Mainstream views on Russian TV
Television remains the most popular media in Russia. According to a survey conducted in September 2008 by the Public Opinion Foundation, "96 percent of Russians watch television and 44 percent use it as a source of news." First Channel and Russia, both state-controlled, are the country's two largest TV channels. Gazprom-owned NTV has the third largest audience.
Originally owned by the media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, NTV quickly established a reputation for its quality analytical reporting on a wide range of political issues, its highly professional team of reporters, as well as its frequent criticism of the government. However, soon after the Russian authorities arrested Gusinsky on embezzlement charges in 2000 (he subsequently fled to Spain) NTV was sold to Gazprom, ostensibly to settle a commercial dispute. It was also restructured, with a large part of its staff leaving in protest against the new policy. As the Committee to Protect Journalists put it in its open letter to Vladimir Putin, the takeover of NTV was "part of a concerted effort to silence media that are critical of [the] government's policies." NTV's takeover was followed by increased government pressure on other, smaller independent TV channels.
Today, the remaining independent TV channels are the smaller-sized Ren TV and St Petersburg's Channel Five. In October 2009, the two companies, citing financial trouble, began negotiations on a possible partnership with the government-funded English-language Russia Today (see below). The move raised concerns among many observers.
Margarita Simonyan, Editor-in-Chief of RT. Photo: ITAR-TASS
In 2005 the Russian government launched Russia Today (RT), an English-language channel targeting foreign audiences: the idea was to counter Western misperceptions by presenting news from a Russian perspective. Headed by the young and ambitious Margarita Simonyan, RT provides round-the-clock English-language broadcasting in over 100 countries. RT was also the first Russian TV channel to embrace YouTube. As of 30 November 2009, it boasted nearly 25,000 subscribers and over 1.5 million views. (By comparison, CNN International's YouTube channel – launched one and a half years earlier – had approximately 12,000 subscribers and 550,000 views.)
Margarita Simonyan, only 25 when she became Editor-in-Chief of RT, has dismissed accusations that the channel is a Kremlin mouthpiece:
"Whatever comes from Russia, especially if it gets government support, is going to be bad, bad propaganda. Is anyone worried that the BBC is getting its funding from people's taxes? Nobody seems worried by that."
RT's coverage of the August 2008 war in South Ossetia, which represented the official Russian version of the events, attracted a particularly large audience on the channel's online Livestation service. It also attracted a barrage of criticism from abroad. Analysing the Russian media's treatment of the conflict, experts from the EU-Russia Centre, an independent European think tank, wrote:
"Russian TV chose the simplest approach available; those in charge of TV broadcasting evidently thought it was the most accessible to popular audiences. They resorted to shock tactics and distasteful images. In news reports the dead bodies of Tskhinvali inhabitants were repeatedly shown. One news programme repeated again and again the same clip of the body of a middle aged Ossetian woman dressed only in her underwear. Did no TV boss feel uncomfortable with this editorial choice? Did no one consider what effect broadcasting that scene had on her relatives?
Television screens showed shattered buildings and terrified Ossetian refugees, images that were accompanied by accounts of Georgian soldiers 'finishing off' the wounded Russian peacekeepers, pouring water into cellars where refugees were hiding, a continual stream of brutality.
There was no information about what was happening behind the fighting, of the negotiations, of the reasons behind the conflict that were being discussed in Georgia or by those in the European Union and the Council of Europe. There was no analysis of events or history — beyond hysterical assertions that the Americans wanted to unleash a Third World War and were behind it all."
Critical voices came from within Russia as well. As Russian TV critic Slava Taroschina wrote on 13 August 2008:
"The propaganda war is accompanied by an information war. Until Sunday night, when Vesti 24 broadcast the emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, we had heard the point of view of only one of the parties to the conflict – namely, our own. This, however, did not prevent Konstantin Syomin [a Russian journalist known for his anti-Western views] to denounce the biased reporting by Western media every time he was on TV. To an extent, it is true. It is perhaps the first time that CNN and BBC are so non-objective. At the same time, there was a CNN reporter who extensively interviewed, in a rather benevolent tone, our high-profile Interior Ministry official Grigoriy Karasin, and the interview was then happily cited by our news channels. But our own channels have not yet presented any coherent opinion about the Tskhinvali tragedy from the Georgian perspective."
 IREX, Media Sustainability Index 2009, Chapter "Russia," p. 189.
 Committee to Protect Journalists, "State takeover of news outlets threatens press freedom," 30 April 2001.
 Fred Weir, "Russia's Last Independent Stations to Move into Kremlin-Owned Studios," Christian Science Monitor, 23 October 2009.
 Livestation, "Georgia crisis sees surge in demand for live TV over broadband," 20 August 2008.