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Smooth censorship in Russia

Everybody understands everything, everybody knows everything, and no one says anything aloud.

The history of censorship in Russian media runs for pages and pages. There’s little point dealing with Soviet censorship here, but the 1990s, which many people remember as a time when press freedom prevailed, are different. Journalists of the time reminisce about how they used to push bureaucrats’ doors open, the public officials scared of them: bureaucrats and politicians had never been so vulnerable.

The media, however, was another part of the country’s terrain of political conflict—just as articles could be pulled, so could journalists. Take Dmitry Kholodov, for instance, a journalist for Moskovsky komsomolets who died as he collected a booby-trapped suitcase in 1994. Ministry of Defence officials weren’t pleased with Kholodov’s coverage of army corruption and, having asked their subordinates to ‘shut him up’, their subordinates took the order literally.

From 2015, the 1990s appear mythical, legendary. What’s different about censorship in today’s Russia is the ambiguity surrounding it. ‘This text isn’t good enough, we’re not publishing it’ - this is the response you get when trying to publish on a ‘sensitive’ subject today. And how can you object? Any text can be better. But this is still a policy of silencing: in different situations, a text may well reach the front page if not for certain ‘undesirable’ surnames or facts.

There’s no censorship committee anymore. Instead, there’s self-censorship and the political instincts of our media managers. Every publication possesses its own subtle system of checks and balances.

This doesn’t mean that sensitive, scandalous or shocking facts can’t be published in the Russian media. I can list a few of own texts over the past year that have caused ‘bureaucratic dissatisfaction’: from my investigation into Ramzan Kadyrov’s charitable foundation to my interviews with people involved in the attack on the journalist Oleg Kashin, who gave exhaustive evidence on governor Andrei Turchak. ‘Today we write this, but tomorrow we’ll ignore that,’ that’s the position of Russian media, and I don’t read publications with a clear pro-state position—everything’s already clear as it is.

The means of control are simple: the Presidential Administration has an internal political directorate, and they know all the chief editors. And these officials occasionally do ring up a media manager or member of the board to express their dissatisfaction with a specific publication. What happens next depends on the diplomatic skills of the editor, whether they’re able to defend their journalist and their content.

Government officials are the ones who are hard to deal with. Contact with these people isn’t advertised. ‘Mate, you understand,’  a colleague shrugs, without naming names or positions. Everybody understands everything, everybody knows everything, and no one says anything out loud.

When it’s a question of more minor state institutions, then it gets easier. It’s not just people in the Kremlin that read the newspapers and websites, it’s the ministries, too. And if journalists write on ‘sensitive’ themes, then ministry officials often begin to scrutinise them intensely. My own experience of encounters with the state demonstrates this easily.

In this case, it was the Interior Ministry, and the first time I encountered active interest in my work came after the violence in Khimki, near Moscow, in 2010.

The government planned to build a high-speed motorway connecting St Petersburg and Moscow, and Khimki forest lay in its path. In protest at the tree-felling operation already under way, an anarchist group threw bottles and fired rubber bullets at a local administration building. I was there, and dictated a report to the newsroom.

A few days later, police officers arrived at my parents’ house, where I’m registered, in order to interrogate my mother. As it turned out, my telephone had been geo-located in the Khimki area, and the police had set off for the first address they found. The next morning there was a scandal, and the police had to apologise, my colleagues stepped in. Basically, there was maximum solidarity.

The next instance involved an interview with a radical group in 2011—those same anarchists—who set off a bomb near a traffic police stop in the Moscow area. Two days later, and we had a visit from an officer from 38 Petrovka Street (Russia’s equivalent of Scotland Yard). The officer wanted to know how I’d managed to find this group, as they’d been looking for them for a while. Here, I was protected by the law on mass media, and I didn’t have to reveal my sources.

On an every day level, surveillance and control isn’t so terrible. If you work for a national newspaper, then there’s always an army of lawyers at your service, ready to attend interrogations with you and defend you in court. Lower down the ladder, there’s non-governmental organisations ready to help, such as Agora, which has been helping defend press freedom for activists and journalists since 2005.

What’s more dangerous, though, are the new laws that are shutting down the market. At the time, this happens easily, and doesn’t even look like expropriation—even though this is what it is. For example, the ban on foreign citizens owning more than 20% of a media outlet, which led to the departure of Regina von Flemming, the director of Forbes Russia, and whose position was one of non-interference in editorial policy. Now the new owner says that Forbes Russia had become ‘too politicised’, and would now focus on ‘articles on the successes of businessmen’. This will happen smoothly, and the average reader won’t even notice that this is censorship.

Parliamentary deputies are now discussing how they can make media outlets comparable to ‘foreign agents’, force them to account for their financing from abroad. The media managers call this behaviour barbaric: information is also a commodity, it’s bought on subscription by citizens of many countries, and thus a news agency isn’t able to account for every dollar received from abroad. Nevertheless, it looks certain that this new law will be passed.

I wouldn’t want to say that it’s impossible to work in the Russian media, that to write those texts you think matter is impossible, that Russian journalists are making deals with their own consciences every day. That’s not how it is. But the fact is that, as a rule, your average Russian journalist has too many factors to consider that don’t have anything to do with his or her work—to find information and present it in an entertaining way.