It might be just coincidence that Moscow is messing with opposition media as a shaky Putin looks toward the elections, but it’s beginning to look a lot like a nasty pattern.
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.
MOSCOW – About a month ago, after the marred parliamentary elections and the December protests shook Moscow, after everyone went away for the New Year’s holiday, and after everyone came back, 27-year-old Duma deputy Robert Shlegel decided to do some digging. This enterprising young man, a star of the pro-Kremlin youth Nashi movement, was curious: Who, exactly was financing these opposition protests?
"There was lots of information floating around; were these protests financed from abroad? Were they not financed from abroad?" Shlegel explained the other day, referring to the claims put forward by prime minister and presidential frontrunner Vladimir Putin — and then picked up by the loyalist information network — that the protests were provoked and financed by the U.S. State Department. Shlegel found an interesting, if not totally bizarre, way to investigate. He decided to look into the financing of Dozhd, or Rain TV. This independent, internet-and-cable network, staffed and watched mostly by urban hipsters — though nobody really knows how many of them ever actually tune in — has provided unalloyed and often openly sympathetic coverage of December’s events. When the protests first broke on Dec. 5, and no one knew what to make of them, Dozhd simply aired a live stream, first of the rally, then of the violent arrests. Compared to the intensely filtered, hard-spun statist agitprop — if not utter silence — on state television, Dozhd naturally came to be seen not as the "optimistic channel," as per its logo, but as the opposition channel. Obviously, the views of its staff, many of whom showed up at the protests decked out in white ribbons (the symbol of the protests), play a part.
But that’s not what Shlegel was after. "When I looked into how the technical side of the protests was financed, I thought: either Dozhd financed the protest organizers, or the organizers could’ve helped Dozhd cover the protests," Shlegel explained. I couldn’t quite follow his logic, but he went on. "Are these things financed from abroad, or not? This is a politically sensitive issue." It was, he decided, a question for the prosecutor’s office. "If you’re going to be the conscience of the nation," he said, "why are they hiding where they get their funding?"
So a month after the protests temporarily died down, Shlegel filed a request with the federal prosecutor’s office, which, in turn, asked Dozhd for its editorial charter and tax documents, among other things. But Shlegel was looking for more — and late last week, Natalia Sindeeva, Dozhd’s owner, tweeted that she had received an urgent and detailed official request for all kinds of financial documentation. Because Dozhd had been the subject of official pressure back in December — the government agency overseeing the legal compliance of the media demanded to see all that live footage from those two violent days, Dec. 5 and 6 — this latest request naturally caused a stir.
But Dozhd isn’t alone in being the recipient of unwanted attention. Two days prior, Ekho Moskvy, the opposition radio station, came under attack by its state-affiliated owner, Gazprom Media, which owns two thirds of Ekho Moskvy’s shares. Gazprom forced a shake-up of the station’s board, ousting founder and editor-in-chief Aleksei Venediktov along with four other board members, including two affiliated neither with Gazprom Media, nor Ekho. "This is a signal, certainly," Venediktov said in special broadcast after the news broke. "I don’t see anything catastrophic in this, but it is unpleasant and I certainly see this as an attempt to adjust editorial policy." And while Venediktov tried to downplay any sense of looming catastrophe, and Gazprom Media denied any whiff of carrying out Kremlin orders, it was hard not to recall what had preceded this event: About a month ago, Putin, at a meeting with prominent editors, lay into Venediktov, accusing his station of "covering me in diarrhea, from morning ’till night."
Now, Putin is certainly a man who backs up scatological rhetoric with action, but there is something else at play here. Ekho Moskvy did not start dumping liquid feces on the premier just recently; it has been doing so for a decade. It was known as the Kremlin’s window dressing, the thing it could point to and say: "See? Freedom of the press! And on our dime, too!" Neither Ekho nor Dozhd are marginal outlets: High-ranking officials regularly grace both studios. Their chiefs — Venediktov and Sindeeva — are consummate players of Russia’s political game and have intimate knowledge of the couloirs of power. Sindeeva is friends with the oligarchs; Venediktov gets birthday greetings from Putin.
