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'Classic Censorship': Kremlin's Bid To Silence Putin's Political Enemies Puts Media In A Bind

A woman watches an investigation by Aleksei Navalny into President Vladimir Putin's alleged "palace." The latest move by Russian authorities seems aimed at suppressing media coverage of such corruption exposés.
A woman watches an investigation by Aleksei Navalny into President Vladimir Putin's alleged "palace." The latest move by Russian authorities seems aimed at suppressing media coverage of such corruption exposés.

Russia's media-monitoring agency, Roskomnadzor, last week began sending out dozens of letters to media organizations ordering them to remove online articles about corruption investigations conducted by a banned organization created by imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny -- or risk having their websites blocked.

Officially, the orders to remove the old articles were based not on the content of the articles or the original investigations themselves, but rather solely on the fact that Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) was banned last year as an "extremist" organization -- a designation Navalny and many others say is baseless and politically motivated.

Several investigations by the Proyekt investigative-journalism project -- which the Russian government last July labelled an "undesirable organization," another classification Kremlin critics say the state uses to quash efforts to expose corruption and other problems -- were also targeted.

The investigations contain unanswered corruption allegations targeting President Vladimir Putin, former President Dmitry Medvedev, and others inside Russia's ruling circle.

"Clearly the removal of these materials is a classic act of censorship," said Roman Dobrokhotov, editor in chief of the online investigative-journalism outlet The Insider. "It doesn't matter what the pretext is…or whether it is done retroactively. It is clear that when bureaucrats or security agencies remove material covering their own corruption, you can't interpret it as anything other than censorship."

The orders have placed Russian media outlets -- and could soon place international tech giants like YouTube -- before the difficult choice of complying or being de facto shut down in Russia.

"They are poking around with a stick," Dobrokhotov said. "They are checking the reaction of the media and the international community. If the media go along with this, we can expect further waves of censorship."

Roman Dobrokhotov, editor in chief of The Insider. (file photo)
Roman Dobrokhotov, editor in chief of The Insider. (file photo)

More than a dozen Russian media outlets received the warnings, including Dozhd, Novaya gazeta, Ekho Moskvy, and others. Many of them complied with the orders.

RFE/RL's Russian Service, the company's other Russian-language projects, and Current Time -- a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA -- were among the media outlets inundated with dozens of notifications during the night of February 4-5.

RFE/RL immediately announced its refusal to comply with the demand, which RFE/RL President Jamie Fly condemned as "political censorship."

"RFE/RL will not allow the Kremlin to dictate our editorial decisions. This is a blatant act of political censorship by a government apparently threatened by journalists who are merely reporting the truth," Fly said in a statement.

'Completely Ridiculous'

Russian journalists who spoke with RFE/RL said the initial flurry of warnings was likely just the beginning of a much more far-reaching effort.

"Did they pass these laws in order not to use them?" Dobrokhotov said. "I think that is completely ridiculous."

Investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who works for Meduza, which is among the media outlets that have complied with Roskomnadzor's orders, said this is "far from the last list of investigations they will demand be deleted."

"Their goal is to remove as much information as possible," he said. "I think that the investigations of Navalny's regional offices…will soon be targeted by the regional offices of Roskomnadzor. In effect, everything will be removed."

Investigative journalist Ivan Golunov (file photo)
Investigative journalist Ivan Golunov (file photo)

Golunov added that he believes many more Russian media outlets have already begun removing the targeted materials -- either because they have been warned by Roskomnadzor but decided not to make that information public or as an act of preemptive self-censorship.

"I checked several publications, and I didn't find articles about these investigations," Golunov told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "I think that far from all the outlets that received these letters are speaking out about them or discussing their content."

Dobrokhotov argued that the tactics of Putin's government will "divide the media into those who continue to cooperate, to label their content, to remove articles, to play by the rules and those who do not do this."

"For the second category, for us, the most important thing will be to find ways of getting around being blocked -- because they clearly will be blocked this year -- and maintain access to their readership," he said. "These are the two different strategies for the survival of the nonstate media."

"Putin is playing a subtle game now," the journalist continued. "He wants to give a small opportunity for obedient media and let them be able to say: 'We aren't like Komsomolskaya pravda or Izvestia. We can do such-and-such.' And they will be allowed to do something small, but it will be very small. The main things we are obligated to do as professionals -- journalistic investigations, reports on corruption, reports on protest activities, and so on -- all that will be strictly banned."

Journalist Andrei Zakharov, who writes for the Russian Service of the BBC, notes that there are arguments in favor of complying with the Russian government's demands. For example, he argued, over the last two weeks there has been a flurry of stories about the threats that officials in Chechnya have leveled against the nongovernmental Committee Against Torture and one of its lawyers, Abubakar Yangulbayev.

Chechen Leaders Step Up Threats To Activist's Family As Kremlin Looks On
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"Imagine a situation where there was no Novaya gazeta, no Meduza, no Ekho Moskvy," Zakharov said, "because they all decided to act according to their principles, got shut down, and now don't exist in the Russian information space. There will be fewer stories. No one will ask [Kremlin spokesman Dmitry] Peskov about it the next day. Will it really be better for anyone if they aren't able to generate these stories?'

"Would that be good for society or not?" he added. "Everyone has to decide themselves. There are two different approaches."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yelena Rykovtseva and by Current Time.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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