Analysis

Whither Russia’s free media?

Recent developments suggest that the Kremlin may once again be leaning on Russia’s media outlets in order to restrict freedom of expression. Matthew Luxmoore asks whether the recent withdrawal of support from Dozhd is part of a trend.

Optimistic no more.

Optimistic no more.

Against the backdrop of policies ostensibly orchestrated to improve Russia’s political image before the Winter Olympics in Sochi – including the release of punk-rockers Pussy Riot and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky – several developments have taken place which suggest a reverse trend.

One which has received relatively little coverage in Western media is the affair surrounding the leading opposition TV channel, “Dozhd” (meaning “rain”). A poll held by Dozhd on the eve of the ninetieth anniversary of the Siege of Leningrad last month asked viewers whether the city – now St. Petersburg – should have been surrendered to the invading Nazi forces in order to save the lives of its citizens. The poll was taken down shortly after publication on the channel’s website – but the damage had already been done. An uproar ensued among political officials in Russia, with some calling for the channel to be investigated on grounds of extremism and others, including President Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, accusing its directors of crossing a “moral red line” by publishing the content.

In the days that followed, Russia’s major satellite providers announced one by one that they were pulling the channel from their subscription packages. A major blow was dealt when Trikolor TV, Russia’s biggest provider, followed suit. According to Dozhd’s director, Trikolor’s decision left the channel with 15% of the viewership it had enjoyed prior to the poll’s publication.

An “unauthorised” demonstration in Moscow on Saturday in support of the TV station, with participants holding umbrellas as a symbol of solidarity, resulted in the arrest of around 40 activists. On Tuesday, respected Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov published an open letter to President Putin in defence of the TV station, calling it a “national asset, an exception to all rules” and attributing to its youthful spirit a mistake that is “typical of youth”.

What does the Dozhd affair mean for Russia’s media landscape more broadly? Should this be seen as another turn of the screw in a campaign to suppress objective reporting by a regime working to safeguard its own hold on power by monopolising public opinion?

The incident certainly seems to fit an emerging pattern. In February 2012 Echo Moskvy, a liberal radio station once under Putin’s patronage, publicly underwent a directorial reshuffle ordered by majority-stakeholder and state-run company Gazprom-Media, apparently aimed at curtailing the impartiality of its coverage. In December last year Putin announced the liquidation of Ria Novosti, a news agency known for being the only state-run media outlet to cover politically sensitive issues, and the creation of Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), an agency aimed at advertising Russian politics and society abroad. The new company will be headed by Dmitry Kiselev, a veteran conservative TV presenter known for his anti-Western views.

Since its launch in 2010 with the backing of then-President Dmitry Medvedev, Dozhd has been giving a voice to the nascent opposition movement and actively covered the 2011 anti-government protests. In November it published a report by leading opposition activist Alexei Navalny which implicated government officials in the acquisition of country mansions far beyond the reach of their officially declared salaries.

In a press conference following Trikolor TV’s announcement, Dozhd’s management made clear its belief that the poll was used as a pretext to conclude an ongoing political campaign aimed at silencing the channel. Owner Alexander Vinokurov said “the aim is to say they didn’t shut the channel down while doing precisely that.”

Dozhd’s director, Natalya Sindeeva, has vowed to keep the channel going. Even if the project can remain financially viable despite the massive loss of advertising revenue, it seems clear that Dozhd’s ability to impact public opinion by confronting government policy and offering an alternative take on events has been substantially restricted.

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