The state of the media and free speech in Russia today is both unique and history repeating. The world should be very concerned. While many decry the Crimean land grab and focus intently on the Eastern Ukraine political unrest and turmoil, they should be looking at the long-term effects of media manipulation taking place both within Russia and emanating from the Kremlin.
I recently spoke with journalists from the Western media camp in Moscow, e.g., NPR, Voice of America, and the Moscow Times. Many meditated on the increasingly myopic Kremlin party line being presented in the Russian press. Some regard the Russian news on the English-speaking Western front, especially RT (formerly Russia Today), as nothing more than disinformation perpetuated to divide and conquer the more open-minded Western audience. In their defense, RT envisions their reporting to be both unbiased–a claim any true journalist would find to be both fanciful and unrealizable–and ranking amongst the world’s finest media outlets.
And amidst all this chatter about truth, honesty and journalistic integrity is a slow but methodic drumbeat quashing any and all opposing view to the Russian state party line. One current, and very visible, target for this state vitriol is Телеканал ДОЖДЬ, aka TV Dozhd. TV Dozhd (Dozhd means rain in English) is an independent television channel which recently broadcast to over 15 million viewers and which may soon be forced off the air using the tried and true methods of intimidation.
TV Rain, which also operates under the moniker of the Optimistic Channel, came under the crosshairs of the Kremlin as early as September of 2011 when then President Dmitry Medvedev unsubscribed to their Twitter feed, ostensibly because they presented opposing and dissenting views and reported on election impropriety.
More recently their main revenue income source, satellite TV provider Tricolor TV, announced it was dropping the channel. The rationale was the negative response to an ill-conceived poll that asked whether Russia should have fought to save Leningrad and lose almost a million people in the process or whether it should have sacrificed it for the good of humanity. While in many lands and at many times this would be a legitimate question to ask in hindsight, perhaps it was not the wisest choice in one in which the media has come under increasingly tighter reins. Being that the poll was presented on the “70th anniversary of the end of the siege of Leningrad” did not help the situation. Many feel it was simply an opportune time for the Kremlin to pressure Tricolor to drop the channel using the pretense of offense so as to avoid a direct and discernable Kremlin link.
Whether the question was fair game, whether journalistic freedom even exists, and where the brave must draw lines in the sand are questions only time will answer. There are few with whom I spoke who really believe this was little more than a pretense to silence, or at the very least caution, a station which presents views from the likes of Pussy Riot and anti-Putin pundits on a regular basis.
Both viewership and revenue have been gutted by the move by Tricolor TV and despite a massive fundraising campaign and cost-cutting, the news for TV Rain just got a whole lot worse: the station has just lost their lease. According to Tikhon Dzyadko, a deputy editor-in-chief and spokesperson for the channel, the landlord received a phone call and was pressured to not renew the lease for the station’s broadcast center in the middle of Moscow not far from the Kremlin.
I asked if the station was willing to try to take all these ‘warnings’ and move toward not being so outwardly critical of the government. Perhaps they could simply not tell certain truths? The response was an unequivocal ‘NYET!’ The station has no intention of being anything less than the bastion of a free and independent press that it sought to be at its start. A valiant statement and honorific mantra, but in a culture when journalists like Anna Politkovskaya are murdered for their outspokenness, it may be more brave than wise.
Masha Lipman, in an earlier February New Yorker magazine posting, likened the heavy-handed governmental response to that of Soviet-era persecution. She and other reporters are currently free to report to an English audience although these voices are being increasingly sidelined within Russian borders. The disciplined and deliberate move toward a single and unified party line has been mostly restricted to the Russian press and toward Russian citizens, but, as history has shown, when all other enemies have been vanquished, eventually they come for you.