131-135). Nowadays the state remains the major actor in this sector. The government controls the national news agenda directly or through state-owned companies and Kremlin-friendly entrepreneurs. As a result, the state sets the editorial policy of most media in the country. According to Freedom House (2016b, 2016c), state-owned TV stations dominate the Russian media landscape, “generate propagandistic content” and denounce domestic and foreign opponents. Independent watchdogs criticize the “pervasive, hyperpatriotic propaganda and political repression” in the media as well as the lack of an open and free discussion (Freedom House, 2016c). Experts also speak about the “lack of political diversity” (Vartanova, 2015: 130) and “political parallelism”, strong connections between Russian journalists and the political system (Nygren & Degtereva, 2012: 738). Ekaterina Sivyakova, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Journalism at Lomonosov Moscow State University, distinguishes between the official and an alternative agenda in the Russian media. The official agenda is set by state-controlled media (federal TV channels and national newspapers) which have a “supporting approach”. They cover a wide range of issues, but rarely challenge the official government line or cover corruption and almost never offer a diverse range of opinions and viewpoints. Critical approach is provided by some online media, independent newspapers and foreign media which set an alternative agenda. Thus, “meaningful political debate is mostly limited to weekly magazines, news websites, some radio programs, and a handful of newspapers” , which can be closed at any time (Freedom House, 2016b, 2016c).

    Independent watchdogs tell about so-called “progovernment trolling” – propaganda campaigns in the internet organized by the state, which include disinformation, hiring people or creating social-media accounts to produce positive content about the government policy and attack its critics. As a result, Russian internet cannot always be a reliable source of information (Freedom House, 2016a, 2016b, 2016c). However, 48 per cent of Russians consider the internet as a trustworthy news source (Public Opinion Foundation, 2016a). A few independent media outlets (for example TV-2, a regional broadcaster based in Tomsk, or the online TV channel Dozhd) are being “punished for [their] independent reporting” and critical coverage of the Russian government (Freedom House, 2016b). They face political pressures and therefore struggle to remain operational. Some of them survived only in the internet and are supported by viewers’ subscription fees. The online-newspaper and news aggregator Meduza is based in Riga to avoid interference by the Russian state.

    Political discussion in the internet was largely unrestricted until 2012. Vartanova (2015: 134-135) described the internet in Russia as “the most open medium” providing the user with “maximum freedom of choice and content” as well as “polarized viewpoints”. However, over the past few years the government adopted restrictive laws to control and shut down critical voices. The reason for this were large anti-Kremlin protests in 2011-2013 after allegedly fraudulent elections in Russia (Freedom House, 2016c). Nevertheless, only few Russian journalists consider government officials (18.2 per cent) or politicians (13.3 per cent) as “very” or “extremely” influential on their work (Worlds of Journalism Study, 2016).

    Legal Environment

    Article 29 of the Russian constitution provides for freedom of speech and freedom of mass communication and prohibits propaganda and censorship. However, the country’s court system is “politicized and corrupt” (Freedom House, 2016b) and government officials and authorities use it to harass critical journalists and bloggers. Extremism is defined in Russian law broadly and authorities invoke it to crack down on voices that lack official support and, thus, “silence government critics” (Freedom House, 2016b, 2016c). The practice of censorship was for centuries “the core feature of journalism in Russian Empire” (Vartanova, 2015: 127). And, according to Freedom House (2016b), the current legal environment obliges Russian journalists to practice self-censorship.

    In May 2015, President Putin “signed a decree that expanded an existing ban on publication of information about military casualties in wartime to include casualties from ‘special operations’ during peacetime” (Freedom House, 2016b). This regulation limited meaningful coverage of Russian military involvement in Ukraine and Syria. Therefore, journalists cannot investigate, for example, the death of Russian soldiers. In January 2016, the so-called “Right To Be Forgotten” bill entered into force. This legislation allows private individuals to request that search engines remove links about them under certain conditions. According to freedom of information advocates, the bill is not compatible with international human rights standards on freedom of expression, doesn’t provide important procedural safeguards as well as safeguards pertaining to public figures and fails to map out limitations when “the personal information at issue is in the public interest and/or concerns public figures” (Article 19, 2015). In September 2015, the law which requires companies to store data about Russian citizens on Russian territory took effect. According to Freedom House (2016b), this law facilitates surveillance, enables officials to access personal data and users’ information and penalize internet platforms and, thus, could affect news and information.

