A country with the largest territory in the world and a turbulent modern history, Russia is home to one of the most difficult media landscapes and censorship has been tightening its grip with new-found strength.
Free media was virtually non-existent during the decades of Soviet rule. It wasn’t until 1991 that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed a decree allowing the first independent media outlets to emerge. This was also the year the Soviet Union ceased to be, and Russia was born in its stead. The constitution of Russia, adopted in 1993, guaranteed, among other rights and freedoms, the freedom of speech.
In 2018 it is still the same country with the same constitution, but the initial euphoria for freedom ended abruptly in 2003 after the shake-up of the television channel NTV. From its foundation in 1993 through the early 2000s, NTV was the largest private broadcaster in Russia and a stronghold of free speech, which didn’t suit Vladimir Putin, who first became president in 2000. Witty, free-spoken hosts openly criticised the government, reported on its failures and produced sharp political satire. The undermining of the channel began in 1999 with governmental lawsuits, and the final blow was dealt soon after the tragic events around Nord Ost, the three-day theatre siege in 2002, also known as the Dubrovka terror attack. Putin’s displeasure with NTV’s honest coverage and investigation into the death of 129 hostages, who inhaled an unidentified state-administered gas, resulted in the firing of the network’s CEO Boris Jordan. Soon after, the channel ceased to exist only to be reborn as a state-controlled media outlet with the same name.
Today, mass media in Russia is quite a different scene. The government sets the tone for many things, including the attitude towards journalists. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Which news events should be covered in state media and which are too upsetting to show to the country?
State-owned and state-friendly TV channels like Channel 1 and Rossiya are known for meticulously filtering the inflow of news and dropping the themes and subjects that may throw shadow on the government. The few independent outlets left standing, like Ekho Moskvy, Novaya Gazeta and Dozhd TV, have to endure harassment from power structures and take part in legal battles against governmental institutions and businesses willing to censor them.
Recent additions to Russian legislation make it easier to prosecute media outlets for their reporting. Financial struggle is also real for many Russian media, which are being purchased and reshaped according to the tastes of the new owners, who often happen to have close ties to the Kremlin. That’s what happened to RBC newspaper and TV channel, among others.
Self-censorship is prevalent in newsrooms as well.
The number of threats and acts of violence against journalists has increased three-fold within the last two years, reported Natalia Kostenko, the head of the ONF Centre for Legal Support of Journalists, at a conference in March 2018. Kostenko cited restriction of access, verbal threats, physical violence, damage to personal belongings and lawsuits as the most common misdemeanours against media workers.
However, media freedom is not the only concern in today’s Russia. The political climate has changed drastically over the last few years: the country has seen a surge of nationalism, xenophobia and religious fervour, and the revival of Soviet methods of dealing with “thought criminals”. Under recently passed legislation, a person can be imprisoned for a social media like or repost if anyone considers it to be hateful or extremist. The economic stagnation and financial crisis, which began in 2014 as the result of sanctions against Russia’s actions in Crimea and Donbass, has been an important factor in all of this and contributed to a new wave of emigration, or “brain drain”, that has hit the country.