In the aftermath of the winter oppositional protest wave, state pressure on independent Russian media intensifies. In recent months a whole set of prominent journalists and media managers have left a number of independent media outlets – officially due to financial reasons, but many experts claim it is due to rising political crackdown.
Online media and blogs, largely unregulated until recently, might also come under attack soon – due to notorious legal acts on Internet black list, slander and libel, passed through by the parliament in June and July.
The vast majority of all analysis available on Russian media market until December 2011 had a tendency to divide it into a more government-controlled TV and more independent print and online publications. This divide led to yet another, perhaps bigger and more significant, social divide – those getting their information and forming their picture of the world from television news coverage and those preferring online sources. The most ‘catastrophic’ situation was (and still now is) to be found in regional and local media – up till 85% of which are either owned or directly financed by local governments or large regional companies – with the latter dictating the rules, with only a few exceptions in some regions in sights.
Yet, with TV remaining the most powerful media (according to various estimations 70% to 80% of the country’s population still name it news source number one), the situation seemed to be safe and stable for many years. Media analysts within Russia claimed that most of independent media (a few print, online and broadcasting media houses) were writing/telling/broadcasting for the same ‘golden million’ of readers/viewers, concentrated pretty much around Moscow, St. Petersburg and other big cities with the population above one million people.
Even with most decision-makers in public administration and business still preferring independent media themselves the outright critical position of such media was considered to be ‘not-dangerous’, at least in terms of provoking mass public protests or influencing the results of presidential and parliamentary elections – since most of pro-Kremlin voters were not reading them anyway. So that, for example, even when a new corruption scandal was revealed and confirmed – either by a prominent blogger (like Alexei Navalny http://navalny-en.livejournal.com/) or by a media house – there followed no reaction. There might have been a heated discussion for a few weeks or even months – in the Internet mostly – but no feedback followed.
This situation changed drastically in December 2011. What took dozens of thousands of ‘angry citizens’ or the ‘new creative class’ onto the streets of Moscow and other big cities of Russia was the discontent with the failing and corrupted political system, serving the interest of oil and gas elites, closely linked with the current political administration. These people got their information and were inspired with exactly this online/print media and social networks (Facebook and Twitter leading the way). No wonder that it were mostly people from media and culture that became the leaders of this protest movement. Though, a ‘leader’ might be a wrong word here.
Russian winter ‘white’ protest of December-May 2011/2012 had a specific feature of being in a way led by no one in particular – proving it to be a real network-sourced inspired process, of thousands of individuals unlikely to be form a “mass” striving to find its leader, but rather looking for “effective managers” running the “service state”. As a result audiences for all independent/oppositional media rockets – a case in point is an online/cable/satellite TV Channel Dozhd (TV Rain http://tvrain.ru/) whose audience grew in five times just during the first four days of December protests. Other online resources followed.
Such activity was not left to be unnoticed. It took, however, a few months and one presidential election for reaction to come onto force. The pressure began from various sides: from legal cases against ordinary opposition activists (charged with police assaults, 13 of them are still in custody) and a notorious punk-art-band Pussy Riot (who performed and danced in Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral while singing “Virgin Mary, drive Putin away” – a few weeks before Vladimir Putin coming back to presidency), who’s already spent 5 months in custody.
Further crackdown also came from the Parliament side – just in the last couple of months before its summer break Russian deputies (elected, as many independent observers claimed, with a number of violations and falsifications) have passed a number of ambiguous legal acts, including the one obliging all NGOs getting foreign aid and engaged in political/civil right activities to be registered as ‘foreign agents’, tougher acts on slander and libel (which some claim may be used again independent investigative bloggers) and the so called Internet black list. Even the Russian Wikipedia held in July a 24-hour protest action with temporary closure against the ‘Law of Information’. Many experts said the law is likely to establish censorship on the Internet, leading to a situation of online-content control similar to that in China.
The pressure on independent media is also increasing – mostly through business mechanisms. A few media managers (including the CEO) and editors left Kommersant holding (www.kommersant.ru), followed by a closer of the Kommersant TV, an online television project and the Russian version of the French magazine Citizen K, which in Russia seemed to prefer political and civil stories to those of fashion world, reporting heavily on protest movement. A few other prominent editors, including the one from a Moscow-based weekly Bolshoi Gorod (Big City, www.bg.ru), have also left media houses. The ‘official’ reasons for most of those shake-ups were mostly business-based – either the owners or managers of media were referring to continuing financial losses of media outlets. It is, however, true that media companies keep losing money – still, it’s a global process to be seen all over the world, with Russia not being exception to the rule.
Other journalists from independent online and print media keep confirming in informal conversation this growing pressure – both from the state itself and public or private companies, close to the state. They say that the freedom space keep narrowing down, with investigate journalism, for example, becoming more difficult and sometimes even more dangerous. A recent case in point is Russia’s chief federal investigator Alexander Bastrykin taking one of the editors of Novaya Gazeta http://novayagazeta.ru/ into the forest for a ‘private conversation’, during which Bastrykin threated the journalist, the latter said later. The story became a huge political scandal, resulting in Bastrykin bringing official apologies to the journalist and the newspaper, which both accepted.
It is true that both political and financial conditions for journalistic work in Russia are becoming more difficult now, with many reporters leaving or being forced to leave profession. With the growing concern of information freedom on the Internet, due to the recent legal initiatives, the situation might not look as optimistic now, as it was just half a year ago. Still, it’s true that altogether it’s becoming more and more difficult to control information sources in an information society – once you “squeeze” free thought and opinion out, it reappears somewhere else. And last, but not the least, the unpredictability of further political developments makes it hard to predict what is to happen next. We will see.