Less than a year from Russia’s presidential election in March next year, television reporters say the pressure on them is growing to steer clear of topics that their bosses fear might offend the Kremlin’s political managers.
In one recent local election, journalists at a TV station say they were ordered: “Don’t mention the opposition” without managerial approval.
Moscow’s small circulation daily newspapers and vibrant blogosphere lampoon Russia’s leaders and uncover allegations of official corruption, but their reach is limited. Polls show 80 percent of Russians say television is their main news source.
“Self-censorship today in Russia is at an all-time high,” said high-profile TV host Vladimir Pozner, who began in the business when Soviet censors used to decide what subjects he and other journalists were allowed to report.
Veteran reporters, who grasped media freedoms as the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, say a generation of younger journalists who came of age in Vladimir Putin’s 2000-2008 presidency accept an unspoken set of Kremlin rules on what cannot be shown on state and privately owned stations.
“The closer you get to the elections the worse it gets. There are fewer and fewer topics you can cover; more and more bans,” said Ksenia Turkova, a former news presenter at Russia’s sixth channel, Ren-TV, which is owned by an ally of Prime Minister Putin.
Russia’s leading nationwide news channels all came either directly or indirectly under state ownership during Putin’s presidency and reporters at the stations say they risk being summarily sacked if they break the rules.
“You never knew when you’re going to step on a mine. People have become afraid to even ask whether they can air a subject or not,” said Turkova, who now works in radio.
Accumulated transgressions cost her her job last year.
Two years ago, Ren-TV journalists reporting on a mayoral vote in Sochi, which will host the Winter Olympics in 2014, were ordered by their management to cover the vote, but not “in any context” mention the opposition candidate Boris Nemtsov — a politician long blacklisted at state-owned stations.
The ban was clearly laid out in a one-line e-mail sent by the channel’s then-director.
“Without the management’s prior approval, please do not under any context mention Boris Nemtsov’s candidacy for mayor in the Sochi elections,” the e-mail read.
To journalists like Pozner, the turning point came a decade ago when NTV, then Russia’s leading private TV station, was raided by tax police and taken over by state-controlled gas giant Gazprom in April 2001.
During Putin’s presidency, the most powerful media tycoons who held sway during the 1990s were pushed into exile unless they bowed to the Kremlin’s new rule of no criticism.
Since Putin guided his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, into the presidency in 2008, reporters say little has changed and the three main nationwide channels routinely devote more than a third of news broadcasts to the two leaders.
The Kremlin’s monopoly over TV news gives it a powerful tool that reporters say is used to smear opponents and keep unpalatable news off the air.
“What it really comes down to is the knowledge that if you rub the government the wrong way, it can close you down,” said Pozner, who has twice in two years had parts of his Channel One program edited off the air by the channel’s director for fear it might ruffle feathers.