Circling the Lion's Den


Standards of journalism in Russia have not benefited from news websites. The authorities have a new channel to push the party line, says Andrei Soldatov

The online media in Russia is democracy’s front line: it is the only part of the media that has been able to operate freely since television came under government control and the newspaper industry fell into the hands of oligarchs loyal to the Kremlin. There are a number of theories to explain this relative freedom, including the Kremlin’s supposed desire to leave the arena open for the intelligentsia’s discussions or as a way of monitoring public opinion. But the true reason might be simpler. The new media in Russia is unlikely to pose any threat to the authorities, dependent as it is for its content on the few surviving independent newspapers in Moscow and the regions, providing a site for disseminating and discussing the papers’ news stories. Yet thanks to recent government efforts, even the online media’s role as a discussion forum is now under threat.

Almost all the most prominent sites in Russia were launched in 1999– 2001 by the oligarchs – by Vladimir Gusinsky, by Boris Berezovsky and by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. At the same time, the think tank the Fund for Effective Politics (FEP), headed by Gleb Pavlovsky, a pro-Kremlin spin doctor, launched a number of ambitious projects: and, both internet newspapers, and, a Russian national news service, which was presented as a new kind of media. Its websites succeeded in taking leading positions from the outset.

In the late 1990s, there were very few people who understood the internet, and not surprisingly those responsible for advising oligarchs and new media editors were often recruited from the same circle. Suddenly they found themselves in the unusual position of being asked to invent the rules and then play by them.

The first task was to define the criteria for assessing the impact of the new market. These methods of assessment remain obscure to outsiders. A new industry was born to provide the online media with the number of customers deemed appropriate for its investors: with methods ranging from pornographic banners to programming tools to increase hits. Not surprisingly, the quality of the journalism was the last thing to be considered. The top ratings were soon occupied by the news aggregators, and Newsru. com. ( was initially an NTV website, absorbed by Gazprom in 2000 during the Kremlin-orchestrated campaign that deprived the now disgraced Vladimir Gusinsky of his media empire. The website miraculously avoided the fate of other NTV projects.) was the only website with a full-scale editorial office, with sections on politics, business, society, science and culture. It was also the only site staffed by print journalists: was created by reporters who had previously worked at Kommersant, the most professional daily in post- Soviet Russia.

But could never compete with the high number of news aggregators’ hits and it was the most expensive website to run, given that the news aggregators did not bother to hire in-house journalists, limiting themselves to a few editors whose task was to rewrite the stories published by wire agencies and newspapers as quickly as possible. Presentation and packaging had taken over from fact-checking. At a discussion on the internet’s future organised by the BBC Russian service in the autumn of 2006, both Elena Bereznitskaya-Bruni, editor of, and Natalia Loseva, editor of the website RIA Novosti, a state-owned wire agency, argued that speed is the most important online attribute. By then, the online media was no longer considered a threat to the Russian authorities’ control of information.

The turning point was the Nord-Ost theatre hostage crisis in October 2002 and the disastrous subsequent storming of the theatre. The Kremlin found itself overwhelmed by hundreds of news messages critical of the Downloaded from official version of events, circulated on the internet and promoted by news aggregators. This time, the lack of in-house reporters was not an issue, for the hostage crisis took place in Moscow and some editors personally followed the events. Bereznitskaya-Bruni reported extensively on the mistakes made by the Russian secret services during the crisis and on the ensuing intimidation of journalists who covered the story. The criticism was further strengthened thanks to’s satellite project, which translated critical stories on Russian affairs from the foreign media on a daily basis. This time, the online technologies enabling the flow of information turned against the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, the authorities had to rely on the same technology as the news aggregators, but strengthened by the vast resources of the state-owned media. As part of its strategy, FEP’s projects and were sold in 2002 to the All-Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), a state-owned corporation building its online media empire.

