She predicts a riot

This is an article by Yulia Toal (Malkina).
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Quite some thought was given to the selection of topic and research area for my dissertation.

I wanted to do something that was very current. Something that many people heard about but not many researched on yet. I wanted to look at it from a new perspective and apply my knowledge of public relations as well as acquire new skills. Having come from a Russian background, I wanted to use my cultural and language knowledge to my best advantage.

Yulia Toal (Malkina)

Yulia Toal (Malkina)

At that time everyone seemed to be talking about a scandalous performance of the Russian punk-rock band Pussy Riot in Russia’s most prominent Orthodox cathedral.

The action itself and band’s prosecution and imprisonment have caused a major outbreak of conflicting news and discussions around the globe.

While their supporters appealed to the common sense, human rights and equality, their opponents pointed at the broken ethic and religious beliefs that might have caused public distress.

Both camps strived to present their discourse through the media in the most effective way to influence public views and gain support.

As this case study fitted perfectly with my desired criteria, I decided to do my research on it and find out how Russian media reported the case.

In the literature review I discovered that it was a common view shared by Russian and Western academics and journalists that, despite the Russian law on freedom of speech and freedom of media adopted with other human rights in the new Russian Constitution of 1993, traditional Russian media, such as TV channels and radio stations, were very much under the government’s control  and reported the news in line with government’s agenda.

Anti-Western discourse

It was revealed that the Russian central government allied with the Russian Orthodox Church presented a nationalist, anti-Western discourse to the nation. Orthodoxy is a prominent part of Russian culture with over 40% of Russians having attested themselves as Orthodox and 25% having claimed they were spiritual but not religious. Russians felt sympathy for the church as it had been a casualty of the Communist tyranny.

The Russian media sphere was made up of traditional media and new media. While Russian traditional media outlets, including national television channels Channel One and NTV, were the “indispensible element of the political order” (Lipman 2009 p.10), the new media created a platform for information, mobilisation and agitation of the opposition and dissidents.

The most popular blogging platform LiveJournal enabled Russians to express their opinions and have discussions on various topics including those which could not be brought up by traditional media outlets due to their pro-government agenda.

For my research, I compiled, analysed and compared the news coverage from traditional and new media channels. I took two most popular national television channels Channel One and NTV as traditional media outlets and Pussy Riot’s online journal and Navalny’s online journal as new media outlets.

‘Demons and blasphemers’

I deployed a critical discourse analysis for my research. This aims to demystify discourses and reveal intentions and ideologies (Wodak 2007). Through the media discourse one can manipulate the audience and impose certain views, by appealing to ideologies, feelings and emotions of the discourse recipients. This can be done by stressing or omitting certain themes, choosing either negative or positive words to describe events and actors, and presenting actors in a position of power or inferiority.

Based on the discourse theory and literature review, the following hypotheses were put forward for the research:

  1. The dichotomy “We vs They” would be presented through the central government united with the Russian Orthodox Church in opposition to Pussy Riot and its supporters.
  2. As the Russian central government has access to and influence on traditional mass media and national television channels in particular, various indicators will be found that show the central government in a good light and its opponents in a bad light – in selected television coverage.
  3. As selected channels and profiles in the new media are antagonistic to Russian central government, the indicators will be found there that show the opposition in a good light and the central government in a bad light.

The analysis of the coverage proved all three hypotheses true. The dichotomy “We vs They” was  presented through the central government united with the Russian Orthodox Church and opposed to the Pussy Riot band and its supporters. The discourse of the state-owned television channels Channel One and NTV favoured the Russian central government, the church and state authorities, and demonised Pussy Riot and their supporters.

