MOSCOW — An independent Russian TV station recently crossed an invisible line. Now it faces being shoved off the air, a prime example of Russian authorities’ arbitrary intolerance of independent voices critical of government policies—never mind the need to show a good face to the world during the Winter Olympics.
Dozhd TV, which means TV Rain in English, is not just any television station. Broadcasting through private satellite and cable providers and on the Internet, it’s one of the few private media outlets that is also a strong independent voice in Russia. It often challenges the government’s policies, giving air time to opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov, and provides a critical alternative to state-controlled media reporting on issues from corruption to the repression of civil society to Russia’s foreign policy.
On Jan. 26, the day before the anniversary of the lifting of the Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) blockade during World War II, a poll on the channel’s website asked viewers to comment on whether the Soviet government should have surrendered the city to the German army to save lives. That made some people angry and prompted the government to start an investigation.
Some commentators have alleged that the real reason is Dozhd TV’s critical reporting about corruption and human rights abuses around the Olympic Games in Sochi, which began last Friday. Plenty of other journalists have faced repercussions for criticizing the government’s preparations for the games. (Meanwhile, the state-controlled media studiously avoided discussing these issues and instead offered Russians a glossy picture of well-orchestrated Olympic construction and tales of how much the event would benefit the region’s development.)
But it’s easy to see why the poll struck a nerve. The Leningrad blockade began in September 1941 and lasted nearly 900 days, during which nearly all food, water and medical supplies were cut off. Thousands of civilians died of hunger and deprivation. This deadly siege and the human suffering it brought are of iconic significance for many Russians.
Opening such a debate can be painful to many, especially those who survived the blockade or lost loved ones. They should have a strong voice in how society understands this historical event. But their discomfort should not be a pretext to go after Dozhd TV for posing a difficult question. Protecting free speech means that questions and opinions, even those that some might find hard to hear, can be aired, without fear of political sanctions.
President Vladimir Putin’s allies in parliament clearly saw a convenient opportunity, and immediately slammed Dozhd TV for the poll. Members of the Saint Petersburg city legislature called for closing down the channel. The Dozhd TV general director, Natalia Sindeyeva, publicly apologized for raising the issue, but the wheels were already turning.
On Jan. 30, the Saint Petersburg prosecutor’s office, began an investigation into the incident, including for potential “incitement of hatred toward an individual or a group.” While prosecutors reportedly found no violations of the extremism law, the investigation continues. The Russian state mass media and communications agency, Roskomnadzor, found that the channel had violated article 49 of the law “on mass media,” a conveniently vague provision obliging journalists to respect people’s rights and interests, and issued a letter reminding the channel leadership of their obligation to follow the law. Although Roskomnadzor’s letter did not say that Dozhd TV would face any punitive sanctions, here in Russia such letters convey an unequivocal message: The channel cannot make another mistake.
Several Russian cable providers stopped broadcasting Dozhd TV within days after the Leningrad blockade poll, costing the channel a significant part of its viewership and revenue. Sindeyeva, Dozhd TV’s general director, accused the cable providers of acting under pressure from the Kremlin. She has good reason to say that.
Dozhd TV is not just an irreverent television channel—it’s a lone survivor in a grim Russian TV media landscape in which all the main television broadcasters are either owned or controlled by the government. Dozhd TV’s editorial line and programming are aimed to appeal to a certain segment of the urban middle class—young professionals, intelligentsia. These are the very people who made up the protest movement that in 2011 and early 2012 presented the greatest challenge to Putin’s rule, and whom the Kremlin has targeted in a ruthless crackdown that also includes NGOs, foreign migrants and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Dozhd TV’s home, the Krasny Oktyabr (Red October) building, is a former Soviet-era candy factory that sits across the river from the Kremlin. Its Moscow neighborhood, also named Krasny Oktyabr, hums with nightclubs, creative enterprises and contemporary art galleries. It served as an informal headquarters for the anti-Kremlin protest movement in 2011 and as a hub for Russian political opposition meetings throughout 2012.
Aleksander Vinokurov, one of the owners of Dozhd TV, was a member of the Russian opposition coordination council, inactive since October 2013. He and his wife, Natalia Sindeyeva, Dozhd TV’s founder and general director, also co-owns several other independent media outlets, such as the website Slon.ru and Bolshoi Gorod (Big City) magazine.
Why is the Kremlin so concerned with litigating history? In an increasingly restrictive climate for independent voices, raising questions about certain past government decisions, can bring accusations of being unpatriotic, a pariah in society. For the Russian government, the past isn’t just the past—it’s a powerful weapon.
Russia’s parliament is even considering a draft law that would make it illegal to challenge Russia’s “historical memory” of World War II and “spread false information about the USSR’s actions” during the war, among other offenses. So anyone discussing or questioning the actions of the Soviet leadership could be fined 300,000 rubles ($8,800) or imprisoned for up to three years.
Whether the reason was Dozhd’s discussion of World War II history or its reporting on Sochi, the attempt to close it down is clearly politically motivated. On Feb. 10, Dozhd TV’s biggest provider dropped the channel, reportedly bringing its total loss in audience to 80 percent. It now faces a real danger of being forced out of business. Worse, the pressure on Dozhd TV sends a stark message to all others who would dare to challenge the Kremlin: Don’t cross invisible lines.