Russian TV ignores controversy to put Putin centre stage at Sochi

Friday 7 February 2014, 12:25

Stephen Ennis Stephen Ennis is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring.

President Putin has been heavily involved in the Sochi Games The Winter Olympic Games in Sochi is not only a challenge for Russia's government and athletes but also its main state broadcaster VGTRK, one of whose tasks appears to be to present the event as a personal triumph for President Vladimir Putin.

For VGTRK, the Sochi Games represent a prime opportunity to display what it calls its “information power". The company, which includes the main official TV channel Rossiya 1, is airing 75 hours of Olympic events a day across 12 channels, including in 3D.

There is also plenty of action on another big state-controlled TV station, Channel One. Most of the transmissions will focus on the 98 sporting events to be staged at 11 venues, involving 2,800 athletes from more than 80 countries.

But Russian viewers can also expect to see plenty of Putin. As news coverage of the Games has gone into overdrive in the past few days, the president has been very much centre stage: welcoming members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), geeing up athletes and volunteers, nursing a baby leopard in an animal sanctuary, and lavishing praise on the spanking new transport infrastructure.

Immediately after today’s opening ceremony, Rossiya 1 is set to broadcast a film called The Philosophy of the Soft Way, about the people who have made the Sochi Games possible.

Judging from the trailer aired on 2 February, Putin will loom large as the "person who has assumed responsibility [for the Games] in the eyes of the IOC, the people of this country and most of all in his own eyes".

"It is particularly pleasant for me to see what is happening in Sochi because I chose this place personally," Putin was shown saying. Dressed in black ski gear against the background of a gleaming winter landscape, he went on to recall how he had come to the mountains above the Black Sea resort in 2001, and said: "Let's start from here."

For many observers, including the BBC's Steve Rosenberg, his words evoked thoughts of Tsar Peter the Great selecting the site of his new capital St Petersburg amid the swamplands of northern Russia 300 years earlier.

Russian state TV has of course largely ignored the controversies swirling around the Sochi Games: the exorbitant price tag, allegations of rampant corruption and worldwide protests against the recent law banning the promotion of homosexuality among under-18s.

Such topics have been confined largely to the fringes of the Russian media: blogs and websites, low-circulation newspapers and the country's leading independent radio station Ekho Moskvy.

The niche independent TV station Dozhd appears to be generally steering clear of Olympic controversy. Dozhd's future is in the balance after it was dropped by leading cable and satellite providers over a controversial online poll that appeared to question the expediency of Russian resistance during the siege of Leningrad - one of the most iconic and traumatic experiences of the Soviet people in World War II.

Many observers think the channel is the victim of a politically motivated campaign designed to further strengthen the Kremlin's grip on the TV market. Asked about Dozhd's Olympic coverage at a recent news conference, co-owner Aleksandr Vinokurov said the channel was not planning "anything critical" about the Games.

Russia has been hitting back at some of the Western media criticism of the Sochi Games via its main international broadcaster RT (formerly known as Russia Today). In a report broadcast on 4 February, the state-funded channel's arts and culture reporter Martyn Andrews sought to counter the negative impressions of life for gays in Russia given by programmes such as the BBC's Panorama and Channel 4's Dispatches. Reporting from a bright and bustling gay club near the Sochi seafront, Andrews said the ‘gay issue’ in Russia was "more complicated than it seems".

"While some in the LGBT community say the [gay propaganda] law brought in last year has triggered a new wave of homophobia and violence, others say the situation hasn't changed at all, and the gay subculture in Russia continues to develop and even somewhat flourish," he concluded.

Andrews, who is gay and has lived in Russia for eight years, also debated the subject on Twitter. He said the Dispatches film Hunted, which presents a grim picture of gay people being persecuted in Russia, was "one-sided" and "sensational".

Be that as it may, generally the coverage of the build up to the Sochi Olympics is a textbook example of how, in the words of US academics Robert Orttung and Christopher Walker, the Kremlin has been able to use the media to "prevent independent news and analysis from reaching much of the population".

Other blogs on Russian media by Stephen Ennis

Sochi: A few expert insights on eve of the Olympics

Panorama: Putin’s Games

BBC Sport: Winter Olympics

How do you say ‘Sochi’?

Investigative journalism skills

Sports journalism

The BBC College of Journalism’s Russian language site 

Press freedom at Sochi is more than a distant Olympic dream

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