by Serine Ayriyan and Slade Mendenhall
Viewers of April 18th’s live Q&A session with Vladimir Putin on state news network RT were surprised to find late in the program a seemingly pre-recorded video inquiry from fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The video was the first public appearance by Snowden since he was granted a twelve-month asylum visa by the Russian government last August.
His question, “Does Russia intercept, store, or analyze in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?” was clearly, along with the preceding three and a half hours of material, a pre-screened and planted question designed to allow Putin to craft his administration’s message—in this case to deny that Russia spies on its citizens and, by implication, to condemn the data collection activities of the US government.
Sadly, not only does Putin’s flattering description contradict Russian legal code, but the very spectacle of an American known for his criticism of government overreach appearing on a government-owned news station asking the Russian president one of dozens of planted questions is as definitive a piece of political irony as one could ask for.
Though this brief segment would be noted by American commentators for its heavy-handed staging, such blatant display of state influence in Russian media is nothing unique there. At a time when Russia is testing its boundaries politically and militarily, a simultaneous crackdown on journalistic freedom is underway that suggests Russia’s first priority may be the changing of hearts and minds beyond its borders. Russia’s renewed focus on propaganda is distinctly focused on crafting an image in the international community—and intimidating, ousting, or nationalizing the property of any media outlet that challenges that image.
The power grabs and manipulations that have transpired in the Russian media since the Crimean crisis renders Russian mainstream news coverage, with no exaggerations, pure propaganda. Whether out of agreement or fear, the Russian mainstream media is speaking in harmony to the tune set by the political establishment. What’s worse: the few who have shown the boldness to dissent may not have long to speak up.
Well predating the Crimean ordeal, the Russian government’s current campaign against journalistic freedom began on December 9, 2013, when president Vladimir Putin signed a decree to liquidate preeminent Russian news agency RIA Novosti and popular radio channel Voice of Russia (VOR), merging them with RT into a single news agency under common editorial control, Rossiya Sevodnya. According to official descriptions, the newly established news agency is designed to be outward-facing, devoted to covering Russian politics and social life for a primarily international audience, establishing the filter through which the outside world will view Russia in the twenty-first century.
Charged with this task will be an editor-in-chief appointed by the president of Russia—conservative journalist Dmitry Kiseleyov. Kiseleyov has built a name for himself on anti-liberal rhetoric and shocking statements against Jews and homosexuals—once going so far as to suggest that gays should be prohibited from being organ donors so that no part of them would ever go on living in another person. He has also been singled out under US sanctions in response to the Crimean crisis.
Thus, in a single move, two of Russia’s most distinguished media outlets were transformed into a government agency aimed to reflect the tenor of the Putin administration’s policy and transmit the Kremlin’s message to the world at large. Considering the political context, the government’s methods, and the leadership it has appointed, there can be little doubt that the new agency will be nothing more than the voice of the Russian state.
It can be argued with merit that state influence in the Russian media is nothing new under Putin. Russia’s federal channels have long operated as the public relations arm of the Putin administration with predictable results. Russia’s two largest federal news outlets scarcely produce a news block that fails to mention the president’s recent itinerary and policy initiatives or that bothers to mention the mass protests against election fraud on voting day.
However, even as Putin and the media flaunted their collaboration, there remained a separate group of outspoken liberal news sources that stood firm, bravely criticizing the policies of the Russian government. In a period of resurgent government control over their country’s civil life, Russians were struck by the rarity of voices that were so vibrant, vivid and loud in their criticism of state policies.
Granted: nothing is permitted in an authoritarian country that doesn’t in some way benefit its leaders, and these news outlets were no exception. Though voices of criticism no doubt irritated government officials, they also served a political purpose for Putin’s ilk: every story written in dissent was used as evidence by the administration of Russia’s newfound political openness. It was a media policy made to perfectly compliment an authoritarian government pawning itself off as a democracy. Dissent was a necessary ingredient of the administration’s power, left free in order to be proffered by Russian authorities as evidence of how different they are than their Cold-War-era counterparts.
But if this tenuous ecosystem was possible in times of relatively stable domestic and foreign policy, it is quickly collapsing in the wake of Crimea’s annexation and rising tensions in Ukraine, with Russian news websites and television stations suffering under new the post-Crimea censorship regime.
