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Beware pokazukhas and zakazukhas in Russian media

Stephen Ennis

is Russian media analyst for BBC Monitoring.

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"Pokazukha" and "zakazukha" are two tricky-to-translate words that sum up many of the problems of Russian journalism, especially on state-controlled television. They have also been very much to the fore in recent months.

The concept of the "pokazukha", which can be roughly translated as "empty spectacle" or "window-dressing", has a long history. It goes back at least to the days of Catherine the Great, when her favourite, Prince Grigoriy Potemkin, was supposed to have erected facades of villages to hoodwink the monarch or other visiting dignitaries as they passed through the recently conquered territory of Crimea. Hence we get the expression 'Potemkin village', which means roughly the same as pokazukha.

Similar practices go on today. During the recent outbreak of wildfires, internet users in Ryazan Region complained bitterly that officials were wasting time laying new roads before the arrival of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin instead of dealing with the crisis.

In the context of the media, the word "pokazukha" is often applied to crude publicity stunts used to dupe or impress viewers of state-controlled TV. Two examples from this summer were the coverage of Putin putting out fires from an amphibious aircraft and his motor trip through the Far East in a bright yellow Lada Kalina.

The word can also be applied more generally to the way state TV presents a largely idyllic view of Russia, while avoiding subjects that are unpleasant or embarrassing for the leadership, such as people haranguing Putin about the authorities' failure to save their homes from the wildfires and virtually all forms of anti-government protest.

The term "zakazukha" refers to a practice that became widespread in Russia in the 1990s of paying newspapers to publish tendentious articles. These would either praise the paymaster or his political or business associates, or else smear his opponents. For many Russian newspapers, these articles became a significant source of revenue.

The purely mercenary zakazukha is probably not as common today as it was ten years ago, but the practice of using the media to denigrate your political opponents is very much alive.

This summer, state-controlled TV ran several waves of zakazukha-like reports. Most have appeared on NTV, which is owned by the state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.

At the beginning of July, NTV began airing a series of films attacking Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka under the title "Godfather Batka". Batka, which means "dad", is the nickname by which Lukashenka is commonly known among Belarusians. So far three films have appeared in the series. Among other things, they portrayed Lukashenka as a ruthless dictator desperate to hang on to power at all costs and raised questions about the death and disappearance of several of his political opponents. Most analysts think the films signal Moscow's intention not to give its backing to Lukashenka in the Belarusian presidential election set to take place in December.

Another target of NTV's smear machine was Murtaza Rakhimov, the head of the republic of Bashkortostan, which is in Russia's Volga region. A report on the channel's tabloid-style current affairs show Programma Maksimum in June accused the Bashkir authorities of corruption and human rights violations, and raised questions about the fortune amassed by Rakhimov's son, Ural. A couple of weeks later the allegations were repeated almost word for word on state-owned Channel One TV's flagship current affairs show Voskresnoye Vremya. Rakhimov stepped down from his post shortly afterwards.

The latest and most extensive series of zakazukhas has been directed against Moscow mayor Yuriy Luzhkov and his billionaire wife, Yelena Baturina, who is thought to be Russia's richest woman. During the middle of September, NTV was awash with films and reports raising questions about the conflict of interest arising out of the fact that Baturina's firm, Inteko, had benefited from contracts handed out by the Moscow city government and questioning Luzhkov's response to the summer's smog crisis. Official channel Rossiya 1 joined in the offensive with reports focusing on allegations that the mayor had presided over the destruction of Moscow's architectural heritage. It also directed some of its fire at Baturina. A week later, Luzhkov was sacked.

These TV smear campaigns have much in common. First, they have all been directed at figures who until recently had enjoyed a certain level of immunity from criticism in Russia's official media. Secondly, they contained little or nothing that was new. The most damaging accusations against Lukashenka have been familiar to observers of Belarusian affairs for a decade or so. Equally, the allegations about Baturina are common knowledge to most Muscovites.

It is clear, then, that these films and reports were by no means the result of investigative journalism, which effectively disappeared from Russian terrestrial TV soon after the accession to power of Vladimir Putin.

The crude propaganda of these pokazukhas and the zakazukhas has a clear political purpose. It may also, though, have a negative effect on attitudes to journalists. This is certainly the view of Sergey Parkhomenko, a commentator on editorially independent Ekho Moskvy radio. He told his listeners on 17 September that the kinds of tactics used against Luzhkov "once and for all take away trust from a whole class of people, a whole profession, and leave Russian journalists in the position of being despised, of being, if you like, in the position of outcasts, who are deprived of the support of the people and of the most important support - the support of their readers".

Suspicion and antipathy towards journalists may also be one of the reasons for the popularity of the Russian blogosphere, where attempts to foist zakazukhas or pokazukhas on readers almost invariably invite barrages of abuse and ridicule.

Source: BBC Monitoring research 27 September 10.

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