Just four weeks ago, Russia had — with some amends — almost all of what a “normal country” would have in the way of a media industry:
- A bustling advertising market at US$8.3 billion, the 12th largest in the world.
- A variety of TV broadcasters with a serious shift towards government-owned or controlled, but still producing good entertainment.
- A diverse collection of news media outlets, some of them completely independent.
It is all gone.
At present, the largest in Europe by audience, the seventh-largest by advertising spending, and the largest by number of media organisations is bust. Destroyed. Thrown back in time for decades.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed an aggressive war against Ukraine, his administration killed the remainder of free, independent media in his country. The list of these radio, TV, and multimedia organisations already had been decimated since 2014.
Now the only remaining independent media company is Novaya Gazeta. The price for this life after death is that the iconic newspaper, founded by Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and edited by Dmitry Muratov, a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, is self-censoring all materials related to the conflict in Ukraine as the State Duma just criminalised all reports about the “special military operation” that are not coming from the Russian state.
Putin’s early history of targeting media
Under Putin, Russia was constantly working to limit the capacity of the society to know and ability of the press to report. Initially, government pressure was strictly targeted against the oligarch-owned TV channels like NTV, TV-6, and Channel One. Initially, most people in the audience — even journalists and human rights activists — were just “concerned” as this pressure mounted. The pressure included ownership change, minor agenda corrections, and some limited personal purges of “undesired” editors. The rest of the media landscape was free and fair, growing and competing, making great shows and magazines, building great news Web sites.
But the pressure never disappeared. It persisted. It was planned and prepared by the remnants of Soviet-era KGB. In the early days of Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy, in late March 2000, the Kommersant newspaper published what people believed to be a secret plan of Putin’s presidency. With a headline “Edition Number 6,” this vile projection is still in the archive (if you would like to read it in English, you have that option here).
According to the “Edition Number 6,” journalists and the free press in general are adversaries of the planned presidency of Vladimir Putin. To achieve political goals, journalists and media channels must be contained, controlled, and subdued. “Special services” (meaning a revived KGB) must compile dossiers, follow journalist and editor contacts, explore their financial situations and holdings, and collect “compromising material” for future blackmail.
Yet in the haste of elections and the initial establishment of the new Putin presidency, the sensational leaked document wasn’t taken seriously. The country and the elite, journalists included, carried on — just to discover a few months later that “compromising material” had been gathered and “economic means” of journalists established. Initially, that happened only with NTV — a staunchly anti-Putin TV channel owned by oligarch-in-exile Vladimir Gusinsky.
But every next year, the Kremlin took another sacrifice, sometimes small. Filipp Dzyadko, editor of the fabulously talented Moscow version of “The Village Voice” — “The Big City” journal — one day coined a term “links of f..king chain,” describing these minor but consistent losses. One day it was ownership change — with inevitable submission to the Kremlin’s narratives. Another day it was the resignation of an editor known for fierce independence. Then, the publication occasionally was thrown out of the premises it rented for a decade. This slow yet consistent pressure happened until 2013.
Russian media changes from 2000 to 2016
Between 2000 and 2013, the Russian media market grew at an astonishing rate despite some crises: It started the century valued somewhere between US$1 billion and US$3 billion with a lot of advertising transactions were held offshore initially. By 2013, it reached US$10.3 billion and had all indications it would grow further following developing domestic consumption, expanding credit, and other positive economic developments.
And then Putin made his early decisive move, disbanding relatively independent RIA Novosti, the leading Russian multimedia agency, replacing its management with out-of-pocket propagandists, and signaling what the Russian government wants on air and online. Almost immediately, Yandex, Russia’s main search engine and news aggregator, was ordered to start censoring “Six News” – six headlines of the main stories of the day, seen by every user of the search engine, and the most popular e-mail service in the country. Soon, no Kremlin-disturbing news appeared either in “Six News” or in the YandexNews, the country’s main aggregator.
