Conquering Television to Control the Narrative

Mikhail Saakashvili and Vladimir Putin used strikingly similar tactics to create uncritical television media. The one-sided, one-dimensional coverage of the conflict in South Ossetia was the product of their efforts By Nina Ognianova

Mikhail Saakashviil President of George. (AP)
Mikhail Saakashviil President of George. (AP)
When Georgia and Russia clashed over the disputed region of South Ossetia in August, many saw a David-versus-Goliath struggle between a fledgling democracy led by reform-minded Mikhail Saakashvili and an autocratic regime run by the calculating Vladimir Putin.

As different as these leaders may be, both have demonstrated intolerance to criticism and a strong desire to control influential national television. Using strikingly similar tactics, both leaders have helped fashion uncritical television media that are supportive of their governments. The results were on display during the South Ossetian conflict, when television in each country portrayed the fighting in one-sided, one-dimensional ways.

After Saakashvili ordered Georgian military strikes on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, on August 7, Russia responded by sending troops into the disputed region and eventually into the cities of Poti and Gori in Georgia proper. The eruption of military action followed months of tension between ethnic Ossetians and Georgians, fanned by Moscow’s encouragement of Ossetian separatists and Tbilisi’s aggressive efforts to assimilate the long-restive region.

Yet audiences in Georgia and Russia saw and heard little of the nuances of the conflict or the context that led to the fighting. In fact, many analysts said, it was as if there were two different conflicts going on.

In Georgia, the national television channels Rustavi 2 and the Georgian Public Broadcaster depicted a country responding to Russian aggression and protecting its territorial integrity. The other two Georgian stations with national coverage, Mze and Imedi, carried no news programming at the time. “The conflict was widely perceived as a war of the Georgian people against Russian military might,” said Tamuna Kakulia, media analyst with Internews Georgia, a Tbilisi-based media training organization. “Television did not translate the full picture of events. Most tightly controlled was information on Georgian military casualties and peaceful civilian losses. Acutely absent was criticism of the Georgian government and its actions.”

In Russia, the three key national broadcasters–Channel One, Rossiya, and NTV–called Georgia the aggressor and said the Russian military had gone to the aid of embattled Ossetians to prevent ethnic cleansing.  ”Russian state television coverage of the conflict was characterized by the vilification of Georgia and the portrayal of Russia as the party of moral righteousness,” said Masha Lipman, media analyst for the Carnegie Moscow Center, a research and policy organization.

Oleg Panfilov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations, a press advocacy group, also called Russian television coverage one-sided. “Television never explained the lead-up to the conflict, its roots, its escalation, the two weeks that led up to the events of August 7,” he said. “There was outright wrong information, too.” Broadcasters misstated casualties and misrepresented troop activities, he noted, in ways that furthered the government’s position.

“Both sides took part in the propaganda,” said Zviad Pochkhua, editor of the Tbilisi-based newspaper The Financial. He and Kakulia of Internews noted that Russian troops had barred Georgian journalists from entering conflict areas, which contributed to one-sided coverage.

“Because they did not have access to the conflict zone, [Georgian] national channels carried translations of international broadcasts,” Kakulia said. “When those broadcasts contained criticism of the Georgian side, however, the segments were not translated.”

In the months leading up to the fighting, national television in each country amplified the growing mistrust. Russian television “vilified and mocked Saakashvili,” but failed to explore reports of interethnic violence in the region that would have been crucial to viewers’ understanding of the issues, Panfilov said. Instead, he noted, Russian television spent time on trivial matters such as Saakashvili’s “chewing his tie when nervous.” In Georgia, Saakashvili’s increasingly assertive efforts to reunite Georgia with the disputed region were unchallenged by television broadcasters.

In both Russia and Georgia, public opinion is shaped largely by national television. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s led to a steep decline in the influence wielded by print media. Publications, having lost state subsidies, scrambled to sustain themselves through subscriptions, newsstand sales, and advertising. In the economically tough times of the transitional years, when many citizens had to choose between buying bread and buying a newspaper, the choice was unsurprising. Television was free.

Almost two decades later, television continues to be the predominant source of information. In Russia, popular newspapers measure circulation in the hundreds of thousands. The national edition of the twice-weekly independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reaches about 170,000, for example, while the generally pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda has a circulation of 660,000, according to a 2008 BBC report. The newsweekly Argumenty i Fakty reports circulation of 2.7 million, the BBC said. By contrast, Channel One, the highest-rated national station, reaches more than 98 percent of Russia’s 142 million people, according to the station. Reliable newspaper circulation figures are less available in Georgia, although the popular Kviris Palitra reports a weekly circulation of 50,000, according to online reports. That number is eclipsed by Rustavi 2, the most popular national channel, which reaches 85 percent of Georgia’s population of 4.6 million, according to station figures.

