Russia's Media Autarky Strengthens Its Grip
Vladimir Putin is trying to fundamentally reshape Russia's media system as he forges an illiberal, isolationist "Russian World" doctrine. In so doing, Russia's president is taking his country into uncharted territory.
The sweeping effort to control Russia's information flows has three visible currents: an effort to remove the last vestiges of Russia's domestic independent media; attempts to eliminate the remaining foreign news outlets; and the state's tightening stranglehold on online news and information. Taken together, these measures are bringing Russia toward what can be called media autarky.
Putin has always been allergic to independent news media. Upon coming to power at the beginning of 2000, he quickly moved to take control of Russia's television networks, since these reach the widest national audiences. However, Putin left smaller outlets and the Internet relatively free to disseminate a wide range of information and opinions. Now, the independent voices that once served as alternative sources of information for Russian audiences are disappearing.
A new phase in the clampdown on independent media began after the breakout of large anti-Putin protests in Moscow in late 2011 and early 2012; the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine accelerated the process.
In a key step toward restricting online freedoms, the Kremlin, over the summer of 2013, assumed the power to arbitrarily shut down websites accused of piracy. Then on Dec. 9, 2013, the president issued a decree shuttering RIA Novosti, the state-controlled news agency that had a reputation for independent analysis. RIA Novosti was replaced by Russia Today, an unapologetically pro-Kremlin outlet.
More steps followed in quick succession to throttle domestic news sources. Early in 2014, cable operators dropped TV Rain, Russia's only independent television broadcaster, as part of a Kremlin-orchestrated move to silence its increasingly popular programming. TV Rain remains available, but only on the Internet. Ekho Moskvy, the iconic radio station known for broadcasting independent voices across Russia's political spectrum, is under growing pressure, and its future operations appear to be in serious jeopardy.
Satellite and cable channels will suffer when measures banning advertising take hold on Jan. 1, 2015. Scores of independent pay-TV channels will be adversely affected.
The second piece of the Kremlin's gambit for achieving media autarky is bringing independent foreign media outlets to heel.
In October 2014, Putin signed a law that requires Russian media outlets to reduce any non-Russian ownership to 20 percent by the beginning of 2017. The impact will be extensive. CNN has broadcast from Russia for 21 years but will cease operations at the end of 2014, citing among other factors the onerous character of the impending law. Many prominent independent publications that have been crucial fixtures in Russia's media landscape also are in peril, including the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, owned by Axel Springer, and Vedomosti, a collaborative effort of the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and the Finnish Sanoma Independent Media.
Online, Putin is pursuing a policy of what he calls internet sovereignty - essentially an arrangement in which the Russian government controls Russia's internal cyberspace. A report released in November 2014 by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society found that, "over the past two years, systematic Internet regulation has increased more in Russia than anywhere else in the world."
In March 2014, the Kremlin blocked four popular opposition websites: Ezhednevny Zhurnal, Grani, Kasparov.ru, and Alexey Navalny's blog. Similarly, it replaced the independent-minded leadership of Lenta.ru, another prominent independent news source. A law that came into effect in July 2014 requires bloggers with more than 3,000 daily visitors to register with Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor, and conform to the regulations that govern the country's larger media outlets.
Pavel Durov, the owner of Russia's Facebook equivalent, VKontakte, refused in April 2014 to turn over information from the social network to the authorities. He was forced to resign and fled the country, following which a wealthy, Kremlin-friendly businessman took over the company. VKontakte previously hosted wide-ranging discussions and gave activists a platform to communicate and organize.
Other restrictive Kremlin measures now require Internet service providers to hold the personal information of Russian citizens on servers in Russia. Providers of wifi in public places must register users. For good measure, in November the authorities announced the development of a Russian alternative to Wikipedia.
Russia's media autarky has crucial implications for Putin's war in Ukraine. Due to the Kremlin's successful propaganda and censorship, most ordinary Russians - who have little appetite for war with Ukraine - believe the fiction that Russia is coming to the aid of Ukrainian brothers who are under attack from what Moscow calls fascists. Meanwhile, the Kremlin systematically blocks reports to its domestic audience about the growing number of Russian soldiers killed during fighting in Ukraine, knowing this information could turn Russian public opinion in unpredictable ways.
Putin's radical strategy of delinking Russians from news that the state does not fully control is a sign of the regime's weakness, rather than its vibrancy. The liquidation of independent media, hand-in-hand with a sharp crackdown on the country's civic organizations, is smothering the institutions that are needed if Russia is to modernize and reform.
The rapidly shrinking space for independent news and information casts an even darker shadow over Russia's future. This is bad news for Russia and its Western neighbors alike.