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Radio Svoboda On The Campaign Trail

Russia -- Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny addresses supporters during a rally in Moscow, September 9, 2013

Russia -- Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny addresses supporters during a rally in Moscow, September 9, 2013

Opposition blogger-turned-politician Alexei Navalny may have lost his bid to be the next mayor of Moscow, but the contested September 8 election injected a new dynamism to the political process that RFE/RL’s Russian language service, Radio Svoboda, made accessible to audiences.

State-controlled media largely ignored or maligned Navalny’s foray into the political arena, leaving RFE/RL’s Russian language service, Radio Svoboda, as one of just a handful of sources in the country for fair analysis and reporting on Navalny, who has become one of the most prominent faces of the Russian opposition.

In July, Navalny was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years in prison in a trial that was widely criticized as an attempt by the Kremlin to isolate him from political life. Radio Svoboda had reporters both inside and outside the courtroom in the remote province of Kirov, reporting live from the courthouse on the trial and public reaction to the verdict. In addition to live video and audio, Radio Svoboda produced a liveblog the trial and aftermath, which culminated in mass unsanctioned protests near the Kremlin.

“We did polls and vox pops and spoke with observers, experts and Moscow politicians who came for the trial, but the most important element was the coverage of the six-day trial itself,” said Andrey Shary, broadcaster with Radio Svoboda. “We did it on a daily basis and this brought us a significant increase in viewers.”

During the trial Radio Svoboda saw a 12.6 percent overall increase in audience and on the first day of the trial alone the website experienced a 300 percent spike in page views, signaling a clear appetite for news about the proceedings that wasn’t satisfied by state-controlled media.

In a recent article in Russian Analytical Digest, Russia analysts Robert W. Orttung and Christopher Walker lambasted the state-controlled media in the country, saying it fails to “provide serious or balanced reporting on events at the highest level of Russia’s political system or offer a forum for the free and open debate of ideas.”

Despite the demand for fair news, an independent poll conducted by the Levada Center showed 88 percent of Russians get their news from television, which is almost entirely under Kremlin control. In order to provide fair coverage of events like the Navalny trial and campaign to new and diverse audiences in such a slanted media market, outlets like Radio Svoboda have to provide news across all video and multimedia platforms.

Watch: Just after the Kirov trial, Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, vowed that his foundation would continue its investigations into corruption.

As Navalny rode the wave of popular support generated by his trial to the Moscow mayoral race, Radio Svoboda continued to report on his progress and the changes in the political landscape that were wrought by his campaign. The question of whether the mayoral elections reflected a “return to politics” in Russia was the subject of a live Google Hangout discussion direct from the Moscow bureau with a diverse group of journalists, Russian activists and election watchers. When voters went to the polls September 8, Radio Svoboda kept readers up-to-date with another liveblog.

During and after the trial and election, Radio Svoboda fans expressed their gratitude for this comprehensive coverage on Facebook, Twitter, and in the website comment forums.

“I’m looking at live video of Alexey Navalny's rally and I see thousands of pretty and handsome faces and I’m listening to the speeches from the stage. These people are real winners! Thank you, Svoboda, for this possibility!” wrote Leonid.

"Radio Svoboda, thank you for a high-quality broadcast of the protests on Bolotnaya," wrote Yurii.

Whether or not Navalny will serve his five-year prison sentence or challenge Putin in the presidential contest in 2018 as he has promised to do remains to be seen, but if he continues to make waves in Russian politics, Radio Svoboda will be there to tell the story.

--Emily Thompson