Internet penetration remains low in both countries–about 18 percent in Russia and 7 percent in Georgia, according to the 2008 Media Sustainability Index, a study by the nonprofit research group International Research and Exchanges Board.

The stories of Russia’s NTV and Georgia’s Rustavi 2 illustrate creeping government control over television. Neither station responded to CPJ’s requests for comment for this report. Once aggressive and influential broadcasters, the stations were effectively taken over by the state through government-controlled interests or administration allies.

“The NTV takeover was sophisticated, and it happened in the very beginning of Putin’s tenure when people hadn’t yet realized his true stripes as a political leader,” said Robert Coalson, an analyst with the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). “It was indicative of the way politicians of his type act–they go after the media first, then they control the narrative.”

NTV was born in the early days of post-Soviet Russia. A mutual venture of state television executive Igor Malashenko, anchor Yevgeny Kiselyov, and theater-director-turned-banker Vladimir Gusinsky, the station became popular for its critical stances, live reporting, and informed analysis. Russia’s two other main national television stations–Ostankino (later known as ORT and now as Channel One) and RTR (now Rossiya)–remained under state control after the Soviet Union dissolved. NTV defied the dreariness of post-Soviet television and, more than occasionally, defied leadership itself.

NTV’s impact was not lost on the Kremlin. It was NTV that turned public opinion overwhelmingly against the first Chechen war, launched in 1994 by President Boris Yeltsin to quell an insurgency in the southern republic. As anchors on the two state channels read scripted, impersonal accounts of Russian military action, NTV’s young correspondents offered live and often-disturbing images from Grozny, risking their own lives and shocking the public with the realities of the war. The power of NTV was demonstrated anew when the station took upon itself the task of helping Yeltsin win re-election in 1996. Station managers devoted overwhelmingly positive coverage to the incumbent while smearing his main rival, communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. Caught in the middle, NTV’s journalists realized they were being manipulated, but played along to prevent a return of the old regime, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser noted in their 2005 book Kremlin Rising. Yeltsin, whose popularity had plunged because of the war, ended up winning the vote.

But the power NTV exhibited in the mid-1990s would eventually lead to its demise as an independent voice.

The Kremlin rewarded Gusinsky by investing millions in his company, Media-Most, through the state-controlled natural gas company Gazprom. These investments made in the late 1990s, according to Baker and Glasser, would eventually come with demands: NTV was expected to build a favorable public image of Yeltsin’s chosen successor, Putin.

NTV management refused to go along. Four days after Putin’s May 7, 2000, inauguration, camouflage-garbed agents armed with machine guns raided Media-Most headquarters. The Federal Security Service–which Putin once headed–said the search was related to financial irregularities. The raid was followed by the imprisonment of Gusinsky on fraud and corruption charges. After making a deal in July 2000 to hand over NTV and other business assets to Gazprom in exchange for his release, he left Russia and never returned. Alfred R. Kokh, a one-time business rival of Gusinsky, was installed as general director of Gazprom-Media.

An extraordinary standoff in April 2001 dealt the final blow to the station’s independence. On April 3, Gazprom installed a new news director–Kokh’s business partner, a 34-year-old Russian-American banker named Boris Jordan. NTV staff refused to recognize the new management; journalists locked themselves inside the station and aired reports on the takeover. Finally, after 11 days, security forces raided the premises and took NTV off the air. More than 40 staffers resigned, including 10 journalists and five news anchors, according to CPJ research.

With an independent NTV gone, no national television channel has covered the ongoing second war in Chechnya; the conflict is largely forgotten by the same public that pressured the Russian government to end the first war. With government interests running the three main national stations, the Kremlin has maintained steady, behind-the-scenes influence on coverage.

Writing in Russian Newsweek in August, Mikhail Fishman and Konstantin Gaaze described regular contact between Kremlin officials and television managers to determine the on-air agenda. “Over the phone,” Fishman and Gaaze wrote, “the Kremlin managers construct the news picture for the day.”

“The largest national television channels are tightly controlled by the Kremlin,” added Lipman of Carnegie Moscow. “They are thoroughly and skillfully managed by a joint effort of top television managers and Kremlin aides. The national television channels are lucrative businesses thanks to entertainment programming, so television managers are happy to serve Kremlin interests and provide ‘appropriate’ political and public affairs coverage, while drawing profits from advertising.”

