The Kremlin is clamping down on critical voices as Russia's presidential election is due to take place in about six weeks. 

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested in Moscow last weekend and his Youtube-based channel was shut down in the middle of a broadcast.

It's the fourth time Navalny has been arrested since calling for a boycott of a presidential election in which he has been banned from running.

International coverage and his online following have been central to Navalny's media strategy as the Kremlin has steadily tightened the screws on domestic news outlets.

Over the past few years, ownership of mass media has shifted almost entirely into the hands of Kremlin allies. Moscow has also blocked access to VPNs, the virtual private networks that allowed citizens to circumvent online censorship. Additionally, a new law is in the works that would require some journalists and bloggers to register as "foreign agents".

Navalny's arrest was "an opportunity to mobilise supporters and, perhaps, acquire new ones", according to Maxim Kornev, associate professor at Russian State University for the Humanities. "Because if he does not produce media events, he will disappear as a politician. It's also an opportunity to show one more time to the global community that the leader of a protest has been arrested and isolated and when the Western media covers the arrest, it helps him build his image overseas."

Russian news outlets owned or controlled by the Kremlin have effectively blackballed Navalny while many Western news organisations tend to give the Navalny story the surface treatment - the one-time blogger, the anti-corruption crusader who bypassed the pro-Putin media by using social media to take on the Kremlin.

Where the foreign coverage tends to fall short though is the Navalny backstory and his past flirtations with Russian nationalist movements. In 2007, he likened Muslims to insects. In 2008, it was Georgians whom he called "rodents" and said they should all be deported from Russia. And in 2013, he publicly backed skinheads who attacked immigrants.

"Navalny's base of support is not in Moscow, it is not in Russia, but it is mostly in the West ... In the Western media, Navalny is presented as a [victim], but the reality is that the government in Russia is quite lenient when it comes to Navalny and his supporters," says political commentator Viktor Olevich, Actual Politics.

There is a specific narrative that they [Kremlin] are trying to push right now ... the message of the story is to try to combine some sort of religious narrative and Putin's ability to restore justice, to bring order, and to show him as this national saviour.

Olga Khvostunova, political analyst, Institute of Modern Russia

"Contrary to popular Western opinion, not all media in Russia support government positions," adds Olevich. "There are opposition magazines and newspapers, there are opposition radio stations. Navalny has access to newspapers and magazines. He has access to radio, he has access to Dozhd channel, for example, and despite all that, we see ... that he has not been able to garner significant support."

With Alexei Navalny barred from the upcoming presidential run - effectively neutralising him, that clears the way for Russian mainstream media outlets to focus on the job at hand. Which is casting Vladimir Putin, the president who stood up to the West during the showdown over Ukraine, as the saviour that Russia and Russians need.

"There is a specific narrative that they are trying to push right now," explains Olga Khvostunova, a political analyst, Institute of Modern Russia. "There is this documentary about Putin restoring an ancient monastery in Valaam, in the northern part of Russia. And the message of the story is to try to combine some sort of religious narrative and Putin's ability to restore justice, to bring order, and to show him as this national saviour. So, that sort of religious sentiment that plays here is something that the Kremlin is trying to exploit."

Contributors:
Viktor Olevich, political commentator, Actual Politics
Roman Dobrokhotov, editor-in-chief, The Insider
Maxim Kornev, associate professor, Russian State University for the Humanities
Olga Khvostunova, political analyst, Institute of Modern Russia

Source: Al Jazeera News