Putin Is Losing the Battle to Restrain Online Media

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Photographers take pictures of riot police detaining a man during a protest in St. Petersburg, against a court verdict in Kirov sentencing Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to five years in jail, July 18, 2013. Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters

Many Russian journalists have become experts in black humor. They have to be if one of their goals is to remain sane. One reporter at a state-owned Russian newspaper joked privately with friends that they would have to scribble the “true story” in milk between the lines of ink, the way underground messages from exiles were conveyed back to Russia in tsarist times by the future father of the Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin.

Press freedom has taken a giant step backward since the heady days after Communism’s collapse, when Russian editors welcomed independent ideas and valued professional reporting. It has become difficult to remain committed to decent journalism without risking your job and your family’s welfare. In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, dissidents invented the word samizdat to describe their clandestine scribblings. Now a new generation of dissidents is starting projects discreetly online, or going abroad to reach Russians from outside the country’s borders.

No wonder. Most journalists in Russia live in fear of the authorities firing an editor or reporter for publishing something disparaging. For Russkaya Planeta, an online media outlet covering regional news, that day came on November 27 when the channel’s main investor fired the editor-in-chief, Pavel Pryanikov, after a report was aired about the abductions of Tatars in Russian-annexed Crimea.

Many journalists have created independent multimedia websites, both in Russia and abroad. Blogs have popped up with anonymous sponsors. “If the Kremlin shuts down five media outlets, 10 will appear online,” says Timur Olevsky, who covers the war in Ukraine for Dozhd TV, an independent channel struggling to survive on viewers’ donations. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists honored Dozhd’s editor-in-chief, Mikhail Zygar, with the International Press Freedom Award for defiance of imprisonment, repression and censorship.

It cost reporter Oleg Kashin just $40 to launch his Kashinguru media project last spring—the monthly fee for the domain and hosting services required for the website. By October, half a million readers had visited it.

Two members of the band Pussy Riot who were recently released from prison, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, launched the website Media Zona, a play on the Russian slang word for the gulag (the zone). The site covers news from Russian prisons, human rights violations and overtly political court cases.

It can take just hours to create a new outlet on social networks. Yelena Vasilyeva’s Cargo-200 posted voices of army families searching for loved ones who had disappeared or been illegally deployed to fight in Ukraine. The more pressure the Kremlin puts on journalists, the more the solidarity between them grows.

The case of Lenta, an online newspaper, is instructive. Last march, Ivan Kolpakov was one of 78 reporters who quit their jobs at the high-profile site after a phone call from an investor close to the Kremlin prompted the firing of its editor-in-chief, Galina Timchenko. “I simply could not breathe in that stuffy atmosphere,” said Kolpakov at his new office in Riga, Latvia, where he, Timchenko and a couple of dozen other self-exiled Moscow reporters launched their new outlet, Meduza, in October.

During the war in Ukraine, there has been an unprecedented level of state propaganda in the papers and on the airwaves. The war has divided journalists into those who would compromise with the new hard line and those who chose to quit their jobs or protest censorship in other ways. Two state reporters complained that every other article they wrote was put “on hold” or never published.

On December 29, Russian authorities closed down one of the last independent media outlets, Siberian television channel TV-2. In a final video message to viewers, reporters at the station said they had tried to report the truth despite constant pressure to change their editorial policy.

Often, direct intervention by the Kremlin is not needed. Self-censorship is pervasive and corrosive—editors know what must be done when liberal-minded colleagues, like Timchenko, lose their jobs. The Kremlin has made the general line clear: During this information warfare against the West, journalists have a duty to defend Mother Russia. Lenta realized that the conflict with Ukraine was “a minefield,” Timchenko said, but she nevertheless assigned reporter Ilya Azar to report from both sides of the front line.

Last summer, the Russian parliament introduced a law obliging bloggers with over 3,000 readers to register, which allows the government to review the authors’ personal information. That has not been very effective, according to State Duma Deputy Robert Schlegel, who supports policies to restrain anti-Putin media outlets that are “biased” but says there is no point in banning them online. “Medusa only grows new heads,” he says.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin continues to “cleanse the destructive and anti-Russian journalism,” as pro-Kremlin think tank analyst Yuri Krupnov puts it. When thousands of doctors and nurses demonstrated against Putin’s medical reforms (which included cuts to hospital budgets), the only news sources that published details of the action were online.

Russian modern art expert and blogger Marat Gelman decided to leave the country last spring. His Cultural Alliance project, a network that involved artists from Russian cities in 11 regions, was deemed not sufficiently patriotic. He came under pressure to give it up. “I could not stop writing my blog, it is a part of me,” Gelman says. The editor-in-chief of Kommersant, Mikhail Mikhailin, had to resign after the newspaper published an article about one of the most influential figures in Putin’s circle, Igor Sechin. The piece apparently infuriated Sechin, and so the editor had to go.

Losing a job in such a public way can lead to better things. On the night Pryanikov was fired from the Russkaya Planeta television channel, five of his colleagues quit in solidarity. Most of the staff attended a liquid wake for the “death” of news in Russia. Within hours, Open Russia, a news website launched by formerly imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has become a persistent irritant to Putin from his base in Switzerland, posted on Twitter: “Guys, send over your CVs.”