Silencing Moscow’s optimistic voice Reply

TV Rain television studio in Moscow. Photos by Lori Perkovich.

TV Rain television studio in Moscow. Photos by Lori Perkovich.

In Moscow to study U.S.-Russia diplomatic relations, Lori Perkovich sought an internal perspective on the Kremlin’s use of media to influence both Russian citizens and the international community. Her report:

 

As I began researching the independent channel TV Dozhd (Телеканал ДОЖДЬ), aka TV Rain/the Optimistic Channel, which first aired in 2010, I found what appeared to be a string of attempts to force Dozhd out of business. This beleaguered station was two weeks away from losing its offices, almost out of money and attempting to put out fires. Yet, the deputy editor-in-chief, Tikhon Dzyadko, agreed to meet with me during the middle of a crisis, even though I was not a journalist from a large publication and was mainly looking for information for my scholarly research.

Russia has never been known as a supportive place for freedom of the press. In fact, it is known for repression of the media, murders of journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya, and manipulating stories to spread disinformation through state television and other allegedly independent outlets. Russia ranked 148th out of 179 countries in the press freedom index in 2013.

Numerous editors of independent media outlets have been fired in the past two years and websites such as Aleksei Navalny’s anti-corruption blog have been blocked. In December 2013, the 72-year-old national news agency RIA Novosti was dismantled and merged with Voice of Russia (State Radio) to create Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today). In March 2014, Editor-in-Chief Galina Timchenko of Lenta, a popular Russian independent news website, was fired. She was replaced by Aleksei Goreslavsky, the former editor of known nationalistic website Vzglyad.

Dozhd seems always to have been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side because of its coverage of events such as 2011 and 2012 protests in Moscow and its ongoing coverage in Ukraine. At one point, Dozhd had more than 15 million viewers, but behind-the-scenes “harassment” tactics caused the systematic tearing away of its infrastructure — advertising, satellite and cable providers — and slowly forced the station out of Russian markets. As Russian journalist Masha Gessen wrote, Dozhd is experiencing “death by starvation.”

In January 2014, the station ran a poll that appeared on the 70th anniversary of the siege of Leningrad by Nazi Germany’s forces (1941-1944). It asked viewers, “Should the city have been surrendered so that hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved?” Most of the world would consider that a valid question; however, according to the International Federation of Journalists, numerous Russian media reports called it unethical. The station apologized and the poll was taken down, but this gave the Kremlin the leverage it needed. Several legislators from United Russia, the ruling party, called the poll “unpatriotic.” The national prosecutor, the Federal Communications Agency, and State Duma deputies opened investigations. St. Petersburg’s city legislature also asked Prosecutor General Yury Chaika to take action against the station. In a January 29 interview with Dozhd, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that it “crossed a moral-ethical red line” with its poll. Even with all of the obstacles strategically placed in their path, Dzyadko said, owners Alexander Vinokurov and Natalya Sindeyeva are determined to carry on.

This is where the divergence of opinion begins. In an interview conducted in June, Dzyadko said that the poll was merely the excuse the Kremlin needed to try to sway public opinion against the station. He explained that what they have been experiencing for the past five months is punishment for accurate coverage of stories such as Crimea.

The station’s main revenue source, satellite TV provider Tricolor TV, along with most of its cable providers announced that they would no longer carry the channel, reducing outreach by 80 percent, according to Sindeyeva. This relegated much of its Russian viewership to watching and reading content online and via Apple TV. According to Dzyadko, Dozhd’s main partnerships with cable providers have shifted outside of Russia to neighboring countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

To make matters worse, the lease for the television channel’s space in the trendy complex Krasny Oktyabr (Red October) in central Moscow was mysteriously cancelled, and Dozhd originally had until July 20th to vacate the premises. According to Dzyadko, the landlord (Myasnitskaya 35 ) received a phone call pressuring him not to renew Dozhd’s lease and the channel’s owners received an official letter of termination. In order to compensate for lost advertising revenue, Dozhd held a fundraiser in April that grossed $1.5 million, mostly from its loyal viewers, but it was only enough to cover basic expenses through June.

When asked how independent radio station Echo Moskvy is able to operate without interference, Dzyadko explained that insiders no longer perceive Moscow’s oldest liberal radio station as entirely independent; in order for a media outlet to survive in Moscow, compromise with the Kremlin is required. Though a lot of its news is not overtly pro-Kremlin, it must produce a certain amount of positive content about the government, he said. In February 2014, Gazprom Media shareholders ousted director Yuri Fedutinov, who had held the position for more than 22 years. Yekaterina Pavlova from Voice of Russia, the Russian government’s international radio broadcasting service, replaced him.

Dozhd continues to cover politically sensitive events such as the situation in the Ukraine, including the downing of the MH17 plane. Its reporting is far different than what is seen on Russia Today (RT) and other state-funded stations. It offers a balanced perspective of events. While in Moscow, I also visited RT, which broadcasts in English to a global audience from a massive, shiny, new, gated compound. It receives money from the Russian government, and journalists that I spoke with regurgitated state-sponsored rhetoric. In a response to coverage of the MH17 story, RT correspondent Sara Firth, tweeted her resignation stating: “I have huge respect for many in the team, but I’m for the truth.” In a recent interview with Vice, she stated that she sometimes had to bring up an obscure bit of information “that implies something that fits with the RT agenda.” She said that though not everyone at RT is intentionally spreading disinformation, the operation focuses on a biased pro-Kremlin narrative.

On July 21, 2014, President Vladimir Putin legalized amendments to the federal law “On Advertising” banning commercial advertising on paid cable and satellite television channels, which will negatively affect 1,400 paid channels — 40 percent — beginning January 1, 2015. Russian public channels are exempt from the new legislation. Outlets such as Dozhd would need to charge astronomical subscription rates or close their doors. Human Rights Watch views this latest maneuver by the Kremlin as interfering with international laws regarding protected speech. On July 4, Russian parliament member Viktor Zvageltsev said in a segment that aired on Dozhd, that he could not say that Dozhd was not the target of the new law, but that it “would hit not only Dozhd-TV but all cable television channels.”

When asked if the decision makers at Dozhd would be willing to compromise and ignore or obscure the truth, Dzyadko unequivocally stated that that was not an option. They would rather go down with the ship producing content that they can be proud of and reporting the truth, rather than compromise their values to stay on the air. As of June, the broadcast had been cut in half and a third of the staff was let go. According to Vinokurov’s Twitter feed from July, the organization is moving out of Krasny Oktyabr over the next month. Its studio will soon be the home of pro-government channel LifeNews.

In order to raise revenue to compensate for lack of advertising, Vinokurov is merging Dozhd, Bolshoi Gorod magazine, as well as the online version of Slon media to create a new IPO. All three media outlets are known for liberal commentary. Revenue earned will fund Dozhd’s move to a new studio. Vinokurov stated that the IPO could generate from 300 to 700 million rubles ($8.7-$20.4 million). The last Russian media IPO was created in 2006.

My hope is that the journalists at Dozhd can hold on to the space that they have carved out for themselves in Russia because their integrity and dedication is admired and necessary.

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