As an attempt to spin public opinion, it clearly failed. Critical stories of Russian and foreign origin kept circulating on the Russian internet, and even a direct counterattack could not help. By then the special project of had been launched to translate stories favourable to Russian policy and to compete with The project was established by Pavlovsky’s FEP and then handed over to the state-owned RIA Novosti. Over the next two years, the online media market was affected by a new development. In the mid-Noughties, more and more print journalists were losing their jobs. For many, the internet was the only area where it was possible to express their opinions. The problem was that online media had no resources to pay for investigative journalism and reportage; instead, reporters turned into columnists.

Journalists from Ezhednevny Journal, a weekly traditional magazine closed down in 2004, were split between and the newly established opinion section at A similar section was created at, headed by Gleb Cherkasov, the former editor-in-chief of another weekly journal, Politburo, which was closed down in December 2003. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming number of columnists turned out to be highly critical of Russian domestic policy, despite lacking access to information. In turn, the Kremlin’s internet advisers had no new ideas beyond turning to the same news aggregators and communities of columnists. Meanwhile, the rules of the market had not changed: the hits still justified the means. As a result, the Kremlin recruited a new generation of experts, headed by the young internet guru Konstantin Rykov. He proposed a new and more aggressive formula for success – a combination of the same technology of news aggregators plus irreverent, patriotic columnists, lined up to attack liberals Fox News-style, strengthened by the direct and shameless buying of traffic. This was achieved through advertising on the biggest email providers: pro-Kremlin media, such as, were advertised with eye-catching, yellow banners.

Some ends were achieved – the news websites loyal to the Kremlin were promoted to high-ratings positions, and Rykov was made a member of the State Duma. At the same time, the new patriotic media gained neither the popularity of liberal news aggregators such as, nor the influence that enjoyed with the elite and the intelligentsia. Losing the competition, the Kremlin turned to other means already proven to be effective in dealing with newspapers: the buying of media by loyal oligarchs and the introduction of new laws controlling the press. In 2006,, then the only news website with a fully staffed team of reporters, was sold to Alisher Usmanov, an oligarch and founder of Metalloinvest, thought to be close to the Kremlin. Early the same year, Usmanov had bought Kommersant Publishing House, and came under its control. In 2008, Usmanov further expanded his media empire: Kommersant agreed to merge into SUP Company, the owner of LiveJournal, the biggest blog service and virtual community in Russia. As a result, Kommersant received 50 per cent of SUP, while SUP got 100 per cent of

This was also a time of direct state intervention. In 2007, Vladimir Putin, then the Russian president, signed a package of amendments expanding the definition of extremism. It was the second set of amendments focusing on extremism to be adopted in Russia since mid-2006. In July that year, Putin signed amendments that broadened the definition of extremism to include media criticism of state officials. According to the law introduced in 2007, amendments to the ‘law on fighting extremist activity’ require news media to label as ‘extremist’ any organisation that the government has banned as such.

Another amendment expanded the definition of extremist activity to include ‘public justification of terrorism or other terrorist activity’. It did not, however, define the term ‘justification’. Other amendments regulate the production and distribution of ‘extremist’ material, without specifying what constitutes such material, and introduce new penalties for journalists, media outlets and printers found guilty of the offence. Penalties range from fines and confiscation of production equipment, to the suspension of media outlets for up to 90 days. Bloggers were among the victims of the new law over the next two years. In March 2009, Dmitry Soloviev, leader of the youth opposition group Oborona in the Kemerovo region, faced criminal charges for criticising the FSB in his LiveJournal blog. According to experts invited by the prosecution, the information posted by Soloviev ‘incites hatred, hostility and degrades a social group of people – the police and the FSB’. The charges were dropped in January.