Channel One portrayed Pussy Riot as demons and blasphemers through the use of negative themes linked to them and the negative words used to describe them:

“The prosecution claims that the guilt of the culprits is proven in full. Furthermore, according to the prosecution, the action in Christ the Saviour Cathedral was not political as the culprits keep insisting, but rather intended to insult the feelings of religious people”. (Channel One, 7 August 2012, 15:09)

Pussy Riot and their supporters did not receive the opportunity to communicate their views via Channel One. Meanwhile the church and the central government had their views communicated and supported by the evidence, such as supporting stories from witnesses and experts:

“They are provocateurs. <…> And it is an obvious part of hysterical harassment of the Orthodox Church which is obvious even to a blind one. The Russian Church is harrassed only because it supports its state”. (Channel One, 02 July 2012, 18:09)

There was no discussion in Channel One’s coverage of whether the stunt had any other reasons behind it rather than attacking religious people and the church.

NTV attempted to present the views of the arrested members of Pussy Riot and their supporters by for example Russian opposition leaders, Western public figures and celebrities. However, the news reports cut them short and ridiculed them, thus making them invalid and putting them in a position of inferiority towards the Russian central government, state authorities and the church.

“Really big popstar guns have got involved into the defence of the punk band Pussy Riot. Madonna has personally expressed her solidarity with the three arrested girls from the punk band upon her arrival to Moscow. Madonna herself has had ambiguous relationships with religion. Priests of different religions around the world regularly criticise the pop-diva for being vulgar and having a scornful attitude towards faith”. (NTV, 7 August 2012, 7:53)

The used themes and words portrayed Pussy Riot in a negative light and linked them to the themes of blasphemy and even terrorism. The central government, the church and state authorities were linked to the positive themes such as mercy and morality, and were described by the positive words such as a “strong power” and the “right decision”.  Based on the aforesaid, it was concluded that the Channel One and NTV national television channels have reported on this controversial topic in line with government’s agenda.

‘No democracy in Russia’

Us and them: semantic field of 'they' in discourse around Pussy Riot

Us and them: semantic field of ‘they’ in discourse around Pussy Riot

The new media outlet LiveJournal provided the platform for the dissident views. Both Pussy Riot and Russian opposition activist Navalny in their discourse demonised the Russian central government, state authorities and the church by referring to them through negative themes and using negative words to describe them, such as “greed for money”, “Satanists” and a “Chief Thief”.

Although the discourse admitted that currently they are in power, the situation should be changed. Pussy Riot suggested an uncontrolled, wild protest and, ultimately, a revolution.

“Currently, there is a small group of people in Russia who seized power in the year of the Millennium and is now changing laws to keep the power and control over the country <…> There is no democracy in Russia. There is just occupation of posts and seizure of power through falsification at the elections”. (Pussy Riot, 28 February 2012)

“It is obvious that Russia lacks a blast that the feminist band Pussy Riot has, which is necessary to develop a protest culture in civil society”. (Pussy Riot, 28 February 2012)

Navalny did not suggest a revolution. In his discourse he pointed out the numerous acts of corruption in the government, state authorities and church, then provided the evidence. By providing a well-reasoned argument Navalny might have aimed to win the audience and establish his superiority over the central government in the new media.

“The sheer scale of routine theft in Gasprom, Rosneft, Transneft, in government contracts, etc., is mind-boggling. But do you see even one of them in a prisoner’s box?
Me neither.  This is all directly connected with those imprisoned during the May 6 case, and all other political prisoners. It concerns each of us who may be imprisoned if we refuse to comply with the Chief Thief’s demand: Shut up and don’t think about your rights”. (Navalny_En, 17 August 2012)

The research proved that while Russian traditional media was under government’s control and reports in line with government’s agenda, the new media enjoyed the pluralism and provided a platform to a variety of views.

Background Information:

Pussy Riot is a Russian female art band formed in 2011 and known for their provocative performances in public places, their radical feminist and left-wing political views. Members of the band are highly critical of the Russian government, the church as a civil institution not a sacred place, and the police.

Alexei Navalny is an influential public figure renown for setting up and heading Russian Opposition Committee in 2012. Until recently after being arrested, Navalny has run a range of corruption-fighting projects such as RosPil, RosYama and RosVybory.

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