In 2014, when Ukraine erupted into the Maidan Revolution, Russia still had few major news organisations capable of independent and free news reporting: Lenta.ru, Novaya Gazeta, TV Rain channel, and several radio stations, including Echo Moskvy, which was editorially independent but tied to Gazprom via ownership.
These media companies survived the first war in Ukraine, but all had to make concessions. The Kremlin demanded a consistent presence of its narrative and the absence of any prominent critics of the regime. As a crescendo of this policy, leading Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was assassinated on February 27, 2015, two hours after his interview on Echo Moskvy.
The rest of the media landscape had already been silenced. Local and regional newspapers and Web sites became too dependent on local government funding, and they long understood the national agenda is something they must stay clear of. Entertainment media is as far from the politics as one can imagine — most spicy jokes at major Russian stand-up comedy shows that don’t go further than the sexual life of the aging pop-stars and their inferiority to Putin. Few remaining independent media concentrated on human rights defense, charity support, or investigations of corruption.
Corruption is the last drop, though. As many of the investigations are led by or connected to leading opposition politician Alexey Navalny, many media consider them some kind of “last resort.” Even when they cannot afford, politically or economically, to do their own investigations, they may rely on a prime anti-corruption activist and report on how he uncovers rampant corruption while sharing a bit of his online success. The most popular of Navalny’s videos, exposing Putin’s secret palace in the southern Russia, received 200 million views on YouTube.
But this is nothing more than a last cry of a destroyed industry.
In 2012, Russia limited foreign ownership of media. In 2016, the parliament effectively banned foreign capital control of media organisations and prohibited foreigners from managing and editing officially registered news outlets. Even dual-citizens were restricted as Russian regulators wanted to strip Damian Kudryavtsev, the owner of Vedomosti business newspaper, from the publication.
In the end, the Russian emigration authority cancelled Kudryavtsev’s citizenship, referring to “fraud” when he regained it. As all Soviet citizens who emigrated to Israel, Kurdyavtsev was stripped from USSR/Russian citizenship in 1981.
And this is still not the final stage.
Since 2011, Putin has been fighting an imaginary regime change in Russia. He and his party consider all elements of civil society, news media included, tools of the regime change orchestrated by the United States and CIA. Initially, to restrict the activities of George Soros’ philanthropies and USAID-related grants, Russia established a legal status of “undesirable organisations” and immediately imposed it on Open Society Foundation, National Endowment for Democracy, International Republican Institute, and National Democratic Institute, all major foundations promoting democracy and funded by the United States.
Any collaboration with these designees is considered a crime of attrition. Many Russian media organisations were funded through USAID and Open Society grants. In 2021, the government assigned “undesirable” status to Proekt Media, a Russian-founded news start-up in the United States, and recently added another: Latvia-based Stories Media (Vazhnye Istorii). Both media organisations specialise in investigative and data journalism and uncovered corruption at the highest echelons of Russian government.
Three years later, the Russian government established the “foreign agent law.” Putin claimed this law is “exactly like United States’ FARA,” but in fact it is clearly the opposite and restrictive. Between 2016 and 2022, more than 150 journalists and 50 media organisations were assigned “foreign agent” status by the Russian Ministry of Justice.
Contrary to FARA, “foreign agent” status is not self-reported; it is enforced on a person or legal entity. The status is permanent, and there is no termination procedure. Reporting procedures are meticulous, and include fines and criminal persecution if not followed.
News about the current invasion of Ukraine is illegal
But the real doomsday of Russian independent media came in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Within days, the Russian government terminated all independent news outlets, including foreign ones (BBC, France 24, and others) by banning their distribution both via cable TV networks and blocking their Web sites for Russian users. Few remaining Russian independent media, including local and regional like Ryazan-bazed 7x7 and Tomsk-based TV2, were blocked.
In the first 11 days of war, more than 150 journalists from various news organizations fled Russia. Why?
Last Friday, President Putin signed into law an amendment to the Criminal Code that made “fake news about special military operation in Ukraine” a capital crime, assigning a penalty of up to 15 years imprisonment as a punishment.
Finita la comedia, la drama, whatever.