    The Russian state telecommunications regulator is called Roskomnadzor, which is a primary player controlling and filtering information in the internet. Laws allow it to block websites that disseminate calls for riots, “extremist” activities, or participation in illegal assemblies as well as on various other grounds (Freedom House, 2016a, 2016b; Turovsky, 2015). In 2015, this law was invoked against independent and opposition websites. According to the independent watchdog RosKomSvoboda (2017), more than almost 3.000.000 websites were being blocked at the beginning of 2017. “LGBTI social media groups and websites are also routinely censored, as well as websites run by the political opposition” (Freedom House, 2016a). In 2016, the government also introduced “some of the harshest legislative amendments in post-Soviet Russia” (Freedom House, 2016a), collectively called “Yarovaya’s Law”, which amends nearly a dozen laws with wide ramifications for freedom of the internet in Russia. For example, for publicity calling for terrorism or justifying terrorism in the internet one can face a prison term of up to seven years (Consultant Plus, 2016). Telephone companies, blog platforms and social media have to store all communications and conversations for six months and make them available to the authorities on request. Thus, the state increasingly attempts to control communications and expressions in the internet. According to Reporters Without Borders (2016), this “draconian” law “poses a new threat to the work of journalists” and has “a major impact on fundamental freedoms”. Since 2014, a law also “requires any website, blog, or public social-media account with more than 3.000 daily viewers to register with Roskomnadzor as a media outlet and comply with the regulation accompanying that status” (Freedom House, 2016b). It should be noted, that 42.1 per cent of Russian journalists consider media laws and regulations as “very” or “extremely” influential and only 20 per cent of them say that censorship has an influence on their work (Worlds of Journalism Study, 2016).
    Media offers
    Media outlets, key national and foreign media, ownership and resources

    In quantitative terms, the general picture of the Russian media is highly diverse. According to Roskomnadzor (2017), at the beginning of 2017, there were more than 80.600 officially registered mass media in Russia, which offer content in 102 languages (Mediadigger, 2016). The largest market shares among newspapers have established Soviet brands, such as Komsomolskaya Pravda, Moskovsky Komsomolets, Izverstia and Trud, as well as the business-oriented daily Kommersant, the government-owned daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the popular weekly Argumenty i Fakty and the twice-weekly Novaya Gazeta, known for its investigative journalism (Vartanova, 2015: 133). Local newspapers in small and medium-sized Russian towns also deserve attention, because for people in provincial towns they sometimes are the only source of information about their town and district life (Svitich et al., 2016). They usually tend to “preserve cultural and educational orientation, pay attention to town culture, history, traditions, family, parenting, patriotic education, and present social topics” (ibid.: 54). It is not surprising, that positive materials prevail, while critical publications are rare. This can be explained by the fear of negative feedback to heavy criticism, resulting self-censorship and lack of journalists’ competences (ibid.: 55). The main problems of newspapers in small and medium-sized Russian towns are connected to “the understaffing of editorial teams and lack of qualification of employees” (ibid.: 57).

    Most media outlets in Russia “remain dependent on state subsidies and government printing, distribution, and transmission facilities” (Freedom House, 2016b), but also depend on advertising, subscription and other sales-related revenues. However, businesses often avoid placing advertisements in media outlets which are not favorable to the country’s government and politics. Furthermore, due to the economic crisis, advertising revenues are dwindling and editorial offices are under increasing economic pressure. Print media are declining “under pressure from increasing competition from the internet” (Vartanova, 2015: 133). Dovbysh (2016) analyzed the parallel financing models in Russian regional media markets and defined “state informational contracts” as the main tool of the alternative financing accepted by private and public media companies. In this case, the state acts as a commercial actor (advertiser, customer) and media companies are competing for the contracts from the state. These state contracts become an important financial source (besides the classical advertising-based business model) and can be signed, for example, for production and distribution of certain information. In this way, local authorities “establish loyal relationships with media companies” (ibid.: 64) and, as a result, can “control the media market effectively without direct ownership of media outlets” (ibid.: 83).

