BY A THOUSAND CUTS

How the Kremlin is killing off the last of Russia’s independent media

A former colleague of mine claims she has made friends with an aging she-wolf and has generally grown to prefer animals to people. She also claims there is life after journalism: Following a decade as a reporter, she is running the public relations department of the Moscow Zoo. Another former colleague is raising money for a special education center in the city and gradually learning to work with the children. A third, a science reporter, is helping redesign a science-and-technology museum in Moscow. Roughly half of the members of an editorial team I led just a couple of years ago have left the profession; the other half are lucky enough to have jobs writing or editing for one of the few remaining independent media outlets in Moscow—and for each of them this is probably their last job in journalism. The death watch is on for Russia’s independent media.

Death by disconnection

There are many ways to kill a media outlet. The simplest is to pull the plug. But, as the independent-minded journalists in the Siberian city of Tomsk have learned, even this process isn’t quite so simple in Russia.

Tomsk’s TV-2 was Russia’s last remaining independent regional broadcast television channel—an anomaly, as it’s been over a decade since the Russian state took almost complete control of broadcast television, both federal and local. An unusually liberal city administration, an owner who was a masterful negotiator, and a versatile and energetic legal team had ensured the station’s survival.

But in mid-April, TV-2 went off the air. The government-owned service that controls broadcast technology in the city told the station that a segment of cable called the “feeder” had burned out and promised to have it fixed soon. Then, on May 15—which happened to be the station’s 23rd birthday—TV-2 got a notice from the regulatory authority that its license would be revoked if it did not immediately resume service. Since the mysterious “feeder” had still not been fixed by the other state agency, it couldn’t. As of this writing, TV-2 is off the air and unlikely ever to resume broadcasting.

Death by starvation

Having the plug pulled with hardly any warning is infuriating and disorienting, but death by starvation is arguably more painful—and certainly takes longer. Just ask the staff at Rain TV in Moscow. This is a cable-and-satellite-based channel that, since launching four years ago, has managed to build up an audience of 20 million, according to the channel itself.

But in January, on the 70th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad, Rain’s reporters asked their viewers whether they thought the Soviet Union should have ceded Leningrad to the Germans in order to save lives. (Some 1.5 million Soviet citizens and soldiers died in the 872-day siege.) Interpreted as a challenge to the Russian historiography of World War II, the question ignited outrage and led to a public campaign against the station. An overwhelming majority of satellite providers promptly dropped Rain TV. The audience fell by 80%. Advertisers reacted by discontinuing their contracts.

Five months after asking the offending question, Rain has cut its broadcast hours by half and its staff by a third; the remaining staff have taken severe pay cuts. In April, the channel staged a fund-raising drive that collected enough money to keep it going for three months in its current, truncated incarnation. Meanwhile, various federal and local authorities have pestered the channel with inspections, and Rain’s landlord has informed the owners it will not be renewing the channel’s lease when it comes up in late June.

The channel’s owners, a married couple, are looking at studio space far outside Moscow’s city center, while some of its reporters, newly broke, are bunking together in temporary quarters. “I wish they would just talk each other into giving up already,” says a friend of the owners, the way someone might talk of a friend who refuses to put the family dog out of its suffering.

Death by strangulation

In March, the Russian consumer authority, which is responsible for enforcing some of the newer and more restrictive laws on information, ordered internet service providers to cut off access to two online opposition newspapers, ej.ru and grani.ru. Both publications can still be accessed easily from outside Russia, but those who are in the country need to use proxy servers to read them. The associated burst of publicity, combined with the annexation of Crimea which happened around the same time, led at first to a spike in the sites’ readership.

But since then the numbers have been declining steadily, probably because using technical workarounds is just too much work for most people. Ej.ru and grani.ru are still produced and edited by teams based in Moscow, and that means that editors and writers also need to use proxy servers to do their jobs. As the media crackdown becomes more targeted—as it inevitably will—the number of available workarounds will surely decrease, making the editing more difficult and further shrinking the readership.

Do svidanya, Facebook

Where will people get their news once the last of the television and internet news resources are shut down? For now, they are turning to social networks. Recently unemployed reporters have been blogging the war in Ukraine, their first-hand reporting mixing with that of people who have never worked as journalists but are moved to bear witness to historic events. In the near-total absence of traditional media to sort through and highlight the best of these sources, social networks provide an increasingly unreliable cross-section of news and opinions.

But even this mix of variously distorted views will come to seem like a luxury once Russia shuts off access to the big international social networks. A recently enacted law, which goes into effect on Aug. 1, will mandate that any social network or e-mail service operating in Russia collect exhaustive information on users’ identities and activities, and store the data on servers housed in the country, or else be shut down. That probably means Russians will lose access to Facebook and Twitter, along with services such as Skype and Gmail, later this summer, and have to rely on homegrown services (something many Russian tech entrepreneurs are quite happy about).

The last magazine standing

There will probably come a moment when only a single independent media outlet survives. More likely than not, it will be the weekly print magazine New Times.

Larger media once known for their fierce independence have struck various compromises with the authorities. The radio station Echo Moskvy, for example, has carefully balanced its few outspoken anti-Kremlin commentators with a line-up of pro-Kremlin and more-nationalist-than-the-Kremlin voices—and frequently renegotiates the exact ratio with the Kremlin itself. The newspaper Novaya Gazeta, known for its daring investigative work, has for years enjoyed the protection of the Moscow mayor, and has in exchange stayed out of city politics. Both Ekho Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta rent office space from the city at a nice discount.

By contrast, the New Times has consistently refused to negotiate or compromise. As a result, the magazine, housed in cramped quarters it rents from a small private company, has stayed lean and fierce. This has made it poor, but also virtually impervious to political pressure—and very good at keeping costs down. The magazine hasn’t seen a paid ad in years, but a successful subscription campaign last fall raised $1 million—enough to keep it going through the middle of this year, according to Yevgenia Albats, its editor-in-chief and publisher.

But how would the last remaining independent publication function in an environment where all other media are controlled by the state? On May 19, Albats called a meeting of the New Times’ staff editors and writers, and a broader circle of freelancers, to discuss just that. “State propaganda has become so crude and so overwhelming that it’s not clear what we can possibly do to counteract it,” she told them, as she later related to me. “‘We are living through a time when everything is either black or white. State propaganda offers simple solutions: ‘Crimea is ours and those who disagree are the fifth column and traitors.’ Blunt statements like those seem to call for equally blunt responses. A more complicated kind of journalism works for those who are receptive to arguments rather than slogans, but that’s preaching to the converted.”

The assembled group debated possible strategies for several hours. In the end, they concluded that balanced, fact-based reporting was still the best tool available to any publication, including their own. They resolved to attempt to practice good journalism for as long as they are able; they did not talk about how long that might be.

Follow Masha on Twitter @mashagessen. We welcome your feedback at ideas@qz.com

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