Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis:   Volume 22, No. 3  (Summer 2014)

The East West Church &  Ministry Report has issued a special theme edition examining the impact of the current Ukrainian crisis on the church and ministries in Ukraine and Russia.

This theme issue is now available in pdf format in English,  Russian, and Ukrainian.

Read more about the East West Church & Ministry Report  in EnglishRussian, or Ukrainian 

Christian Mass Media in Russia: Under State Assault

Dmitry Vatulya

Religious mass media in Russia is very young – some 15 to 16 years. But in this early stage of its development, it faces extremely hard times from every possible direction. The cause of most of the trouble is state policy, especially in the area of electronic broadcasting. While Kremlin restrictions on print media are well-known, free, independent religious radio and TV stations are even more difficult to sustain. As program and on-site manager of a Christian satellite radio station for the past six years, I have had to face a variety of problems, all stemming from station relationships with government officials. Authorities do not want Christian, especially Protestant, channels, which the state considers suspect. Increasingly, the government sees Protestants as sectarian and a threat to state security.

Missed Opportunities

In the early 1990s most Protestants missed the opportunity to step through wide-open doors to religious broadcasting. Some of those who applied for licenses during that short period of time still exist. After that, especially under Putin, conditions have become much harder for Christian broadcasters. No more than a half dozen Christian radio stations exist in the huge land of Russia and not a single licensed Protestant TV channel. Those who do produce Christian television programs are either located outside Russia (for example, Channel New Life [CNL] that broadcasts from Kazakhstan via satellite), represent official Orthodox Church doctrine, or have small, unlicensed satellite operations that are hard for officials to trace (for example, TBN, the charismatic TV channel in St. Petersburg). Russia has only two Christian FM radio stations: New Life Radio in Magadan and MCC Radio in Vladikavkaz. The Magadan station struggled unsuccessfully to renew its license for over a year and is not currently broadcasting. Its future is unclear.

Some Christian programming is broadcast on middle wave range stations, but its poor audio quality attracts a small audience (mostly the elderly) and is not commercially viable. Many large Christian recording studios previously paid to place short programs of up to 30 minutes on secular radio stations. The gospel was even aired on federal government radio channels that reached into every Russian home (Radio Rossiya and Mayak), but between 2003 and 2006 managers of these government stations eliminated all Protestant programming by outright refusals or by pricing air time out of reach.

Official and Unofficial Obstacles

The Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom to proclaim religious beliefs. And, according to the law, the airwaves are open to every religious group. But reality is quite another story. All decisions to disallow religious broadcasting are unofficial, frequently by means of the licensing process. The authorities can and do make applications by religious groups nearly impossible. The number of documents required and the sums to be paid discourage many groups from even applying. The preparatory stage can take two to four years. Even if all necessary documents are obtained from all governmental offices, submitted applications may be subjected to endless delays. Officials may not respond for months. And when they do, the slightest mistake (real or imagined) is sufficient to require resubmission and further delays. Applicants will make the necessary corrections, apply again, and officials will identify new “mistakes,” such that the cycle can continue forever.

Another obstacle religious broadcasters face is competition for an official frequency awarded by the Federal Competition Committee of the Ministry of Culture. This body collects all applications for a particular frequency, sets the price based on its commercial value, and determines that all applicants have sufficient funds in their bank accounts. Then on a fixed date the committee hears oral presentations of no more than five minutes by each applicant explaining why a certain city needs this particular station. In the end, the committee never votes to license Christian broadcasters.

State Fears

The government does not want to give access to mass media to groups that can promote what it considers to be extreme religious ideas. The state guards itself. Even Orthodox broadcasters complain that the state limits their access to airwaves. Part of the state mentality derives from its Soviet heritage characterized by tremendous efforts and expenditures to block all shortwave religious broadcasting.

Money and Politics

People have high expectations these days. They want their food to be delicious and their clothes comfortable. They want their cars fast and silent. They watch DVD movies and listen to digital audio music soundtracks. Young people listen to FM radio, watch satellite TV, and depend on the Internet and cell phones. They want everything to be of the highest quality. If Christians want to reach this demanding audience, the church must develop FM and satellite radio and television which provide the best quality and the easiest access. Here Christian broadcasters face great resistance from the state, because FM radio is such a powerful way to influence people’s lives. The state’s interest is clear: it is commercial and political. The state is unlikely to permit religious broadcasting on FM frequencies because of their monitory value and because FM is such a powerful tool in swaying public opinion. Here politics reigns.

Official and Unofficial Obstacles

The Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom to proclaim religious beliefs. And, according to the law, the airwaves are open

Alternative Delivery

Despite the obstacles, ways can be found to use the modern technology of electronic broadcasting (radio, television, and the Internet) to reach millions of people.

Christian Mass Media

Christians just need to be creative and innovative. Alternative means of distribution do exist. Internet gives many options for distribution. Internet radio does not require a license, it is impossible to control, and broadcasting via the Internet can originate from any country in the world. Satellite distribution is another powerful alternative. A segment of satellite space can be rented and can be used to broadcast directly to homes that are beyond Russian state control. The number of homes equipped with satellite dishes and receivers is growing rapidly.

Centralized Christian broadcasting operations have an advantage in this environment. For instance, New Life Radio (NLR), with its main studio in Moscow, uplinks to a satellite from which many studios take its signal and distribute it in a variety of ways: some through local FM stations, some through a local Internet network, using a DSL Internet line and a small computer. New Life Radio is not even aware of all the means of distribution of its programs through Internet feeds. Listener responses to NLR programs come from diverse Russian-speaking territories: Novosibirsk, Norilsk, Karelia, Volgodonsk, and Yalta.

Even with state oppression, which grows ever stronger, a variety of creative ways still exist to proclaim the gospel using electronic mass media. Christians just need to be devout, optimistic, positive, and inventive. 

Dmitry Vatulya is station manager and program director for New Life Radio satellite operations, Moscow, Russia.