Echoes of Censorship
By Stephen Weil
The recent controversy surrounding the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy is the latest in a string of Kremlin-sponsored attacks on the media. While Putin had previously been willing to tolerate criticism from some outlets, allowing them to serve as "safety valves" for discontent, this recent shift in tactics indicates that the Prime Minister and his associates are taking the threat posed by non-television media outlets more seriously than ever before. What do these new tactics indicate about the future of the relationship between the Kremlin and the media?
The ruling Putin regime has long had a turbulent relationship with the media. Shortly after his rise to power in 2000, Vladimir Putin orchestrated a systematic takeover of privately-owned television networks, most prominently Berezovsky’s ORT and Gusinsky’s NTV. The Kremlin was initially most concerned about controlling television, as this medium would allow the political opposition to reach a wide swath of the Russian population. Concerns gradually expanded to include print media, including Berezovsky’s business daily Kommersant. After consolidating power, however, Putin and his associates have been tolerant of some criticism from the independent media, with a range of opposition-minded journals and papers emerging in Russia’s growing cyberspace.
February 14 brought what many observers saw as a shocking turn of events. Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of the left-leaning Ekho Moskvy radio station, resigned from the station’s board of directors in protest of an apparent power play by parent company Gazprom Media. The state-affiliated subsidiary forced a reshuffle of the radio station’s board, giving five of the nine seats to Gazprom representatives, up from the previous four. This controversial maneuver came on the heels of a dispute between Venediktov and Vladimir Putin, who accused the vocal government critic of “pouring diarrhea all over” him. The forced re-organization was also accompanied by a curious incident involving the police. Shortly after news broke about Venediktov’s resignation, he reported via Twitter that the prosecutor’s office had called him in for questioning, apparently regarding a month-old complaint by Alexander Filsher, a Yabloko activist from the Tambov region who contends that Ekho Moskvy violates the Labor Code by preventing its journalists from joining political parties.
Coming so close to the presidential elections, this move sparked fears of a state-orchestrated takeover of the liberal media. It is not entirely clear, however, what role Putin played in this drama. It should be no surprise that Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any Kremlin involvement, but Venediktov himself noted that Gazprom’s initial decision was undertaken on December 30, well before Putin’s verbal assault on the outspoken editor. Venediktov also went so far as to declare, “I know for certain, that neither Medvedev’s team nor Putin’s team have issued any orders to crack down on Ekho Mosvky.” In his view, overzealous officials may have simply taken Putin’s criticism as a green light to attack the radio station. Venediktov also went on to emphasize that his resignation from the board of directors would not impact his position as editor-in-chief, nor the station’s editorial policy. The reshuffle does, on the other hand, give Gazprom Media greater influence over the station’s policies, potentially foreshadowing greater future control over this quite independent outlet. It should be noted, however, that the implications of this reorganization are easily overstated; any attempt to remove Venediktov or change the station’s charter would require a 75-percent majority vote, but Gazprom Media is only moving to acquire 66-percent of the votes (a division that corresponds with their 66 percent ownership share).
Putin may be able to maintain plausible deniability regarding the attack on Ekho Moskvy, but this incident is only one in a series of gradually escalating attacks on the liberal media. In the aftermath of the contested December elections, City FM and NTV, both Gazprom-owned media outlets, faced similar pressure from their state-owned parent company. Kommersant Vlast, owned by Kremlin-friendly oligarch Alisher Usmanov, also made headlines when a high-ranking editor and top executive were removed following the publication of an article on electoral fraud that featured a picture with a profane remark targeted towards the Prime Minister. Ksenia Sobchak also announced via Twitter that her MTV talk show, “GosDep,” had been taken off the air shortly after it was announced that she would feature popular opposition blogger Alexei Navalny as her next guest.
This disturbing trend of media censorship raises important questions about the future of the relationship between the Kremlin and the media. What we have witnessed clearly constitutes undue pressure, but also falls short of a full crackdown. Criticism continues to circulate and most opposition outlets remain untouched. The Ekho incident does, however, serve as a stark reminder of two important facts: first, the Putin regime sees its political security as increasingly tenuous; and second, the authorities have begun to take internet media outlets more seriously. The most important question, however, remains to be answered: will Putin continue escalating these attacks, or will there be sufficient public backlash to put a hold on the censorship trend? A brief look at the political and historical context can provide some insight.
