Kremlin strengthens grip on Russian media
Russia has blocked today (14 March) three major opposition news websites as well as the popular blog of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, the latest in a media crackdown that comes amid Moscow's standoff with the West over Ukraine.
Government media watchdog Roskomnadzor said late on Thursday that it was adding three popular opposition news websites, including Grani.ru and EJ.ru to its banned list, along with Navalny's Live Journal blog.
The move comes days after the chief editor of one of Russia's oldest and most popular news websites, Lenta.ru, was summarily dismissed over the coverage of the Ukrainian crisis.
On Wednesday Galina Timchenko, the chief editor of Lenta.ru, the most-read Russian online news site, was sacked, for publishing an interview with a leader of Ukraine's right-wing paramilitary group, Right Sector.
Lenta.ru's journalists say Timchenko's sacking, after 10 years running one of a handful of media organisations offering an alternative to state-controlled outlets, shows President Vladimir Putin is tightening his grip over news.
As the crisis in Ukraine escalates, that news has taken on shades of Soviet-era propaganda, with anchors and reporters peppering their reports with references to what they say was the cooperation of some Ukrainians with the Nazis in World War Two.
"I think I have tried objectively to show both sides in Ukraine, but when the Russian troops went into Crimea - unofficially of course but we know they are there - the trend was for official propaganda," Ilya Azar of Lenta.ru said.
"Any other opinion and you are treated as if you are the enemy," he said by telephone from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv where he is reporting.
In the freewheeling 1990s, Russian media took on everyone and everything including the Kremlin. Increasingly in the 14 years Putin has been in power, almost all toe the official line.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied there was any campaign to silence critical media. "Those are standard accusations which we are fed up of hearing," he said.
Azar's interview with Right Sector leader Andriy Tarasenko was published on Monday. By Wednesday morning, Russia's telecommunications watchdog had warned Lenta that Russia had banned publication of "extremist" material.
By Wednesday evening, Timchenko had been told by billionaire Alexander Mamut, the owner of Lenta's parent company, Afisha-Rambler-SUP, that she had been replaced.
More than 80 of Lenta's staff signed a letter saying her dismissal was a result of Kremlin pressure, something Peskov said was impossible.
"Lenta.ru is a private publication. Decisions are made by its owner, and therefore it is absolutely unacceptable to blame anything on the Kremlin here," he said.
Tarasenko and other Right Sector leaders deny they are "neo-fascists" as Moscow calls them, but just interviewing them was enough to get Lenta into trouble.
"There was nothing scary in the interview. In fact, it probably showed in fact that they were fascists," Azar said, referring to Moscow's position that "extremists and fascists" are leading events in Ukraine, where a new pro-Western government has formed after ousting its pro-Russian predecessor.
Azar, like many other Russian journalists, is considering seeking work elsewhere. Perhaps Ukraine would be a better bet, he says, calling what happened to Lenta a second wave of attacks on the media since last year.
Mamut, who has a fortune of $2.3 billion according to Forbes magazine, could not be reached for comment.
With only Lenta and online newspaper Gazeta.ru, Mamut's media interests are tiny compared with the market's biggest tycoon, Yuri Kovalchuk, a close friend of Putin. He indirectly controls a stake in Russia's biggest media holding, Gazprom Media, and a stake in National Media Group.
But even media under the official thumb, like the main state news agency, is not immune to the drive for absolute control.
Putin dissolved RIA late last year, and is replacing it with a new organisation, headed by Dmitry Kiselyov, who once caused outrage by saying the organs of homosexuals should not be used in transplants and who says the new group will restore "a fair attitude towards Russia as an important country in the world".
Remaining independent media are seen as fair game. Dozhd, a television and Internet channel, was taken off the air by providers nationwide earlier this year in what its head said was censorship.
Pavel Durov, founder of Russia's biggest social network Vkontakte, said in January he had sold his stake to an ally of tycoon Alisher Usmanov, sealing the Kremlin ally's domination of the site, where anti-Putin protests were advertised in 2011.
Timchenko's sacking was similar to the removal of Maxim Kovalsky as editor of Kommersant-Vlast news magazine in December 2011 after the weekly printed a photograph featuring an obscene message addressed to Putin as part of extensive reports on alleged fraud in an election won by the ruling party.
It is part of a pattern since Putin came to power in 2000, when he ousted the old oligarch-owners in favour of his allies.
"Today many people are talking about maybe having to change profession, that quality journalism is not needed in this country, where there is only propaganda," Marat Gelman, a gallery owner who helped found Lenta, told Ekho Moskvy radio.
"There really is this feeling that we are in a military situation. Yes, really, when a country is at war, then criticism is not allowed."