Independent media organisations in Russia have faced a long and bitter struggle since they were forged in the chaos of the 1990s. Now, however, despite their efforts, they are the closest they have ever been to being silenced.
I am not talking about the operations of western media outlets in Russia over the past two decades, a boom which has seen Dow Jones, Reuters and Bloomberg newswires flourish. Foreign language newspapers such as the Moscow Times and the St Petersburg Times have also been established and largely treated with ambivalence by the Kremlin.
The point, of which the current Russian administration is acutely aware, is that they are not Russian businesses aimed at Russian people. While Hollywood has penetrated the cultural life of the country, the foreign news media is treated with distrust or even hostility.
The ex-pat and international audience at which these businesses are aimed mean that they are predominantly perceived as unthreatening and, indeed, beneficial. It is these organisations that the powers-that-be in Russia can offer up to the international community as examples of a vibrant, critical free press—the very foundation of the fourth estate.
Locally based media companies have not been so lucky. Under Vladimir Putin the state has followed a policy of aggressive acquisition of media companies, either directly or through state-owned enterprises.
One such example led to the 2001 siege of NTV—at the time the only nationwide television network—after staff blockaded themselves in the building to protest at a takeover by the state gas monopoly, Gazprom.
So much rests on the shoulders of Russia’s last two independent television stations, Ren-TV and Petersburg Channel 5. They are the final few of a dying breed of independent broadcasters.
As testament to their significance they offered the only coverage of opposition parties in the run up to the Duma and presidential elections in 2007 and 2008 respectively, even though Russian law dictates that all political parties should receive equal airtime.
The news last month that the state-sponsored channel, Russia Today, is to take an “advisory” role on Ren-TV’s news program has therefore been met with concern. Moreover plans announced by the owner of the two channels to sack 1,300 staff at Channel 5 have only added credence to suggestions that the government are intent on squeezing out the last vestige of free local press.
It is in this light that we should greet the recent news that Yandex, Russia’s most popular search engine, is to abandon its blog ranking system.
The company itself claim that the function was being hijacked to become a “tool of influence” with unscrupulous individuals abusing the system to artificially increase their position. For a firm that overtly courts advertising this is a tenuous case at best.
Only last week Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, addressed the scandal of poor care at a nursing home in the Pskov region. The trouble was identified by “a user of the President’s LiveJournal blog” and highlighted through Yandex.
Surely this is a call to the international community to highlight the plight of the free press in Russia. After all you cannot fight silence with silence.