A cursory glance at the Kremlin’s relationship with the independent media shows an increased reliance on pressure during periods when Putin felt less secure in his political position. The most aggressive crackdown on the media came shortly after Putin’s rise to power, when the newly-elected President was working to consolidate his position after a turbulent end to the 1990s. Putin came into office as a relatively unknown political figure, and boosted his popularity largely as a result of his handling of the Second Chechen War and through the subsequent stabilization of Russia’s economy. Given the importance of media spin in creating Putin’s image, it was necessary for the regime to pry the most important outlets from the hands of pesky oligarchs, such as Berezovsky and Gusinsky. In contrast to the period between 2000 and 2003, the Kremlin gradually adopted a more “hands off” approach to the media. To some extent, this was a product of the state’s consolidation of power over the three largest TV channels. Most Russians receive their news from television, rather than print media, thus granting the Kremlin control over the most important source of political information.
There was another factor at work, however, in shaping the Kremlin’s more tolerant approach to the media. As Nikolai Svanidze, chairman of the freedom of speech commission of the Public Chamber, articulated, outlets such as Ekho Moskvy served as “safety valve[s] that let steam out.” When critics at home and abroad lambasted the lack of free speech in Russia, the Kremlin could point to Ekho Moskvy and declare: “See, we allow the opposition to be heard, but their opinion is simply in the minority.” While Putin’s Russia is far from paragon of democracy, the regime has nevertheless maintained a legitimate base of popular support. Putin could thus afford to allow some critics to vent their frustration through the liberal media, as long as those views remained confined to a certain stratum of the population: namely the educated, middle-to-upper-class city dwellers. These voices would be heard throughout Moscow and St. Petersburg, but would fail to spread into the regions, which served as Putin’s most important political base. For these voters, television continued to reign supreme as the source of political information, allowing the Kremlin’s spin to drown out critical voices.
The recent pressure on news outlets like Ekho Moskvy, City FM, and Kommersant Vlast serves as an indication that the Kremlin is beginning to take other forms of media, particularly online media, more seriously. Almost every major Russian newspaper, radio station, and television station now has some form of digital media. This evolution has accompanied a dramatic rise in internet usage over the past decade. In 2004, only one-third of Russians had been online even once, whereas in 2011, nearly half of all Russians had regular internet access at home. Notably, one-third of those weekly internet users resided in towns of less than 100,000 residents, indicating that internet access is no longer simply a privilege of the urban elite. With internet penetration figures only set to grow (Russia is expected to have 93 million internet users—67% of the population—by 2013, which would put access levels on par with France), the Kremlin has acknowledged the need for a new media strategy that reflects this changing environment.
It is in this context that the attack on Ekho Moskvy must be understood. The Kremlin is “testing the waters” in a sense, seeing how far the media can be pushed without triggering a popular explosion. Some analysts have sounded dire predictions about the future of media freedom, but the regime has thus far acted with relative restraint. The authorities have singled out a few offenders to serve as examples, but have nevertheless given indications that they are loosening their political grip, notably by sanctioning the anti-Putin protests and granting them coverage on national TV. That being said, the Ekho incident stoked public fears of censorship, which should have reminded Putin that pushing the media too far could undermine his legitimacy and further the alienation of the state from society.
It remains to be seen whether or not Gazprom truly turns the screws in order to alter Ekho’s content. For now, at least, it seems unlikely, as it appears that the authorities lack a coherent strategy for managing the changing media landscape. They realize that outlets like Ekho Moskvy can no longer be simply ignored or pointed to as democratic “window dressing.” Rather than reaching solely a fringe segment of Russia’s educated, city-dwelling population, these outlets can now reach an increasingly broad (and growing) audience through the internet. At the same time, the rise of the internet has also changed the rules of the game when it comes to censorship. No longer can the Kremlin simply rely on its TV-dominance to control political spin; any news can be spread throughout the blogosphere no matter how hard the Kremlin’s “spin doctors” work to control it. While Putin’s position remains strong in Russia’s regions, virtually guaranteeing that he will hold on to power in the short term despite the rising discontent in the cities, cracks are beginning to emerge in his political base. The February 4 rallies against electoral fraud in Moscow and St. Petersburg were matched by smaller protests in places such as Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, and Vladivostok. These pockets of regional resistance remain too small to pose a real threat to Putin’s hold on power, but should nevertheless serve as a reminder that the Kremlin’s increasingly authoritarian tactics risk undermining Putin’s popular support.
Faced with competing pressures—between maintaining control and preserving legitimacy—and an evolving political environment, the Kremlin will probably continue to “muddle through,” resolving its disputes with the media on an ad-hoc basis. Some particular offenders will be singled out, and the uncertainty resulting from these incidents may cause others to think twice about their content. At the same time, the Kremlin will work hard to maintain a veneer of media freedom, denying any direct involvement when crackdowns occur. As internet access continues to spread, however, the authorities will only continue to lose control over the media. The Kremlin will eventually be faced with two choices: accept the emergence of an independent, online media, or resort to Chinese-style controls on internet freedom. As long as the authorities continue to muddle through without a coherent strategy, it seems increasingly likely that they will eventually be forced to resign themselves to the former.