The NTV story is similar in many respects to that of Georgia’s Rustavi 2, a once influential, independent television station that helped expose President Eduard Shevardnadze’s corrupt regime. Here, too, outspoken staff defied political leaders.

When agents with the National Security Ministry, angered by Rustavi 2’s critical reporting on government corruption, stormed the station in October 2001, allegedly to investigate financial irregularities, the staff locked themselves in and broadcast the standoff live. Unlike the NTV case, throngs of Rustavi 2 supporters arrived at the building to protest the raid and caused the agents to back off. The failed attempt to rein in the channel was the beginning of the end of the Shevardnadze rule.

Over the next two years, Rustavi 2 gained additional influence and public support with its persistently critical commentary and investigative reporting. Rustavi 2’s broadcasts mobilized public outcry against the Shevardnadze government, leading to the peaceful uprising known as the Rose Revolution. In November 2003, Shevardnadze was out.

But just as NTV’s power had sealed the station’s fate, so too had Rustavi 2’s influence made it a target.

When the new, Western-oriented government led by Saakashvili, a 36-year-old, U.S-educated lawyer, took power in January 2004, journalists hoped it would usher in a progressive era in which press freedom and human rights would thrive. Saakashvili and his allies enjoyed a months-long honeymoon with the press. Rustavi 2 was particularly close to the administration, cheering rather than scrutinizing its activities. The station canceled the political talk show “Night Courier” a month after Saakashvili’s election. Amid speculation of government pressure on media executives, other national channels also canceled popular political shows.

By summer 2004, Rustavi 2 owner Erosi Kitsmarishvili had quietly sold the channel after then-Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania denounced the station for covering corruption allegations involving one of his relatives. The new principal owner was Kibar Khalvashi, a powerful businessman with ties to the defense minister at the time, Irakli Okruashvili. It was only in November 2008 that Kitsmarishvili offered an explanation for the sale. He told a news conference in Tbilisi that authorities had effectively “seized” the station through official pressure, and he vowed to file a lawsuit against Saakashvili. The president did not respond to the allegation.

The 2004 sale was the first in a series of ownership and personnel changes that would fuel perceptions of government pressure and eventually strip Rustavi 2 of its role as a news leader. In January 2006, Khalvashi struck a deal with David Bezhuashvili, a Saakashvili ally and member of parliament, to merge media holdings. The new company joined Rustavi 2 with Bezhuashvili’s national station, Mze. The deal appeared to embolden the government as well.

In July 2006, Rustavi 2 anchor Eka Khoperia abruptly resigned during a live broadcast of her political talk show “Free Topic” to protest what she said were government efforts to dictate who the guests should be on her show. “Several senior people in the government would regularly call me and tell me how to prepare upcoming programs,” Khoperia told CPJ at the time. The next month, Rustavi 2 dismissed general director Nickoloz Tabatadze and news chief Tamar Rukhadze. According to the independent daily Rezonansi, Tabatadze had resisted attempts by the president’s chief-of-staff, Giorgi Arveladze, to set editorial policy for Rustavi 2’s news programs. Tabatadze was replaced by Koba Davarashvili, an advertising executive and friend of Arveladze. Six prominent journalists resigned in protest.

In November 2006, after a falling-out with Saakashvili, Khalvashi abruptly sold his shares to a little-known holding company named Geotrans. (The company was apparently renamed GeoMedia later.) By 2008, according to reports, ownership was split among three parties: GeoMedia Group, which was registered in the Marshall Islands and did not disclose its principals; the Georgian Industrial Group, controlled by presidential ally Bezhuashvili; and Rustavi 2’s top executive, Irakli Chikovani.

“We have only the illusion of diversity,” The Financial‘s Pochkhua told CPJ. “The only way to differentiate between the three national television channels now is by the soap operas they transmit.”

The administrations in Tbilisi and Moscow have many significant differences, but they have used notably similar tactics in promoting homogenous, pro-government news coverage. Reporters and managers complain of behind-the-scenes pressure, while ownership has shifted into the hands of administration allies. In each country, the two most outspoken broadcasters have become reliably pro-government.

“The cases of NTV and Rustavi 2 are similar in that both were taken over by their governments. Both governments tried to do it in ways that covered up their true political motivation,” said RFE/RL’s Coalson. “NTV, like Rustavi 2, had compromised its independence before it was destroyed. It was hard to view it as an objective, Western-type model of journalism. … But it was still by far the best thing in the country and a ray of hope before it was brutally quashed.”

Nina Ognianova, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, traveled to Tbilisi in June to explore television ownership and press freedom issues.


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