In a documentary film interview by Hollywood film director Oliver Stone, President Vladimir Putin claimed the state does not interfere in Russian media and does not affect coverage of the opposition. The opposition’s problem isn’t lack of media access, he says, but the absence of compelling political programs.
In fact, state and pro-Kremlin Russia media have been silent about recent anti-corruption protests that swept across Russia, involving tens of thousands of people in numerous cities, and which led to hundreds of arrests. When state TV does cover such protests, it is to portray them briefly as insignificant and few in number, a claim belied by independent and foreign coverage.
While it is true that Russia does not allow censorship of the media under the constitution, and has no prior censorship of TV and print as was done in the Soviet era, the government has a range of methods from co-optation to physical reprisals to keep journalists in line.
Officials may not actively intervene daily in TV programming, but there is a welter of laws to keep editors in check, most recently the anti-terrorist legislation known as the "Yarovaya Law" and the interventions of Roskomnadzor, the State Committee to Monitor the Media, which serves de facto as the state censor. There are laws banning profanity, information that may be harmful to children, and "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" which is broadly construed to restrict LGBT news.
The authorities count on state media editors who are hired with Kremlin approval not to "drive outside the double line," in the words of one TASS editor who took over the previously-independent news outlet RBC.
When hackers published the email of former Kremlin official Timur Prokopenko, no one was surprised to learn that he had written to a TASS editor to express displeasure with the publication of a photo of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny that seemed too flattering; it was replaced with one more somber.
The multiplicity of laws and their vague wording create a state of uncertainty. In 2014, TV Rain, which had covered mass protest demonstrations and the killing of Russian soldiers in the war in Ukraine – a fact not admitted by the Kremlin -- was taken off the air by three cable providers when it published a controversial poll on its web site about the Siege of Leningrad.
In 2015, TV-2, an independent television station based in Tomsk, was forced off the air due to arbitrary state licensing decisions. The outlet was able to make a comeback as an Internet news site in 2016.
Some programs, such as one on torture in Chechnya, are allowed to air in Russia's central regions but censored for western and southern regions. The editors posted the Chechen report on YouTube after it was removed, possibly ensuring that more people saw it. Rarely, authorities intervene before broadcast as with the U.S. TV series Fargo, where jokes about Putin were removed before airing in Russia.
Most Russians get their news from state TV, and even when they have Internet access, tend to view state or pro-Kremlin news sites.
But with increasing Internet connectivity, especially young people are seeking out alternatives. Opposition leaders like Navalny, recently sentenced to 30 days in jail for organizing an unauthorized demonstration, have circumvented TV censorship by starting YouTube channels or using smart phone apps like Telegram and WhatsApp.
More than 1.2 million people have subscribed to Navalny’s channel. Some of his more sensational investigative reports, such as one on the sources of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wealth, have garnered more than 23 million views. Other lesser-known video bloggers, especially among young people have attracted significant viewer numbers.
The international media freedom monitoring organizations Reporters without Borders and Committee to Project Journalists have reported diminishing media freedom in Russia under Putin’s rule due to a combination of state censorship, self-censorship, frivolous libel suits, intimidation of advertisers, pressure on journalists, imprisonment of reporters for their work and even murders. In its Freedom of the Press report issued this year for 2016, Freedom House, a U.S.-based non-governmental watchdog group, gave Russia a score of 83/100, with 100 being least free.
As Arch Puddington, Distinguished Scholar in Democracy Studies at Freedom House told Polygraph.info:
“While it’s true that there are a diverse range of production companies and a scattering of newspapers, Internet TV stations, and radio stations that present independent news, the number is strictly limited by state policy.Content on major media—the media that influence the wide population—is carefully controlled and used for indoctrination and propaganda.These are harsh terms but appropriate given Russian reality.”