    Until 2015, the print magazine segment was “the most globalized and successful medium” (Vartanova, 2015: 133), which provided lifestyle content and was very attractive for foreign owners and investors. Many international periodicals, such as Men’s Health, Burda, Harper’s Bazar, Cosmopolitan, Esquire and Elle, have been adopted to the Russian market (ibid.: 134). However, by early 2017, foreign ownership stakes in Russian media outlets are restricted by law to 20 per cent. As a result, foreign publishers and media holdings such as Edipresse (Switzerland) or Axel Springer (Germany) are leaving the market or transfer the ownership to Russian entities (Bazenkova, 2015). The most popular publications are illustrated TV guides like Antenna-Telesem and women’s magazines like Liza (Vartanova, 2015: 133-134).

    85.5 per cent of about 2.700 radio stations are private and Russian television is mainly private, too (Vartanova, 2015: 129). However, as mentioned above, all major national television and radio networks, wide-reaching national newspapers as well as national news agencies are largely controlled by the state. According to Freedom House (2016b), the Russian state controls more than 60 per cent of the regional and local newspapers as well as other periodicals in the country. By operating the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK), the state completely controls the nationally distributed TV channels (Russia 1, Russia 2, Russia 24 and Russia K) as well as the radio stations Radio Rossii and Radio Mayak (Vartanova, 2015: 139). The three country-wide channels are Russia 1, run by VGTRK, Channel One, 51 per cent owned by the state and 49 by private stakeholders, and NTV, owned by state-run Gazprom-Media. A strong presence in regional markets have entertainment networks (REN TV, STS and TNT). There are also numerous small broadcasters with entertainment focus, for example, MTV, Disney and 2×2, mainly broadcasting cartoons. According to Freedom House (2016b), the Russian television “serves as the key propaganda tool of the government”. The government is waging a “witch-hunt” against independent media and brands them as a “‘fifth column’ seeking to destabilize the country” (Reporters Without Borders, 2016a). The commercial viability of independent television channels was threatened in February 2015 through the legislation, which banned advertising on channels without terrestrial broadcasting licenses that charge subscription fees for cable and satellite viewers. While major national TV channels are transmitted via both satellites and terrestrial networks (Vartanova, 2015: 131), the only independent national TV channel Dozhd broadcasts only online in early 2017. As a result, “in small cities there are almost no alternatives to free on-air federal channels” (ibid.: 132).

    Like in many other countries, nearly all major media outlets in Russia are active in several social networks and maintain an online website, such as or, offering free and fee-paying content. According to Vartanova (2015: 135), “the internet as a communication platform has replaced traditional mass media in terms of rapidly delivering information and shaping the political agenda”. There are also many online-only projects such as or These online newspapers cover politics, business, entertainment, technology, lifestyle, culture, sport as well as Russian and international news and are among the most popular Russian language online resources and the most quoted internet media. The Russian internet search engine Yandex is currently number four in the world based on the number of processed search requests.

    The Russian government also owns national media outlets directed to audiences outside of Russia. The most influential of them is RT (formerly Russia Today), an international television network, which operates as a multilingual service and promotes the Russian viewpoint on major global events. According to its own statement, RT is available to 700 million people in more than 100 countries spanning five continents and enjoys its largest regional audience in Europe (RT, 2016). Many critics (for example, Bidder, 2013) describe RT as a propaganda outlet for the Russian government and its (foreign) policy. As Dr. Sivyakova said, some of the few popular foreign media in Russia are BBC and the Riga-based online newspaper Meduza. Nevertheless, these outlets don’t have any significant impact on the public agenda.

    Media access and consumption

    Vartanova (2015: 130) outlines the key trends in the Russian media system, which include “the rise of television as the core medium […], paralleled by the decline of print media, especially daily newspapers, the growing role of the new media […] and the widening divergence of regional media systems as a reflection of Russia’s regional diversity”. In terms of media access and consumption, Russia, as a federal state, represents several media cultures, which vary depending on the economic and social development, income, demographic features, lifestyle and values (Vartanova, 2015: 135; Zubarevich, 2011, 2013). The First Russia (over 21 per cent of the population) is a country of large cities, industrial centres, and the middle class. The Second Russia (approximately 25 per cent) is a semi-urbanized space. The Third Russia (approximately 38 per cent) includes “sleeping” agricultural areas, villages and small towns. The Fourth Russia (less than 6 per cent) are the North Caucasus and Southern Siberia republics. “Consequently, there is a significant difference in the penetration of new technologies, media demand and use” in different layers (Vartanova, 2015: 135). Over the large territory of Russia and the unevenness of the technological infrastructure, TV is the only national mass media in terms of penetration and access, which constructs the information space and the national agenda in the modern Russia and plays a significant mobilizing role during political campaigns (ibid.: 136).

