Muzzling the Media Defying the Kremlin Crackdown on Press Freedom
Against the backdrop of the bloody conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin is seeking to harness the Russian media and increasingly clamping down on critical voices. But some journalists are refusing to deliver pro-Putin propaganda.
It takes a while to remove an article from 50,000 newspapers after they have already been printed. Seven editors of the Siberian weekly paper Novaya Buryatia spent fully three days on the project, though they were assisted by secretaries and graphic organizers, of removing page 16 from every single copy. Only then could the issue of the free paper, known for its independent editorial stance, be distributed as usual in shops, schools and offices in the province of Buryatia on Lake Baikal.
What triggered this bizarre act of self-censorship on the part of the editor-in-chief was a call from Russia's mighty domestic intelligence service, the FSB. President Vladimir Putin's security services, it seemed, deemed the article a threat to domestic security and to Russia's international reputation.
The article quoted the mother of a certain Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, lamenting the fate of the young tank gunner with Unit 46108, stationed in the provincial capital Ulan-Ude. His commanding officers had sent him to Eastern Ukraine, 5,000 kilometers away. He and his fellow soldiers fought alongside pro-Russian separatists against the forces of the central government based in Kiev. The piece was illustrated with two photos. One was of the soldier laughing, and it had been taken just before his tank exploded. The second showed him in his hospital bed, his body ravaged by severe burns, his mutilated face covered in bandages.
The article and the accompanying images are evidence that the Kremlin is lying when it maintains that no Russian soldiers are fighting in Eastern Ukraine.
A growing number of news outlets are being bullied by similar calls from Putin's secret services. The Russian president has a vested interest in keeping the public in the dark about the war being waged in Eastern Ukraine. He relies on the populace's sustained support for the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, despite the considerable political and economic consequences. For the time being, Russians are still celebrating the "return of Crimea to its native harbor" and the sense that the country is once again a fearsome super power. But although they continue to back pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine, only one in four Russians actually wants a war. The Kremlin therefore does all it can to squelch reports of coffins and injured soldiers returning from Eastern Ukraine, hampering the work of even the most independent media outlets.
The state has already pulled the plug on the popular opposition online television station Dozhd, now only a website, along with a slate of other anti-government regional broadcasters. Russian parliament also forced through a law, effective from January 1, 2016, that limits foreign ownership of Russian media companies to 20 percent stakes. Russia's best business daily Vedomosti used to be a joint venture between the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Finnish publishing group Sanoma. Earlier this year, Sanoma sold its stake.
The Kremlin is also targeting Axel Springer. A subsidiary of the German company publishes the Russian edition of the highly profitable financial magazine Forbes, seen as one of the best and most critical publications in the country. Axel Springer will now have to decide by the end of the year whether it is willing to continue operating as a minority stakeholder or whether it prefers to withdraw from the Russian market altogether.
The Kremlin believes the war in Ukraine calls for a united media on the home front. In late May, another law came into effect that bans the media from reporting on casualties among Russia troops deployed in special operations, classifying them as military secrets. "Journalists are being turned into propagandists, their pens transformed into bayonets," says the Moscow-based media expert Dmitry Kasmin. At an awards ceremony for Russian journalists in March, Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu announced that "information, words, cameras, photos and the Internet have become tools of our armed forces."
This mobilization of the media is proving effective. Although Russia's economic performance is stalling, Putin's approval ratings are at 90 percent.
"Just Doing My Job"
But not everyone is toeing the line. There are still courageous journalists who defy censorship and remain committed to their objective of denouncing regional injustices such as nepotism and corruption.
One of them is 44-year-old Arkady Sarubin. He was the one who went public with the censorship of page 16 of Novaya Buryatia, posting the revelation online. "It was no act of heroism," he says. "I was just doing my job."
To reach the mountain village of Arshan from Moscow, one must spend six hours in a plane and a further four on the road. Sarubin produces his small newspaper out of a small wooden house, halfway between Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border. Arshan has a print run of 3,000, which sounds modest but allows it to reach almost all of the 20,000 residents in the area.
Among the stories that Sarubin and his one staffer brought to light was that of the nouveau riche district head, who was awarding bridge-building contracts to companies in which he used straw men to disguise his stakes. Last fall, he documented how the candidates of two opposition parties were excluded from regional elections. The district leader had him beaten up by two men, one of whom was a former officer with a special unit now in charge of youth work in the local government. "He could have killed me," says Sarubin. "But his job was merely to intimidate me."
His assailants were tried in court and sentenced according to Article 116 of the Russian criminal code, which penalizes battery. "Unfortunately they weren't sentenced according to Article 144 on the Obstruction of the Lawful Professional Activity of Journalists," says Sarubin. "The state doesn't like to invoke that one."
In fact, Sarubin himself went on trial, accused of endangering the state with extremism because he reported on an anti-fascist demonstration. The article was illustrated with a photograph showing a swastika, and fascist symbolism is banned in Russia. In late May, Buryatia's supreme court found him guilty and Sarubin had to pay a small fine. He's now planning to appeal.
It didn't help the journalist's case that he has become something of a local celebrity since meeting President Putin a year ago. Speaking at a media conference in St. Petersburg organized by the All-Russia People's Front movement started in 2011 by Putin, Sarubin drew attention to the pressure being exerted on regional media. The president pledged to help and in record time, the government had established 300 generously-endowed awards for investigative regional journalism and founded a center offering journalists legal advice.