In the world of Russian broadcast media, television news outlet Dozhd stands alone in many ways: founded in 2010, it has the highest viewership among Russian news stations (particularly in major markets like Moscow and St. Petersburg); it is privately owned; and it proudly markets itself as an independent source for criticism of government officials and their policies. Its taste for outspoken political criticism has attracted many of Russia’s best journalists, and where independence prevailed, quality of coverage followed. Prior to and during the recent Ukrainian crisis, Dozhd devoted itself to covering all opposition protests, large or small, providing airtime to blacklisted opposition leaders and critics of Putin.
Ironically, despite rising tensions and divisive current events in Russia today, it was a discussion of events from 70 years ago that would draw the censors’ ire to Dozhd. On January 27th, Dozhd asked a simple question, but one still deeply personal to most Russians: “Should Leningrad have surrendered to the Nazis to save thousands of lives?”
Though many political leaders have had to ask such questions in times of crisis, and Russia’s military leaders likely asked it at the time, for Dozhd to ask it in 2014 was deemed by government officials to be unpatriotic and an affront to the people of St. Petersburg. The frenzy that followed, led by politicians who already resented Dozhd’s independence and editorial stances, ended with Dozhd being pulled from all cable providers and losing its advertisers. Stripped of all revenue sources, Dozhd is left with only its online operation to maintain its message and has turned to the public for donations to keep its lights on. Should it fail, many Russians fear that the light of journalistic freedom may go out with them.
Sadly, the story does not end with Novosti, VOR, and Dozhd. As the rising popularity of internet media has helped journalists and media consumers to circumvent state control of television airwaves in countries around the world, Russia has been no exception, and recent developments point to a new era of stricter controls on digital media to match the federal crackdown on television and radio.
For a decade, Russia’s Lenta.ru has stood as a prime example of a liberal publication left free to dissent in order to maintain the appearance of a culture of open criticism. Entering 2014, its editors no doubt expected the same political forces that had granted them safe passage for years to maintain. Unfortunately for Lenta, an unforeseen rift in Ukraine and a spike in its own popularity would undo all of that.
From January to February 2014, Lenta’s readership skyrocketed, growing by 37 per cent, with monthly unique visitors to its site reaching 20 million. One of the most (if not the most) rapidly growing media services in Russia, it distinguished itself by a single quality: a willingness to embrace criticism and the free expression of dissenting views.
The recent unrest in Ukraine would end that. The situation in Crimea was escalating from a nuisance to a crisis, and Lenta’s offering of balanced news coverage threatened to undermine the legitimacy and popularity of Putin’s actions in the eyes of the Russian people.
Lulled for years into the belief that freedom of expression was on the rise in their country, Russia’s media world was shocked in early March to learn of the overnight ouster of Lenta’s editor-in-chief, Galina Timchenko, who had helmed Lenta for a decade and led the publication to its current success, and her replacement by Alexey Goreslavsky—better known for his close ties with Kremlin than for any remarkable skill as a journalist or editor.
Unsatisfied with the nationalization of two major news outlets in December, the shutdown of a major broadcast news service, and the ousting of a dissenting internet publication’s editor-in-chief, federal internet censorship agency Roskomnadzor began shutting down sites such as Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, and EJ.ru that offered criticism of Russia’s Ukraine policy. New legislation provided it the power to block any webpage publishing material deemed “unfavourable” by censors. Once blocked, the sites remain offline until their editors agree to remove all content Roskomnadzor deems unfit for publication.
In an era when social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter have become intertwined with political dissidence and activism, Russia seems intent upon driving political discussion out of conventional broadcast, print, and digital media. Whether Russian youth, journalists, and opposition politicians will be forced to go the way of their global counterparts and adopt new methods of disseminating their message only time will tell, but if so it will be because the Russian leadership, too intolerant of criticism, failed to appreciate the value of free speech as a pressure release valve that can have dangerous consequences if tampered with. If a clear lesson can be drawn from the cases of Dozhd and Lenta it is that when they do start talking, an audience will be listening.
Serine Ayriyan is a journalist working in issues of media and conflict. She writes regularly for The Positive and holds degrees from the London School of Economics and the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. She reported from Moscow. Slade Mendenhall wrote from Atlanta, Georgia.