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News

Critical media voices increasingly muted in President Vladimir Putin's Russia

Last month President Vladimir Putin celebrated the 25th anniversary of Russia's largest media company VGTRK — a government-controlled group whose TV channels dominate the media landscape and peddle the message anticipated by authorities.

"Monopoly is always harmful," the President said "and even more so in the media sphere."

The audience, Mr Putin continued, should hear alternative points of view.

That same day, the largest media company still raising a voice critical of Russian authorities, RBC, witnessed the editor of its newspaper forced out by management. Two other senior editors left with him.

The Kremlin denied applying pressure on either the outlet or its oligarch owner, Mikhail Prokhorov.

RBC has a reach that rattles the Kremlin. It has a popular website, a newspaper and a TV channel the company says is viewed by 23 million people each month.

RBC has also shown it is willing to conduct investigations into political scandals that others avoid.

An expose of the woman alleged to be Mr Putin's daughter was one; a report on the vast wealth of her husband, another.

RBC also went big on the Panama Papers, which showed Mr Putin's cello-playing childhood friend, Sergei Roldugin, had moved significant wealth offshore.

Just before the editorial exits, RBC ran a story about a new oyster farm that its reporters said had opened just across from a huge mansion referred to as Putin's Palace.

The outlet's political line does not appear to have changed, but a new editorial team is yet to be appointed.

Perhaps the most likely outcome, according to Andrew Pertsev at the Carnegie Moscow Centre think-tank, is that an agreement on the positions will be reached with the Putin administration.

But the outlook for the independence of the channel looks bleak.

One time editor-in-chief of RBC, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, brought in a team of journalists to build a hard-hitting news organisation when she took the top post in 2013.

She has since left and many who remain are believed to be considering their futures.

Critical media squeezed to the margins

Critical media have been squeezed to the margins of public life in Russia.

Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta is the best known outside the country and continues to publish important reporting.

Radio station Moscow Echo broadcasts regular interviews with activists and politicians critical of the Kremlin.

"There you can find the nitty-gritty of opposition life," Mr Pertsev said. "But RBC is a genuine mass media outlet. They wanted to do investigations into the President and his inner circle … nobody does that in Russia."

The measure of influence in the country is reflected in the battle for TV viewing figures, with 99 per cent of Russians tuning in at least once a month.

Now though, with the potential demise of RBC's independence, only one probing TV channel, TV Rain, remains.

It has already felt first-hand the brute force of political pressure. In 2014 its broadcasts were dropped by major transmission carriers, its revenues plummeted and the company was forced from its premises.

TV Rain journalists said the situation had now stabilised. The stories the channel is willing to pursue though, have changed.

"What happened to RBC shows us the frontier of what you can and cannot do," Rodion Chepel, head of investigations at TV Rain, said.

"In (northern) winter we could think of filming an investigation on the person who is supposedly Putin's daughter. Now, we won't consider it."

Arrest over 'extremist' social media message 'a warning'

Ilya Varlamov is arguably the country's most-read independent journalist. He publishes a wide-ranging blog that is critical of Russian authorities. His site receives more than 4.5 million visits per month.

When I met him in a bar across from his office in central Moscow, he showed me a video he said exemplifies how the limits on free speech are applied.

Filmed by Russia's domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, it shows a man being arrested in a raid after leaving a message, considered extremist, on the country's equivalent of Facebook.

Mr Varlamov has not been pressured directly, but sees the FSB episode as a warning of what can happen if you write an "incorrect" comment online.

He said it would be easy for authorities to curtail his journalism if they wanted to.

"They could find a bullet or drugs on me, catch me in the street and say, 'Look, you've got two choices, either you go to prison for 10 years or you start writing about cats, cooking and holidays in Crimea. You choose.'"

While new media is showing some green shoots of critical reporting, sites like Mr Varlamov's do not have the resources to carry out in-depth investigations.

TV Rain's budget is larger, but tiny compared to the very deep pockets of RBC.

October will mark the 10-year anniversary of the contract killing of reporter Anna Politkovskaya, the most high profile in a string of murders of Russian journalists who had been critical of authority. A former police lieutenant colonel was one of the men eventually convicted of the crime.