Return to Soviet-Era Repression
It was, however, little more than a hostile takeover in classic Kremlin style. Whenever independent parties start to make trouble, it simply starts its own opposition parties. When NGOS get annoying, it sets up pro-Kremlin puppet organizations, and squeezes out critical groups. Facing closure in the city of Voronezh in southern Russia, for example, is the private Center for the Protection of Media Rights, one of the last surviving regional groups providing support for beleaguered journalists. Last year alone, over one hundred journalists were put on trial.
Sarubin asked Putin for protection against a system Putin himself had created. The president responded by tasking the same system with solving the problem. Putin's regional media initiative signals nothing less than a slow slide back into the spirit of the Soviet-era, when the press was effectively gagged and any kind of grassroots organization was seen as inherently suspicious.
Yet it isn't even all that long ago that the Russian public was hailing the emergence of an independent media. In the mid-1980s, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced Glasnost ("openness"), newspaper articles and TV reports were allowed to shine a light on social issues such as housing shortages and alcoholism. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's first democratically-elected president Boris Yeltsin also encouraged the development of an independent and diverse media landscape.
But as the power of the oligarchs grew, many of them bought up all the major newspapers and television stations and used them as weapons in the battles over privatization's juiciest prizes. Putin had barely assumed office before he was not only stripping the oligarchs of their power, but also putting journalists on the state payroll or that of loyal state enterprises. Press freedoms were scaled back more and more with every passing year -- aside from a brief period of tolerance during Dmitry Medvedev's tenure as president.
Pockets of Resistance
Pavel Gusev knows about the rollercoaster ride that Russia's media has been on in recent years better than anyone. The editor-in-chief and owner of the mass circulation daily Moskovsky Komsomolets has decked out his office like a little shop of historical horrors. Perched on his desk are busts of Lenin, Hitler and Mao Tse-tung, while gracing the walls is a portrait of Joseph Stalin. The artist who painted it was jailed because he had the audacity to scrawl his signature across Stalin's coat -- an abomination amounting to sacrilege. "If a new Stalin ever appears, I want my reporters to be able to recognize him," says Gussev of his collection.
Gusev wears a pale gray suit that matches his carefully trimmed beard. Now 66, he's spent half his life as editor-in-chief of Moskovsky Komsomolets, commonly referred to as MK. Before that, he served as an official with the Communist Party youth organization of the same name. The paper started out as the organ of the organization.
The paper has a circulation of 700,000 in Moscow alone, and 2 million nationwide. MK is a force to be reckoned with -- even in Vladivostock, a nine-hour flight from Moscow on the Pacific coast, where a regional edition is published.
Moskovsky Komsomolets is the most serious tabloid in Russia. The headlines might be racy, but the articles are long and appear in relatively small print. Most of them are about politics. Gusev took charge of the paper during the Soviet era, when the censors shared the same premises. They sat in room 717, and would either approve new editions or dictate changes. "The rules of the game used to be clear," says Gusev. "Today things are more complicated. Pressure is exerted behind the scenes and all of a sudden you find you've become the enemy."
Gusev's paper is, on the whole, pro-Kremlin -- which perhaps explains why it can afford regular blasts of barbed criticism, or at least, it could until now. When harried authorities accused the opposition of having started the forest fires that laid waste to vast swathes of Siberia in April, the paper referred to the "fires in the heads" at those authorities. Then, on the 15th anniversary of Putin's first term as president, top columnist Alexander Minkin made a point of looking at the seamy side of his leadership, condemning the bloody ends to the Beslan school siege and the Moscow theater hostage crisis, which claimed the lives of over 450 hostages. In today's Russian, his swipe at the president was tantamount to lèse-majesté.
A Disease Called Freedom
Putin is no longer prepared to take it and the Kremlin is taking aim at Gusev's paper. Its stance is "explicitly anti-state," according to an article published in the pro-Kremlin paper Izvestia -- and likely placed by the presidential office. Once a beacon of the free press in the wake of Perestroika, the mass-circulation broadsheet Izvestia is now owned by Yuri Kovalchuk, a billionaire businessman and financier reputed to be Putin's personal banker and who is on the West's sanctions list. His media outlets serve as a mouthpiece for the secret services, with the Kremlin using them as pet pitbulls to stir up anger against the opposition or the US, its arch enemy.
Moskovsky Komsomolets and the liberal radio station Echo Moskvy were long permitted to voice uncomfortable truths as a vent for public criticism. But, says Gusev, "our independence is no longer welcome." The question now is: For how much longer will the paper be able to continue? The state has withdrawn subsidies and advertising -- which are now earmarked for more pliable newspapers. Moreover, the advertising market is faltering not only because of the economic crisis but because the Russian parliament has banned advertising for tobacco, alcohol and prescription medicine. Advertising revenue is down 40 percent from last year.
Given these developments, Gusev has taken to cheering himself up by glancing up at his gallery of rogues. He takes a long, hard look at a portrait of Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, head of the notorious Soviet security and secret police apparatus under Joseph Stalin during World War II. "We're making progress," says Gusev sarcastically. "In the past they would have shot me long ago." He has no plans to hang up his hat. "I find it hard to rid myself of this disease that befell me 25 years ago when the Soviet Union collapsed," he says. "It's called freedom."