Sophisticated Muscovites have excellent literature, theater and ballet at their fingertips. But quality journalism, and even quality TV, are increasingly difficult to find in the Russian capital.
While post-Soviet Russia has never been a shining star of press freedom, Putin’s third presidential term, starting in 2012, marked the beginning of a series of new restrictions that have led to a nadir in strong journalism. And it’s not likely to get better any time soon. Or as Dr. Samuel Greene, director of King’s College London’s Russia Institute, told the Calvert Journal, as Russia faces rocky economic times and more conflict with the West, “the competition for Russians’ hearts and minds is growing more fierce and more fraught. And that is not a competition that the Kremlin is prepared to lose, almost whatever the cost.”
Unlike in Soviet times, when state control was overt and clear cut, Kremlin influence now operates as more of a continuum from the state-owned media (which includes all of the country’s major television networks and two of the three largest news agencies) to so-called independent media owned by Putin allies to a handful of publications operating without support from either the state or the state allies. Several outlets cater to a Russian audience but operate abroad to avoid some of the more obvious dangers of practicing journalism in Russia. And change can come quickly: a mildly subversive outlet will have a sudden change in ownership, putting a Putin ally in charge and resulting in a hostile takeover of the newsroom.
‘The competition for Russians’ hearts and minds is growing more fierce and more fraught.’
There are basic “values” by which all media must abide, from supporting Russia’s “Christian values” revival, its intervention in Syria and its annexation of Crimea. An unauthorized mention of Putin’s family can warrant action, as the outlet RBC discovered when it, alone among major Russian outlets, covered Panama Papers revelations relating to Putin’s daughter and son-in-law.
Sophisticated news consumers increasingly rely on Telegram, an encrypted service that operates like Twitter but with significantly more identity protection. Prominent Telegram channels often operate as news services and plenty of users have gained prominence for their government critiques. The government has banned the service, but has been unsuccessful in actually shutting it down so far. Some government officials even admit they still rely on the service for news. Meanwhile, rumors swirl that the government has bought off certain channels and users. The plot surrounding media independence is always thickening—but there’s nowhere to read about it.