“Dear readers, ...Today, the company owner… sacked the editor-in-chief of Lenta.ru, Galina Timchenko. … Over the last couple of years, the space for free journalism in Russia has shrunk dramatically. Some publications are directly controlled by the Kremlin, some through supervisors, and others by editors who are afraid of losing their jobs. Some media outlets have closed, others will be closing in the coming months. The disaster is not that we have nowhere to work. The disaster is that it looks like you have no more to read… We certainly expected them to come for us… We don’t believe this will last forever… We hope that we’ll meet again soon…”

This letter signed by the over eighty Lenta.ru staffers was posted yesterday on its website. Lenta.ru is the most popular online publication in Russia, and the fifth most popular in Europe. Today over 30 of them submitted their resignations. Lenta.ru was—until yesterday—one of the few remaining nongovernment media in Russia. By “nongovernment” I mean those outlets whose coverage is not guided by the loyalty to the Kremlin.

Maria Lipman
Lipman was the editor in chief of the Pro et Contra journal, published by the Carnegie Moscow Center. She was also the expert of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Society and Regions Program.
More >

On Wednesday morning Lenta.ru received a warning from a government agency in charge of media oversight. The warning had to do with an interview with a member of a Ukrainian right-wing organization. There was nothing wrong with the interview, however, as an agency representative told another Russian publication. Nor did anybody file any complaints. What caused the problem was that the interview cited a hyperlink that contained a line from that organization’s leader Dmitry Yarosh. Russia brought in absentia charges against Yarosh for making public calls for terrorism and issued an arrest warrant. The line in the hyperlink dates back to 2008; back then Yarosh said: “Sooner or later we are doomed to a fight with the Moscow Empire.” The oversight agency said it incited “ethnic hatred.”

Several hours after the warning was issued, Timchenko was fired by the holding company owner and replaced by a man broadly seen in the Moscow liberal journalistic community as a “friend of the Kremlin.” The Kremlin is assumed to have demanded that Timchenko be fired. Or maybe the owner preempted such a demand.

When Vladimir Putin first came to power in 2000 one of his first moves was to take national TV under control. One of the three major national networks was state-owned anyway, and two others were owned or controlled by media tycoons. Both were forced out of the country, and by the end of Putin’s first term their media properties were in loyal hands. All three networks were entrusted with highly professional managers who turned them into the Kremlin’s efficient political resources. The TV coverage was honed to perfection: the sense that Putin was a leader of no alternative was maintained and reinforced; unwelcome figures were securely barred from the mass TV audience; nothing unwanted or unexpected to the Kremlin would ever appeared on the screen; and the public opinion of the majority was generally shaped for the benefit of the Kremlin.

Smaller-audience media were allowed to exercise substantial editorial freedom. The Kremlin could afford a degree of permissiveness: the abundant resources generated by the growing price of oil enabled the government to buy public loyalty and acquiescence. Also, since the political realm was tightly controlled by the Kremlin, liberal outlets were reduced to political irrelevance—they were able to make noises, but incapable to make a difference. They evolved as “niche” publications for the liberal-minded, or put differently, they were preaching to the converted. The Kremlin ensured that gradually more and more media assets would end up in loyal hands so the independent voices remain at the discretion of the Kremlin. But throughout the 2000s the government remained generally permissive, and a range of print, online, radio, and one or two smaller-audience TV stations, nearly all of them Moscow-based, pursued nongovernment editorial lines.

By end of the previous decade the Moscow liberal journalists were an impressive community of urban professionals, well-skilled, wealthy and with a strong adherence to Western lifestyle and values. When mass protests erupted in December 2011, liberal journalists were in the foreground.

As soon as Putin returned to the Kremlin in mid-2012, it was clear that permissiveness was gone. The rise of a politically active minority combined with an economic slowdown pushed the Kremlin to a repressive gear: political and civic activists were intimidated and harassed, the Duma adopted a stream of  new norms that encroached on rights and freedoms, national TV networks portrayed excessively modernized urban Russians as immoral, unpatriotic and agents of the evil West.

The campaign against nongovernment media began around the time of Putin’s election in spring of 2012. Since then many in the liberal journalistic milieu lost their jobs, a few outlets were closed. Many others opted for self-censorship or avoided sensitive subjects altogether. The Kremlin did not even have to bother harassing individual journalists and editors. Loyal owners anxious to please the Kremlin readily got rid of audacious reporters. The redistribution of media properties in favor of the loyal owners has never stopped and by the end of last year, most of the Russian media assets were controlled by the state itself or one of the three giant media holdings, all of them close to the Kremlin. Those small-time media owners who were willing to take the risk soon faced dire consequences. This was the story of a defiant cable network TV Rain that I wrote about last month. The cable operators one after another terminated their contracts; last week the manager of the channel said TV Rain will barely survive beyond one or two months.

The destruction of TV Rain was one of several major blows that marked an intensification of the Kremlin’s crackdown on the media. Another was a reformatting of RIA Novosti, a government news agency, into a foreign propaganda tool. The agency, though far from disloyal, was a highly professional large-scale operation headed by a well-respected manager. She is now replaced by a TV host notorious for his raving anti-Ukrainian and anti-gay speech. Just very recently a loyal structure bought a stake in Russia’s most popular social network. A veteran post-Soviet radio station Echo Moskvy is still alive, but last week its top manager of twenty years was replaced by a woman with experience and ties in state-run media. This appointment is expected to restrict the editorial authority of Aleksey Venediktov, the legendary chief editor and the soul of Echo Moskvy.

The Ukrainian crisis has further hardened the atmosphere. The time for overtones is gone. The national TV is dominated by militant patriotism, and everyone is expected to rally behind the flag. Nongovernment media simply no longer belong in today’s Russia. “We should not avoid… the unpleasant truth,” a Russian journalist wrote yesterday upon hearing of the Lenta.ru demise, “the goal has been set: there is a plan to rid the country of the media that do not bend to censorship.”

“What is happening in today’s media is a bit like you’re walking along a street, and suddenly something explodes, you jump, but resume your step. Everything happens very fast and in a totally unexpectedly way… any publication can cease to exist in a matter of hours,” Galina Timchenko said in an interview a couple months ago when her Lenta.ru was still in motion. This week its turn has come to explode.

  • Maria Lipman