Indeed, for a time, Dozhd was President Dmitry Medvedev’s new media darling. He once visited the studio and even Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, used Dozhd as a way to wink-wink with the liberal opposition, admitting to them that Putin may not have actually discovered those ancient amphorae while he was scuba diving in the Black Sea.
But an increasingly shaky Putin is just weeks from a presidential election. Window dressing for the West is the last thing he needs right now, and he certainly doesn’t need Ekho using his government money to become a revolutionary hub — which, as Michael Schwirtz noted in the New York Times, is increasingly the case. The same can be said of Dozhd, and the other two publications that have come under state attack during this turbulent winter: Kommersant Vlast, and Bolshoi Gorod (the latter also owned by Sindeeva).
And so the screws are being tightened. The tightly monitored federal channels, which in December dared to push the envelope, have come under the gun. As I reported in my last column, NTV was swept clean of an upstart editorial team and Channel 1 has decided to freeze all shows with the merest hint of socio-political themes. Last week, Anne Nivat, a well-known French writer, was kicked out of Russia for meeting with opposition figures for her upcoming book. A bank where anti-corruption activist and protest politician Alexey Navalny has an account, received an official visit from the Bank of Russia and Navalny’s account was "checked." And, earlier this week, Ksenia Sobchak — the daughter of Putin’s late political mentor, glamorous it-girl turned opposition journalist — finally felt the pinch, too. Her new show on MTV Russia, "State Department with Ksenia Sobchak," was canceled after one episode. "I don’t know what happened," she told me. "They paid for four shows — they paid the production company, they paid me. But I invited on Navalny. I think it was a political decision."
Maybe it’s just coincidence? Maybe MTV executives decided that a music video network wasn’t the best place for a political talk show. Maybe, when a day after the Ekho Moskvy board shake up, a summons from the prosecutor’s office landed on Venediktov’s desk, it really was, as it was claimed, spurred by complaint from a strange man in far-away Tambov who took issue with a radio station’s editorial charter. Maybe it was simply the ranting of a man with too much time and too few marbles. Maybe the police and immigration officials trailing Nivat were simply over-enthusiastic cogs showing initiative. The fact that she was allowed to return over the weekend, after an override from higher-ups in the Federal Migration Service, indicates that this is probably the case. And it is probably the case with Shlegel’s inquiry, too.
Sobchak, however, is not buying it. "I hope it’s connected just to the election campaign, and that after the election they’ll relax a bit," she said. "Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. I think the government has decided on a course of clamping down."
Either way, at a certain point coincidences stop being coincidences. And overzealous minions are suddenly hyperactive because they can clearly read the writing emblazoned on the wall: We are tightening the screws. "I don’t think it’s over. On the contrary, we’re seeing a well-defined trend," says political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky. "I think it will get stronger and I think it is intended to put the media in a stricter framework after the election." It is one, he posits, that will rely increasingly on legalisms and technicalities — as well as American-style claims of "immoral" programming — to keep the media in line. "I don’t the system will be as personalized. It doesn’t need a single conductor. The conception will be a loose, sticky legal framework where they can contest you on an increasing number of judicial points." This means it won’t matter if you’re state-owned or, like, Dozhd, indpendent, especially if we see more of the kinds of things we’ve seen of late: pressure on Internet providers, on boards of directors, on owners. And the brilliant thing about it? "None of these are censorship."
As for Shlegel, he insists that his initiative was not intended to be a PR stunt or to coincide with the Ekho Moskvy mini-scandal. "I just wanted information," he said, flustered. He noted that 800 people had already called him that day to harangue him about his perceived attack on Dozhd. "I’m always really lucky when it comes to such things. I couldn’t have found a better moment," he said. "Of course, I’m being sarcastic."