The call from the secret police came just hours after Daniil Alexandrov committed his thought crime. Alexandrov, editor of St. Petersburg's Daily Sports newspaper, had put a small ad on his Web site for an upcoming protest by an opposition group. By the next morning, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, was on the phone with the paper's owner. "Stop your anti-Russian campaign," the spooks demanded. The ad was yanked.
The moral of the story? "The FSB is watching us all," says a deeply worried Alexandrov. "Watching very closely."
It's no secret that President Vladimir Putin has been tightening the screws on press freedom in Russia for years now. But over recent months, editors, journalists, politicians and human-rights campaigners have started to complain of a far more powerful crackdown of a like not seen since the end of the Soviet Union. The explanation is simple enough: elections for Parliament will be held in December and for the presidency next March, and the Kremlin wants to make sure things go exactly as planned—which means ensuring it can control the public's sources of information. Accordingly, the Kremlin's network of direct and indirect control over the media has grown in scale and sophistication, as has the FSB's monitoring of the Internet. Those who dare defy the party line find themselves under increased scrutiny, harassment and worse.
"I understood from the start of Putin's rule that the Kremlin intended to kill free media in this country," says Igor Yakovenko, head of Russia's Union of Journalists. Now, he says, the Kremlin is close to success. "Putin walked the country away from the idea of an independent media to the model where censorship is the norm, where professional journalists are being replaced by loyal writers of propaganda."
The latest and most effective instrument in the Kremlin's crackdown is a law punishing "extremism." The law was intended to block hate speech—but it is increasingly used instead to target "people who disagree with Putin's regime," says political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky, one of the law's recent victims. Under an amendment passed last year by the Duma and sponsored by the Kremlin, the law now punishes any statement that could "undermine the security of the Russian Federation" and "interfere with the lawful activities of the state." Earlier this month, Piontkovsky, a senior researcher at Moscow's Institute of Systematic Analyses and an activist for the liberal Yabloko party, found himself under criminal investigation after criticizing Kremlin corruption in two recent books. The same week, another analyst, Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of the Panorama think tank, had his computer and papers confiscated after the FSB raided his home. (Pribylovsky's hard drive is currently being analyzed for signs of "extremism.") "This is just the beginning," warns Oleg Pamfilov, head of Moscow's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, citing a large number of cases filed in Vladimir, Khakassia and Altay against Internet bloggers who aired anti-Kremlin opinions. Two journalists have already been jailed this year for "extremist" views after they wrote for Chechen Web sites, and at least 20 more are under investigation. And the law is only going to get stiffer—last month the Duma introduced further amendments increasing the prison term for "activity rousing extremism" to 12 years.
Yet the extremism law is only part of a much wider campaign to tighten the state's control over all media. Independent newspapers have been steadily bought out by the government or loyal businessmen. According to a study by Russia's Union of Journalists, the state and its proxies now own 92 percent of all media—up from 30 percent in 2000. The last major critical newspaper, Kommersant, was bought by Alisher Usmanov, a Kremlin-connected metals magnate, last September. And though Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insists that "censorship is absolutely unacceptable," the tone of Russian press coverage has become (with very few exceptions) slavishly loyal to the government's line.
The mechanisms of control are simple but effective. Stanislav Yeliseyev, editor of "A Week in a Big Country," a weekly magazine show on St. Petersburg's Fifth Channel, explains that he has been given hard guidelines by his bosses about what he can and cannot cover. Bad news from Chechnya is out, as are reports on opposition marches or criticism of Putin or St. Petersburg's governor. "I have to walk between walls of forbidden topics," he says. "And the corridor is getting narrower."
Raf Shakirov, the former editor of the Izvestia newspaper, is painfully aware of the change. In 2004 he was sacked for his hard-hitting coverage of the Beslan hostage tragedy, during which more than 300 people were killed. But today, he says, such a story would not even get aired in the first place.
The Kremlin now keeps personal tabs on Russia's media bosses. Every Friday at lunch, presidential administration deputy chief Vladislav Surkov holds an off-the-record briefing for Russia's top TV producers, with high government officials in attendance. Another meeting for radio and print editors is arranged once or twice a week at the Russian News Agency. "We are given instructions on how to cover, say, the European Union, Kosovo and so on," explains Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of Radio Ekho Moskvy (one of a handful of outlets still allowed to take a critical line because of its small audience). Major media organizations must carefully mirror Putin's opposition to independence for Kosovo, say, or his anger at Estonia (which dared recently to dismantle a statue of a Soviet soldier). Guidelines issued last month by the Russian News Service, a leading private broadcast-news agency, insist that 50 percent of all news should be "positive," and the management introduced "stop lists" of people—largely opposition activists—who were not allowed on the air. Seven journalists quickly quit in protest, but most are having trouble finding new jobs.
Yet unemployment is not the only problem independent journalists now face. Many have fled the country in fear of their lives after the shooting last November of Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading investigative journalist, and the apparent murder of Kommersant journalist Ivan Safronov, who fell to his death from the fifth-floor balcony of his home in March. The Committee to Protect Journalists now rates Russia the third most dangerous place to work, after Iraq and Colombia; according to Pamfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, 14 journalists have fled this year alone. One is Fatima Tlisova, an award-winning former AP reporter in the north Caucasus, who left for the United States after suffering a near-fatal poisoning and being beaten and burned by masked men who told her, "That's to make you a better writer." And Yelena Tregubova, a former Kremlin pool reporter for Kommersant and the author of several gossipy books on Kremlin life, recently requested political asylum in the U.K. after being followed, having her e-mails intercepted and finally being warned by two strangers to "bite your long tongue, because you talk too much."
Strangling the last remnants of the press may well make for a smoother election season, and a painless transfer of power to Putin's chosen successor. But in the long term, warns Radio Ekho Moskvy's Venediktov, the Kremlin's destruction of Russia's independent media is like "mining the field you're going to walk across." Officialdom has eliminated a potent means for getting feedback from the people, he argues, which will send Russia "diving into another era of stagnation." More dangerous, Russia's political class may start to buy its own rosy propaganda—exactly the mistake its Soviet predecessors made.