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Russia's independent media face crackdown

Kremlin's recent press restrictions amid Ukraine crisis have led to fears over a wider censorship policy.

Last updated: 26 Mar 2014 14:04
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Radio Ekho Moskvy's website was temporarily blocked by Russian authorities [AP]

On March 10, the popular Russian website Lenta.ru published an interview with Andrei Tarasenko, a leader of Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist group involved in the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.

It did not take long before Roskomnadzor, the Russian media authority, took action against the website, issuing a warning that it is spreading "extremist" content. Head editor Galina Timchenko and general director Yulia Minder were dismissed the same day. According to a statement from the editorial team of Lenta.ru, the decision for the dismissal was made by the owner of its parent company, Alexander Mamut, a Russian oligarch understood to have close connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"It was a shock," says Konstantin Benyumov, former head of the internet and media section at Lenta.ru. "We knew that this could happen, but we were never ready for it. When Galya announced that she will no longer be the head editor of Lenta, a few dozen people asked where they can find the form to file their resignations."

Benyumov is one of 39 journalists who left immediately after Timchenko's dismissal. He says more staff will leave within the year.

Alexei Goreslavsky, former head of online publication Vzglyad.ru - a website known for its pro-government editorial line - took over Timchenko's office. According to Benyumov, the new head editor explained that the changes were a result of decisions taken by the shareholders.

Censoring independent voices

Lenta.ru, which has more than 13 million unique visitors per month, is not the first online publication in Russia to face censorship and staff changes.

I stopped watching official Russian outlets because I'm tired of the widespread authoritarian discourse. I sometimes watch a news report or two, just to be aware of what idiocy takes place.

- Polina Fomina, Russian media producer

In February, Ekho Moskvy Radio's general director, Yurii Fedutinov, was dismissed. He had worked with the outlet since its founding more than 20 years ago. Fedutinov's post was given to Ekaterina Pavlova, the former deputy head of the pro-government radio station Voice of Russia.

The board of directors did not give Fedutinov an explanation for the decision. The biggest shareholder in the radio is the company Gazprom-Media - a subsidiary of Russia's energy giant Gazprom which is headed by Mikhail Lesin, a former media minister and adviser to Putin.

Following Fedutinov's dismissal, the head editor of Ekho Moskvy, Alexei Venediktov, expected a similar fate after Roskomnadzor put Ekho Moskvy on the list of websites that have published "forbidden" content. Government prosecutors urged Russian internet providers to block the website because the radio's website had republished opposition leader Alexei Navalny's blog, which was declared to be inciting "extremist activities".

Authorities stopped blocking the website only after Ekho Moskvy's editorial team removed Navalny's blog. Venediktov's mandate as a head editor was recently extended. 

In an interview for Al Jazeera, Vadim Ampelonskiy, press secretary for Roskomnadazor, explained that the cases of Lenta.ru and Ekho Moksvy are different.

"We issued a warning against [Lenta.ru] because they published material in which Roskomnadzor found evidence of extremism. This is absolutely a common warning," he said, adding that there was no need for "overdramatisation" of the situation. 

In the case of Ekho Moskvy, Ampelonskiy said that the agency followed the request of the attorney general's office.

"Blocking is undertaken in cases when the outlet does not remove the content which the prosecution has declared banned. When the request came in from the prosecution to limit the access to the content of Ekho Moskvy and Live Journal [livejournal.com hosts Navalny's blog], we got in touch with the administration of Ekho Moskvy and the administration of livejournal.com and the administration of the outlets followed our prescription to remove blogs which were considered by the prosecution illegal," he explained.

Roskomnadzor also blocked the online publications Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, and "Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal" (ej.ru).

Independent TV channel Dozhd has also faced difficulties. In January, it posted an online poll asking viewers to vote on whether Leningrad (now St Petersburg) should have surrendered during World War II to the Nazis in order to save its residents' lives. The question provoked a storm of negative reactions and led some politicians to encourage St Petersburg prosecutors to launch an investigation into the channel. Cable operators succumbed to political pressure and stopped broadcasting the channel. 

'Inconvenient narratives'

Independent Russian media outlets have come under increasing pressure, with the Winter Olympics and the crisis in Ukraine heightening the Kremlin's anxiety about the media narratives broadcast to its citizens. According to Ekaterina Sivyakova, a senior lecturer in journalism at Moscow State University, the Kremlin is eager to suppress inconvenient narratives that appear in the media and offer only one side of the story.

"In my opinion, the logic of the regime is to try to cut the alternate picture in order to avoid this double-face image of Russian politics in the eyes of its spectators," she said, referring to the differing ways in which pro-government and opposition media portray Russia. "Unfortunately, that means the narrowing of an access to unbiased news and comments for Russian people." 

Sivyakova says independent and opposition outlets in Russia have remained on the periphery of the country's media landscape. "They have very little circulation, if we are talking about press, or exist on Internet platforms [such as Lenta.ru], or broadcast within limited area [such as Ekho Moskvy radio and Dozhd TV]," she said.

Recent editorial changes at Ekho Moskvy and Lenta.ru may cause their audiences to melt away. Russian media producer Polina Fomina says she used to follow Lenta.ru closely until the recent staff reshuffle. 

"I loved Lenta.ru, especially the section from their correspondents in the former USSR. I used to read Lenta.ru and I feel sad that it was destroyed... [The reshuffle] changed my opinion, and recently I have stopped reading it," Fomina said.

In recent years, accessing information in Russian that does not conform to official narratives has become more difficult. Fomina says the challenge is to pick out good sources from the great variety of propaganda outlets in Russia. "I stopped watching official Russian outlets because I'm tired of the widespread authoritarian discourse. I sometimes watch a news report or two, just to be aware of what idiocy takes place," she said.

Fear of tightening controls

The narrowing of acceptable media discourse has led to changes in state media, too. At the end of 2013, Putin signed a special decree to create a new state-owned international agency, Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today), to replace RIA Novosti. Although RIA Novosti is state-owned, it has enjoyed some freedom in its editorial line. Fears that Russia Today will be tightly controlled were heightened after the appointment of Dmitry Kiselev - a former TV anchor who is notorious for his criticism of the Russian opposition, and anti-Western and anti-gay sentiments - as general director.  

These changes have led some to believe that the Kremlin has started a gradual process of homogenising domestic media.

"There is definitely a campaign against the media," says Benyumov. "Over the past two to three years, a number of laws were passed that allow, without judicial process, the shut down of any inconvenient outlet for 'slander', 'inappropriate language', 'propaganda of homosexuality', 'incitement of disorder', etc."

In 2012, Russia passed a new law on censorship that allowed authorities to block websites found to contain "extremist content" - which since then has been widely defined. The provisions of this law enabled Roskomnadzor to block opposition leader Navalny's blog and temporarily limit access to Ekho Moskvy's website. In 2013, the Russian parliament passed a law banning gay "propaganda", which can be used to severely limit reporting on LGBTQ issues. More recently, MP Evgeniy Fedorov from the ruling United Russia Party has proposed an amendment to the administrative and criminal laws that will criminalise the publication of inaccurate "anti-Russian" information supporting separatist and extremist forces. 

Benyumov says he is pessimistic about the outcome of the current bout of censorship. "A dark future awaits Russian journalism," he concludes.

Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova

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Al Jazeera
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