Journalists finish their last working day in the independent news website Lenta.ru newsroom in Moscow on March 14, 2014. / Alexander Zemlianichenko, AP
MOSCOW â?? Russia's journalists are being subjected to an unprecedented crackdown on independent news coverage that appears to have coincided with President Vladimir Putin's incursion into Ukraine.
"This isn't just media pressure, it's a mop-up operation," said Galina Timchenko, who was fired from her post as chief editor at Lenta.ru, Russia's most popular news site.
Timchenko said she was fired March 12 by publication owner Alexander Mamut, a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin who called her into his office and told her she should leave.
He gave no explanation, she said, though the firing came after Lenta.ru ran an interview with a Ukrainian nationalist who was considered an "extremist" by Russia's media regulatory agency Roskomnadzor.
Lenta.ru is not the only independent news agency that has felt pressure from Moscow, which has been methodically marginalizing sources of news that are not controlled by the state.
Russia's only independent news channel, Dozhd, is on the verge of shutting down after cable networks suddenly stopped carrying it. And the largest state-owned news agency, RIA Novosti, is to be replaced by a propaganda unit that works for Putin's government, Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today).
While Putin's attorney general's office has outright banned websites that were critical of the government, Moscow's method of controlling the dwindling number of independent media outlets is to frighten them into submissive reporting, say experts.
"It's the creation of a new media environment where it's not about censorship, but self-censorship," said Alexei Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies.
"Those outlets that don't have self-censorship find themselves in trouble," he said. "The rest pay close attention to make sure and not publish stories that could provoke a negative reaction from the government."
Roskomnadzor had issued a warning to Lenta.ru the day Timchenko was fired over its publication of the interview with a Ukrainian nationalist that contained a link to his group's articles. She was replaced by Alexei Goreslavsky, former editor of the pro-Kremlin news site Vzglyad.ru and a communications director in the holding company that controlled Lenta.ru.
"The firing of an independent editor in chief and the appointment of someone directed ... from Kremlin offices is a violation on the law on the media guaranteeing the unacceptability of censorship," said an editorial posted by Lenta.ru staff on March 12, just before a majority of the team left in protest with Timchenko.
Timchenko said what happened reflects a pattern of indirect media manipulation where the Kremlin does not shut down outlets directly but covertly controls them through owners and providers. In the past, the Kremlin focused on manipulating federal television channels.
As independent journalists increasingly gravitated to websites, Putin's government has been focusing attention on the Internet.
"Just two years ago, I used to hear Kremlin officials brushing away Internet publications as (having a small audience)," Timchenko said. "But when they see a media outlet gaining influence, of course the authorities start paying attention and trying to control it.
"During the events in Ukraine, for instance, our unique daily hits reached a record of over 3 million a day."
Dozhd's troubles started in January, after it published a controversial poll asking viewers whether the Soviet Union should have surrendered Leningrad to the Nazis instead of undergoing a more than two-year siege that left 1.5 million people dead from starvation, disease and violence.
Legislators and officials loyal to the Kremlin condemned questioning an episode in World War II portrayed as a heroic moment in the history of the Communist rule in the Soviet Union, the demise of which in 1991 Putin described as a tragedy.
The Moscow Prosecutor General's Office found no reason to shut down the station, the last independent television news outlet in all of Russia. But cable providers suddenly began to drop the channel from its lineups. Last week tax inspectors arrived at Dozhd's offices for an investigation and its landlord refused to renew its lease.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, recently criticized Ukraine's decision to take Russian-language channels off the air in Ukraine but when asked by Dozhd about the channel's own problems, he brushed them off.
"It's not that the channel is being shut down, I hope, it's more likely economic reasons," Peskov told Dozhd TV on Wednesday. "If it's as you say and the operator will not accept you even if you pay him, then that's bad. I can't understand an operator that won't carry you if you pay him."
The clampdown started in December with the announcement of a shakeup at state-owned news agency RIA Novosti. The agency's long-time editor, Svetlana Mironyuk, was sacked and replaced by Dmitry Kiselyov, a firebrand TV presenter known for virulently homophobic comments and verbal attacks on Ukrainian protesters.
When he came to RIA Novosti, Kiselyov spelled out a new editorial doctrine that focused on patriotism above all.
"The time of distilled, detached journalism is over," Kiselyov told RIA staff on Dec. 12. "Objectivity is a myth that is being imposed on us. ... As for editorial policy, of course, I would like for it to be associated with love of Russia."
Putin's resistance to the pro-Western movement in Ukraine and attempts to distance Kiev from Moscow appeared to have sped up the crackdown, Makarkin says.
"The events in Ukraine hastened this process," Makarkin said. "There were plans for this and laws were being prepared far in advance, gradually. It was going to happen; it was only a matter of time."
Recent moves indicate the government is likely to increase repression of the news media.
Russian legislators introduced a bill that would force bloggers whose Web pages get 10,000 views a day to get official journalist accreditation from the government, making them subject to the same restrictions as the media. And lawmakers in Moscow's City Council this week pledged to crack down on bloggers who criticize the pro-Russian population of Crimea, proposing penalties that include prison terms of up to four years.
"Special (law enforcement) services can't maintain full control of bloggers," Moscow lawmaker Irina Svyatenko complained, according to a report in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper.
Svyatenko's solution, the report said, was an anti-extremism law targeting bloggers.
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