    The state-run television remains the main source of news and information for 78 per cent of Russians (Public Opinion Foundation, 2016a). 75 per cent of Russians trust in the central television (Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 2016a). In 2016, only 27 per cent of respondents used the internet as a news source. It can be assumed that this number will grow. According to Public Opinion Foundation (2016b), by the end of 2015, the internet penetration reached 57 per cent and continues to increase. The figure provided by the International Telecommunication Union (2016) is higher: about 73 per cent of Russians used the internet in 2015. However, the share of online media in the Russian media market is only 11 per cent. The biggest social network in Russia is VK with a monthly audience of over 46 million users (Brand Analytics, 2016), followed by Odnoklassniki and Facebook which is mainly used for business contacts.
    Journalists' autonomy
    Journalism education, career and salary

    According to the Worlds of Journalism Study (2016), the average Russian journalist is female (64.6 per cent), 32 years old, holds a university or college degree (82.3 per cent) or even a degree in journalism and/or communication (76.1 per cent), has eleven years of professional experience, works full-time (77.2 per cent) in a permanent position (83 per cent) and doesn’t belong to any organizations or associations for people in journalism or the communications field (79.9 per cent). According to Dr. Sivyakova, the university journalism education in Russia is widely criticized. Many would argue that journalism, writing techniques and research methods can be “learned” through practice and training, but not in the course of 4 to 6 years at the university. However, she emphasized that journalism education at the university encompasses not only technical skills, but also important “background” knowledge and skills such as logic, rhetoric, understanding of the political system and economic policy of the state. Within the framework of the study, students also do internships in media outlets where they, for example, learn to write reports in editorial offices. Many students also work as freelancers while studying. The most popular employers are online media outlets, TV and newspapers. However, after graduation many students take a job in other fields, especially public relations and social media marketing. According to Dr. Sivyakova, journalists in Russia do not earn much, approximately 30.000 to 40.000 RUB (500 to 600 EUR). Incomes of journalists vary among regions and depend on the media outlet and the current position, whereby an editor-in-chief of a commercial media published in Moscow can earn approximately 200.000 RUB.

    Journalists’ working conditions

    In Russian journalists’ own estimation, they have a great deal of freedom in selecting the news stories they work on (62.1 per cent) as well as deciding which aspects of a story should be emphasized (67.2 per cent). However, editorial supervisors and higher editors (56.1 per cent) as well as managers (61.1 per cent) and owners (53.2 per cent) of the news organization have a significant influence on their work (Worlds of Journalism Study, 2016). Most frequent obstacles that Russian journalists face are limits in the editorial policy as well as political and economic interests of the media company and its owners. A Russian TV reporter who participated at the survey conducted by Nygren and Degtereva (2012: 739-740) said that “the diversity of resources and views is becoming more restricted“ and a Web reporter told that “media are working in conditions of some degree of self-censorship”. According to Freedom House (2016b), the current legal environment also obliges Russian journalists to practice self-censorship. 43 per cent of the survey respondents believe that the level of press freedom in Russian has declined across the last decade. A newspaper reporter spoke about “a suppression and falsification of information” as well as “a predominance of socially and politically insignificant themes in reporting” (Nygren & Degtereva, 2012: 740). To sum up, pressures that Russian journalists face come equally from commercialization, entertainment, political polarization and, inter alia, the political affiliation of the media company and advertisers.

    According to Freedom House (2016a, 2016b), “both Russian and foreign journalists often encounter physical intimidation or official obstruction while reporting in the field”. Online journalists and activists are also targeted with violence and cyber attacks. Prosecutors charge journalists and bloggers who write articles on corruption and abuses of officials with “defamation, extremism, and other criminal offenses designed to limit free speech”. As a result, independent journalists face investigations, fines and short detentions (Freedom House, 2016b). Although the Russian constitution provides for freedom of information, “accessing information related to government bodies or via government websites is extremely difficult in practice” (Freedom House, 2016b). Dr. Sivyakova confirmed that, even if the right of journalists to demand information from authorities is guaranteed by law, authorities often do not provide any useful in-depth information. Thus, press services and political institutions, the government and the Kremlin frequently prevent journalists from exercising their freedom of information. Under these conditions, investigative journalism in Russia reveals a new way: open data investigation.

