Raindrops and ripples: how an independent Russian-language channel could radiate Estonian soft power (1)

(Sergiu Bacioiu)
Stuart Garlick
12/11/2014 3:55 PM
Category: Opinion

Throw a pebble into the middle of a lake, and to begin with, it looks a bit pathetic - a tiny plop on the surface, and it is gone. But further observation shows ripples flowing throuh the whole lake, interrupting the calm all around.

When I heard ERR was going to launch a Russian-language TV channel, the same skepticism went through my head as did with many other people. How was the Estonian public broadcaster going to make best use of a TV channel aimed at a community that prefers TV broadcast from Moscow? Wouldn't it cost huge sums, without appreciable gain, to broadcast programming in Russian that almost no one would watch?

The thing is, it doesn't need to be like that. Why does any news source operate? Information, particularly in the tense political climate we have, is king. Russia at the moment supplies much of the news broadcasting viewed by Russian-speakers in Estonia. This is not to criticize anyone's choice of TV channel. It is human nature to stick with the information that makes us feel comfortable, and that confirms our existing beliefs. But there is a consensus in Russia of how the news should be reported, and very few go against that consensus.

TV Rain (Dozhd), calling itself "The Optimistic Channel", is one that tries, but against seemingly mounting odds, with rumors of a campaign of intimidation against people working for the station, like Ksenia Batanova, and a dwindling audience thanks to alleged Kremlin-influenced cancellations of cable networks' agreements with the channel. As TV Rain's influence declines, liberal Russian-speakers in Estonia look in vain for another news source in their language that gives any view except for the Russian government line. TV Rain has done a fantastic job on relatively tiny resources. ERR in Russian needs to look at the same model. ERR cannot easily help give another view to Russians seeking one within Russia, but in Estonia and other countries with a Russian-speaking community, who may view online broadcasts, it is a different matter.

For examples of how a reporting consensus in a language can be broken by well-researched, quality journalism, just look at Al-Jazeera English, owned by the Qatari government and headquartered in Doha. When Al-Jazeera English was launched, there was widespread skepticism. This was mostly a result of its perceived support, or at least impartiality, towards groups connected to Al-Quaeda after the 9/11 attacks. Al-Jazeera continues to have a bad press in the United States, where it has struggled to get a foothold on major cable networks.

However in the UK, which since the US action in Iraq and Afghanistan has been much less pro-war than across the Atlantic, the reaction was different. The BBC, traditionally viewed (perhaps naively) as an unbiased news source, seemed in the eyes of many to have been neutered by the Hutton Inquiry, which centered around the claims by reporter Andrew Gilligan that the Labour government had "sexed up" a dossier giving the case for war in Iraq. There was a public demand in the UK, post-Iraq, for another voice, giving distinct views to allow liberal households in Britain to reach a more balanced view on the news.

Of course there have been examples of political interference at Al-Jazeera - the rhetoric which supported the Arab Spring has been toned down as Qatar seeks to realign itself internationally, and the rioting and protests in Bahrain during 2011 were severely under-reported. Just as there is no hospital without germs, it is inconceivable that we will ever see a perfect news service, anywhere in the world. Reporting can only aim to be as fair and balanced as possible, but everyone is conditioned by the place where they were born or have settled.

Critics of ERR's wish to open a Russian-language TV channel fall into several camps. Practical skeptics insist the viewing figures will be low. That's as maybe, but influence is not counted in numbers, but in who watches. It's a fact that the liberal intelligentsia consumes more news than any other social group in any country. ERR's Russian-language TV should target people who are already open to receiving information from multiple news sources, as they are more likely to be influencers of others, through word of mouth. Social media are also vital. The term "viewer" no longer just means someone sat in front of a program on the TV. It means someone who may watch a news report on YouTube. ERR should encourage this by packaging all news for video-sharing sites, and promoting it on VKontakte.

Some say that ERR will just not produce programs that Russian-speakers will want to watch. Vira Konyk, the head of the Ukrainians in Estonia non-governmental organization, is one of the people who feels skeptical of any Russian channel's eventual impact. "If ETV is about to run this Russian channel, it won't have a major influence on Russians - they will still prefer to watch Russian media. Maybe it won't have any effect until we see changes in Russia. It's a very unique condition Russia is going through now, very similar to the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s, for example in Germany, [when] people were very obsessed by the leader."

Konyk's proposed solution starts with junior education. "They should focus more on younger generations; there should be mixed kindergartens with Russians and Estonians, so people learn to be more tolerant, and so people grow up more in the Estonian way than in the Russian way. Government should be doing more, with the focus on integration. However it's very complicated to do, because, for example, with mixed kindergartens, some Russians would feel discriminated-against, and if Russia sees things like that, Russia starts talking about 'protecting Russians abroad'."

To mitigate these feelings of discrimination, media could still be useful. Market research into the Russian-speaking community's tastes and preferences needs to be thorough. Programs may have to be significantly different to the offering for Estonian-speaking viewers. Baltic correspondents for Russian networks should be approached, and offered incentives to switch. Latvia is currently accommodating the Russian "Meduza" website after they ran a story that got their Editor-in-Chief fired . There must be disaffected Russian journalists who would move to Estonia.

There will need to be a new and radical emphasis on making shows that can easily be viewed, shared and summarized, on-demand and on any device. Estonia's allies could offer assistance - possibly Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty would see the shared purpose of ERR in Russian, and could offer free help in setting up a credible and powerful online service with a strong social and participation element. This cannot just be the reading of a script - Estonia's news in Russian should allow for the audience to write in, ask questions and make statements of their own.

Al-Jazeera is but one example of a small country - Qatar, in that case - using media as a soft-power influencer in other states. CCTV of China operate an English service, as do many other news sources. Estonia is seeking to promote its message to not only Russian-speakers in Estonia, but in central and eastern Europe and possibly even Russia. Estonia cannot do that without broadcast news in the Russian language. This does not dent the national identity of Estonia, or erode the position of Estonian as the one national language.

Sometimes a war can be won through brute force - but in the case of a media war, such as we have today, Estonia needs to win over new supporters the way it always has - through soft power, that pebble on the lake that causes ripples outward.

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