Savva Terentyev, a 22-year-old blogger from the Komi Republic, faced similar charges of inciting hatred after posting a comment on a blog run by local journalist Boris Suranov in March 2008, criticising the police. In July 2009, he was found guilty and received a suspended sentence of one year. In October 2009, Dmitry Kirilin, a resident of Samara, was found guilty of publishing extremist statements on the internet calling for the overthrow of the regime. He was given a one-year suspended jail sentence. Kirilin had posted the comment on his blog stating that the current system of government was causing the degradation, demoralisation and dying out of the Russian people. At the same time, the Kremlin kept trying to find new methods for dealing with the blogging community. In May 2009, the ‘Kremlin school of bloggers’ was launched, headed by spin doctor Alexei Chadayev, an associate of Pavlovsky. The school reportedly consisted of 80 people from all over Russia (each working with two or three activists), and their graduates are supposed to organise information campaigns online.

The biggest industrial catastrophe of 2009 was a striking illustration of the new government strategy. On 17 August, Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric station, the largest in Russia, suffered an accident that caused flooding of the engine and turbine rooms and a transformer explosion; 74 people were killed. On 20 August, local journalist Mikhail Afanasyev, editor of the online journal Novy Focus, was charged with slander for distributing ‘intentionally false reports’ about the disaster. Afanasyev had been charged less than 24 hours after a journalist suggested on his site that officials were shifting their efforts away from the search for survivors too quickly. Two weeks later, a journalist from Interfax wire agency was expelled from the area of the Sayano-Shushenskaya station for his critical reporting. Instead, the popular blogger Rustem Adagamov, aka ‘drugoi’, who heads the multimedia department of SUP (the company which owns LiveJournal), was invited to report on the relief operation. So he did, reporting favourably for the authorities. In October, Adagamov was invited to join the Kremlin press pool, a proposal that he accepted.

Having got wind of the new trends, the online media started to drop their forums, fearing that a stupid comment or deliberate provocation made by a graduate of the Kremlin bloggers’ school might cause the closure of a website because of charges of extremism. is one of the casualties: its website had become the most representative columnists’ community on the Russian internet, publishing columns by opposition leaders, independent experts and journalists and prominent pro-government pundits. ‘When the amendments were approved, we shut our forum so that our stories could be discussed on more neutral territory,’ said Olga Pashkova, a director of Other online media (including my own site began moderating their forums more closely. Vladimir Korsunsky, editor of, confirmed the trend: ‘For sure we don’t aim to close down our forum because it’s important to have an area for discussion, but we will change the technology [for publishing comments].’

Today, the Russian online media looks vulnerable not only because of government pressure, but because of a lack of resources to sustain original journalism. The most popular online media do not have in-house journalists; instead they continue to reproduce stories from wire agencies and print media. For a while, newspapers tolerated news aggregators because they were considered useful in attracting subscribers (Novaya Gazeta and Versiya, for example, had even asked to run their stories). But what if newspapers and wire agencies, most of which have extensively invested in websites, decide to turn against the online media?

In April 2008, the news agency Interfax, the VGTRK,, RIA Novosti and Kommersant Publishing House united to protect their authors’ rights. In a joint statement, they agreed that emphasis should be put on the internet, and in 2008–9 a package of means would be developed, including ‘legislative and technological instruments for monitoring breach of rights’. So far, there are no signs of these instruments, but the prominent online media got the signal. stopped publishing the full texts of translated stories, and has recently launched a new project called where only citations from the stories published in Russian print media are reproduced.

The new media is making a limited attempt to counter these trends. At the time of greatest crisis in 2008, more journalists were fired by newspapers, and two new internet projects were launched by former print editors: by Raf Shakirov (former editor-in-chief of Kommersant, Izvestia and New Times) and by Leonid Bershidsky (Vedomosti). But that did not bring true journalism to the internet – both projects were business media determined to keep a safe distance from politics, and folded in January. The oppositional political projects remain in a minority, possibly the best guarantee for survival. ‘To be frank, during the years there was no serious pressure on us, it might be because we were so few and our influence on society so small that it was decided not to touch us for a while,’ said Vladimir Korsunsky, editor of, whose office was searched in September 2003 by investigators from the prosecutor general’s office.

Russia’s online media continues to be essentially a new technology – not a new journalism – at best a means of distributing news already published in blogs or traditional media.


27.03.2010 Published in the Index on Censorship. Issue "Brave New Words"