Only one truth in Putin’s Russia

The Russian media are accustomed to indirect pressure from government-friendly sources. However, the grip on the media has tightened since 2012 and is leading to increased self-censorship, says a Russian journalist and researcher.

Media freedom is under increasing pressure in Russia. Through most of the 2000s, the Kremlin contented itself with controlling only the mainstream media and using major newspapers and television channels as its mouthpieces; it allowed smaller media organisations to voice their criticism and dissent, something akin to poking a large bear with a small stick.

However, the situation changed with the 2012 elections and demonstrations. The media began to label critics and demonstrators as traitors and agents of foreign powers, and a wide range of measures were introduced to extend controls over free media reporting. The press, television and online media were all affected.

“Since 2012, many critically minded journalists have been fired, publications have closed and the remaining media have been reduced or have changed their political commentary,” says Maria Lipman, an expert on Russian media.

A former journalist and researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center, Lipman is one of the keynote speakers at the 14th Annual International Aleksanteri Conference, held by the University of Helsinki from 22 to 24 October 2014.

Her comments on the Russian media were made during the Russia after 2014 panel discussion on Wednesday.

Typically, attempts to rein in the media have not involved direct harassment of editorial offices, but various indirect means have been used to make the media toe the line. Rather than intimidating journalists, government-friendly forces have pressured media owners, who have let go critical editors-in-chief or entire editorial staff. The influence of the Kremlin is also evident, for example, when a liberal, popular and commercially viable TV channel is denied a new cable licence.

Legislation has also been amended to support the “Putinisation” of the media. Foreign media ownership has been limited to 20%, which has silenced or is silencing critical voices. The legislation also promotes social conservatism and the idea of a single, simple truth. For example, the law that prohibits offending people’s religious sentiments also affects the media.

“The less free the media are, the easier it is for the government to control things. Psychologically, the space given to journalists continues to decrease, which increases self-censorship,” Maria Lipman says.

The Aleksanteri Conference is organised by the University of Helsinki Aleksanteri Institute.

14th Annual International Aleksanteri Conference 22.-24.10.2014: Restructuring State and Society in Russia