Few media outlets in Russia can be called “independent” of the Kremlin, and yet fewer are free of the self-preserving inclination to please Putin’s censors. (Matter of fact, I probably shouldn’t complain too much; it was namely due to Putin’s fear of independent media that my radio group in Russia was bought out, at “you name the price“, by a group acceptable to Putin, back in 2006).
Echo of Moscow (Ekho Moskvy) is one of the black sheep in the media landscape. Historically, “the Echo” has been the place to go for a different take on current events, always preserving a healthy dose of skepticism about the Kremlin’s motives, while the rest of the herd has been adulating all things Putin.
Echo of Moscow was originally part of Media Most, an always-critical media group owned by Russian-Israeli oligarch Vladimir Gussinsky. In 2000, Gussinsky was indicted on tax and embezzlement charges, and in his own words, was forced to swap his “controlling share in Media Most in exchange for the prosecution dropping criminal charges against me“. The appointed buyer for his shares was none other than Gazprom (I still remember the bemused look on Gazprom head’s Alexey Miller’s face when he had to explain to us – a group of competitors in Moscow in 2000, why Gazprom, all of a sudden, has decided to invest in media…he couldn’t even remember the name of the TV station he had just acquired).
Unexpectedly for most, while Gazprom Media totally refashioned its newly acquired TV station (NTV) into a pro-Kremlin puppy, it left Echo of Moscow untouched, and the radio station continued its dissenting editorial policy. The rationale behind this odd move was, most likely, two-fold.
On one hand, 33% of the radio station’s shares still belonged to journalists, including the unruly-hair/unruly mind editor-in-chief Alexey Venedictov, and any direct interference would have caused a major and publicly visible uproar and accusations of censorship. On the other hand, the Kremlin saw early on that having an “island of dissent” where ideological dissidents could hang out and blow their steam is probably better than forcing the dissenters to listen to foreign – and ultimately uncontrollable – media, such as Radio Liberty.
Whatever the rationale, Echo of Moscow remained largely independent of the Kremlin’s line, and this continued well into 2014. While the station was routinely accused of being anti-Russian, by politicians and average Russians alike, no one effectively tried to impose censorship.
Come the Sochi Olympics, Putin’s ultimate pet project. Not only did Echo take a largely cynical line of questioning the sound economics of the whole enterprise, but it dared publish an opinion piece by TV satirist Shenderovich, likening the Sochi Olympics to the 1936 Nazi Germany Olympics, and calling 15-year-old figure-skaker Lipnitzkaya “a prop for raising Putin’s popularity”. The Kremlin sent its sledge-hammer to deal with Echo on this one: RIA Novosti’s chief Kiselyov, currently on the EU blacklist, went on a 15-minute televised tirade and called Echo’s liberalism “acts against the State“. (my favorite part: Kiselyov disproving the author’s claim that “the only difference between 2014 Russia and 1936 Germany was that the German’s living standard in 1936 was higher” with the counter argument: “But as you can see, in 1936 there were no traffic jams in Berlin!”
In an “unrelated restructuring decision”, Gazprom Media summoned an emergency shareholders’ meeting of Echo of Moscow and fired its founding general director Yuriy Fedutinov, replacing him (after 22 years of service) with the State-radio aparatchik Ekaterina Pavlova.
While, after this divine intervention, Echo’s editorial staff became more careful in picking their words, they did not shy away from taking a harshly cynical line during the Russian invasion of Ukraine – from ridiculing the little-green-men-in-Crimea phenomenon, to disclosing the corrupt deals that Putin is offering oligarchs to secure their support for the war, to posting a play-by-play chronology of the downing of MH17 with direct implications that was shot down by the pro-Russian separatists.
This editorial dissidence, against the backdrop of a patriotically mobilized media environment, has made Echo an unacceptable enemy of the establishment. In addition to the usual “j’accuse”-ers Dugin, Limonov and Zhirinovsky, all calling Echo “enemy of the State”, “US and/or Zionist spies”, “anti-Russian” and “a bunch of traitors”, warning shots are now coming from the top. In May, former Putin’s economics adviser, MP and head of the Duma’s economics committee Evgeny Fedorov, one of the most odious Russian politicians to date, called “Echo of Moscow” the fifth column of Russian media, and proposed measures to defend the State from “treason amongst the media“.
Mikhail Lesin, former Press Minister (!) and now head of Gazprom Media, has publicly criticized Echo’s editorial policy in the context of the Russian-Ukraine conflict, and has implied that even though he can’t formally interfere with editorial decisions, “my voice is heard, and is heard a lot. It will take some efforts, but I can be very convincing“. In an August interview with the Russian Forbes magazine, Lesin implied that unless Echo changed its tune, it may just end up as an “all-music radio station”. So far, editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov sneers at such threats and keeps going, although the noose seems to be irreversibly tightening.
But nothing exemplifies the plight of the stand-alone media daring to be free-thinking in Putin’s Russia, than TV Rain (TV Dozhd’). You might remember TV Rain’s earlier troubles with free speech: in February 2014, the TV channel dared air a viewer poll, asking viewers to vote on the question whether the loss of life during the blockade of Leningrad in WWII had been justified – or whether, as some suggest, the city should have surrendered to the German forces. Not only was TV Rain immediately fined by the media watchdog for asking a “sacrilegious question”; but it was taken off distribution by seemingly unrelated and coordinated commercial decisions of several satellite and cable distributors. Following a public apology by the TV channel, President Putin promised, in a public Q&A session, to do whatever he could to “liberate [TV Rain] from the excessive attention by the media regulators“, and to convince the operators to resume distribution (oh, miracle! they did, within a minute).
More sinister for the state of Russia today was what happened yesterday. TV Rain aired, and posted on its website, a news story about Russia’s “humanitarian convoy being accompanied by separatists“.
Within a few minutes, this story made it to the top of most-read news articles in Russian web-media, as measured by the Russian web-metrics bible, MediaMetrics.
However, that feat didn’t last long. Seeing that the news story contained the word “separatists” (instead of “Novorossian heroes, or at worst: “brave insurgents”), MediaMetrics’ owner German Klimenko up and deleted that news story from the measurement system. In his own words:
“I didn’t delete the news itself. I deleted the news entry from our ratings system. It’s better to commit a sin, than to be known as sinful”
TV Rain initially tweeted, indignantly, about its news story being taken off the grid. However, a few minutes later, the indignant tweet was deleted. In its place, the following new tweet appeared:
«Dear friends, regarding MediaMetrics. We just had a chat with German Klimenko, and he explained the situation. Our claim on MediaMetrics is thus dropped».
And that, “dear friends”, appears to be the recipe for survival of media in Putin’s Russia.