    The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) (2016), an independent NGO that promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists, recorded no murders of journalists in 2016. In the very same year, the Russian non-profit organization Glasnost Defense Foundation (2017) collected 54 reports of attacks on journalists (70 in 2015) and one report of attack on an editorial office (two in 2015). Dr. Sivyakova described the working conditions of Russian journalists as “not safe”. According to CPJ (2015), “Russia has a grim record of impunity when it comes to attacks and killings of journalists” who investigated corruption, human rights abuses in Russia’s North Caucasus or Russian military involvement in Eastern Ukraine. Since 1992, 56 journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work (23 since Putin first came to office in 2000). Most of them worked for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. In only three cases (murders of Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasia Baburova und Igor Domnikov) prosecutions of the killer have been made. Even in cases where officials promised to investigate the case and ensure justice, masterminds of killings have not been named or prosecuted. So, most journalist murders remain unsolved and attacks against government critics are not being investigated.

    Journalists’ role perceptions and reputation of media and journalism in society

    Russian journalists are “mediators” between authorities and civil society. Nowadays, media are not the country’s “fourth estate” controlling those with power and enlightening the audience, but service providers which serve particular interests of the media owner. However, the rapid provision of accurate and full information about events should be an important objective of journalists, so that the audience could get the full picture of what is happening from different points of view and make their own decisions. According to Dr. Sivyakova, modern Russian politics is a sphere of myths, rumors, stereotypes and propaganda, and, thus, understanding of these complex issues and explaining them to the audience should be the objective of the journalistic work.

    According to the Worlds of Journalism Study (2016), 67 per cent of Russian journalists consider their personal values and beliefs as “very” or “extremely” influential on their work. Most of them want to report things as they are and educate the audience. They also strive to provide advice, orientation and direction for daily life. However, less than half of the Russian journalists attach the importance of influencing public opinion and providing information people need to make political decisions. Only few of them find important to monitor and scrutinize political leaders or be an adversary of the government. And only around one tenth want to support government or convey a positive image of political leadership. The survey conducted by Nygren and Degtereva (2012: 735) confirms that Russian journalists strive to disseminate information quickly, analyze and interpret problems and avoid stories with unverified facts. However, the duty to “investigate government claims” is much less important and the demand for freedom to criticize political power is low (ibid.: 736).

    Based on empirical data from a study of St. Petersburg journalists, Pasti (2010: 61-64) identified three types of journalists in Russia. Among journalists from government-oriented media there prevail “value orientations of workers or mercenaries”, while journalists working in commercially oriented media attach importance on “creative work and self-expression”. In the quality media journalists strive to provide balanced coverage on events, present different points of view including critical opinions regarding authorities and, thus, be experts.

    According to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (2016b), on a scale from 1 (the lowest level of trust) to 5 (full trust) journalists in Russia have an average of 3.16 points ‒ lower than, for example, soldiers (3.95) or priests (3.66), but higher than entrepreneurs (2.84) and politicians (2.74). According to the survey conducted by Levada Center (2015a), a Russian non-governmental research organization, 75 per cent of participants in Russia “fully” or “partially” trust the press, radio and television. However, while watching television, listening to the radio, or reading the newspaper, 42 per cent of participants “somewhat” or “very” often get the feeling that something is being withheld and that they are not getting the full story. 31 per cent of them “somewhat” or “very” often get the feeling that they are being deceived or given false information (Levada Center 2015b). Dr. Sivyakova also claimed that country’s citizens have less and less confidence in Russian media.
    Interviewed expert (remote via Skype)
    • Dr. Ekaterina Sivyakova, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Journalism, Lomonosov Moscow State University. Dr. Sivyakova has a journalistic experience and her academic interests include, inter alia, the mass media as a political institution, public political discourse as well as public and local media in the Russian media system.
    Related Links
    Recommended citation form
    Daria Gordeeva: Russia. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date)

    Can the Russian media be trusted? Source: Seeker Daily