Until this week, a handful of websites seemed to be the last bastions of the free press in Russia. But on Thursday those bastions fell. The Kremlin blocked three independent news sites, including one run by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, as well as a widely read investigative blog, Livejournal.com, by Alexei Navalny.
Only two years ago, during protests in Moscow against the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency, the Russian online media played a key role mobilizing demonstrations. They were called the front line of democracy in an ever less democratic state. They were popular and they were the only media able to operate freely since television had come under government control and the newspaper industry fell into the hands of oligarchs loyal to the Kremlin.
How, then, did Putin manage what some are calling an “online coup d'état?”
Much the same way Putin, the veteran of Russia’s intelligence services, does so much else: with careful calculation and preparation followed by brutal action.
Initially the Russian authorities focused not on individual sites, but on journalistic genres. Most investigative reporting fell prey to self-censorship after the Kremlin went after its practitioners. Then it targeted more conventional reporters, and then it was a turn for critical commentators.
It took about six months to neutralize the Russian Web. The process started in September 2013, when the editor of the online Gazeta.Ru was replaced by a pro-government appointee. Yesterday’s closures just finished the job.
The sites were vulnerable largely because of the Russian media market’s peculiarities. Almost all of the most prominent sites in Russia were launched in 1999-2001 by the country’s oligarchs—Newsru.com by Vladimir Gusinsky, Grani.ru by Boris Berezovsky, and Gazeta.ru by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. A think tank headed by Gleb Pavlovsky, a pro-Kremlin spin doctor, launched the Internet newspaper Lenta.ru about the same time.
Gusinsky, Berezovsky, and Khodorkovsky became prominent in 1990s, and in the 2000s they wanted to continue to participate in the political game as independent players. Putin wasn’t going to put up with that. He sent Khodorkovsky to prison. Gusinsky and Berezovsky went into exile. Nevertheless, for some years they continued to fund their new media, and even when some of these sites changed hands they kept their oppositional views.
Gazeta.ru was the only operation with a full-scale editorial office reporting for sections on politics, business, society, science, and culture. It was also the only site staffed by former print journalists, mostly from Kommersant, one of the most professional dailies in post-Soviet Russia.
Over the years, in Russia as elsewhere, more and more journalists who lost their jobs in dwindling print media moved to the Internet. But online publications had no resources to pay for investigative journalism and reportage. So reporters increasingly became columnists.
In the 2000s, some liberal commentators deprived of access to print media landed on Ej.Ru, Grani.Ru, and Kasparov.Ru. Since the former chess champion who funded Kasparov.Ru has become one of the most vocal leaders of the opposition, the overwhelming number of columnists on the site, unsurprisingly, turned out to be highly critical of the Kremlin. One of the most prominent commentators was Andrei Piontkovsky, who was sued (unsuccessfully) by the authorities in 2007 for his book Unloved Country; in 2010, Piontkosky initiated and signed the Russian opposition’s open letter, “Putin Should Step Down.”
During the brief political spring under President Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s intelligentsia took heart and the online media became more ambitious. News aggregator Lenta.Ru established a section of special reporters in March 2011, and hired Ilya Azar, who was popular among Moscow’s middle classes. But problematic investigative pieces were played down. So bloggers began to take the lead in exposing corruption. This new trend was a decisive turn for Alexei Navalny, propelling him into the media spotlight.
It was largely accepted that the Russian online media could not publish investigative reporting on their own, and someone else would have to break the stories outside the country. When Irina Borogan and I exposed the system of total surveillance at Sochi, we published our report in The Guardian, and only after that did the Russian media pick it up.
When Muscovites took to the streets in December 2011 to express their outrage at Putin’s decision to get back to the Kremlin, online media were happy to report extensively about the protests, but investigations were left to Navalny’s team. This lasted for two years: Journalists for online media were busy reporting street actions, from Moscow to Kiev, but corruption at Sochi in the buildup to the recent Winter Olympics was exposed by Navalny’s activists and an opposition politician, Boris Nemtsov.
In September 2013, the Kremlin made a decisive move billed as conventional management decision: Gazeta.ru got a new editor directly from RIA Novosti, a government-funded wire/PR agency. Since then Gazeta.Ru has lost its critical edge.
The crisis in Ukraine brought things to a head. The Russian incursion in Crimea was covered extensively by online media, and the Kremlin—intent on building its own relentless narrative about events there—decided it could not tolerate uncensored reporting anymore. The relatively independent TV Dozhd was the first to be attacked. In February, the channel was cut off from its customers by the owners of the cable networks. Then Lenta.Ru came under attack: Its editor, Galina Timchenko, was fired by the owner and replaced by a figure loyal to the authorities.
What was left was the Navalny blog, and the three websites that emphasized commentary over reporting. Those had to go, too. Since yesterday, it’s not only freedom of information that’s limited in Russia, it’s freedom of discussion.