These were the year’s top five most important events for Russia’s media industry, which is currently under pressure amidst a controversial political situation both domestically and abroad.
Photo: Vadim Savitsky / Russian Defense Ministry Press Service pool photo via AP
There is no more news – only white noise, Galina Timchenko, the editor-in-chief at Meduza, a Russian-language media outlet based in Riga, stated this fall.
The discussion of how Russian media operates under unprecedented pressure has become commonplace in the journalist community and heading into 2016 there is still only limited reason for optimism that real change will occur.
After all, public television is still used as a propaganda machine by the government while Dozhd (also known as TV Rain), the only independent TV station in Russia, is in survival mode after it was eliminated from cable networks in January 2014. New laws limit participation of foreign investors to 20 percent and, as a result, these foreign investors are selling off their print assets.
The general economic decline in Russia also affects media, which has always been one of the most sensitive markets to shifting economic conditions. Moreover, internal contradictions of the industry make the situation even more complicated.
#1. The sale of Russia’s independent business media outlet
One of the most important events in Russia media was the sale of Russian’s respected business newspaper Vedomosti owned by there stakeholders — Finland’s Sanoma, Financial Times Group and Dow Jones — to entrepreneur Damian Kudryavtsev.
Sanoma has sold its stake in Vedomosti, amid growing concerns over a foreign media ownership law, passed in September 2014. It allows only 20 percent of foreign ownership. As The Guardian reports, “many observers at the time said the law specifically targets Vedomosti,” but could affect Russia’s media market and independent outlets in general. Sanoma as well other Vedomosti’s stakeholders owned about one-third in the newspaper.
Vedomosti is a daily independent paper that deals with business and industry news whose editorial section has become an increasingly vocal in criticizing the Kremlin for its overtures in Ukraine and its economic policy. Its print reach is estimated to be 75,000, as some media report.
Kudryavtsev is a well-experienced media entrepreneur who previously ran several online projects in Israel and Russia. For several years he was chief executive of the Kommersant publishing house, which publishes the Kommersant daily – Russia’s respected business daily, the major rival of Vedomosti. He was reported to be a close friend of oligarch and Kommersant’s former owner Boris Berezovsky, who became a political refugee and committed suicide in London in 2013.
Kudryavtsev quit in December 2011 after the editor of Kommersant-Vlast magazine was dismissed by new owner Alisher Usmanov because of critical coverage of the parliamentary elections in Russia.
Meduza’s Ilya Zhegulev presents a very controversial portrait of Kudryavtsev, implying that he is a type of media manger who is ready to adjust to any political situation and make concessions to the Kremlin.
“More that 10 years Kudryavtsev was the major teammate of oligarch Boris Berezovsky — in particular, he helped him organize the ‘orange revolution’ in Ukraine,” Zhegulev wrote. “He headed the Kommersant publishing house and was in disfavor of the Kremlin after the 2011-2012 protests. In three years Kudryavtsev returned to media business …, with enough money to buy the country’s major business newspaper, seemeingly having been forgiven by the Kremlin.”
Also read: "New law further restricts foreign media investment"
However, in a comment to Vedomosti, Kudryavtsev said he will keep the current model. “I don’t see the point in changing anything right this second,” he said.
A former founding editor of Vedomosti, Leonid Bershidsky, criticized the deal as lacking transparency and done in the interest of a third, unnamed, party.
“Lack of clarity about the source of the money destroys [Vedomosti’s] business-model” which has been based on painstaking impartiality to any business interests, he wrote on Facebook.
#2. Forbes: A new owner from a pro-Kremlin organization
Acquisition of the Axel Schpringer Russia publishing house by businessman Alexander Fedotov was one of the most controversial media events of the year. When the deal closed, he said he was going to decrease the amount of political coverage in the magazine, which was interpreted by the industry as a statement of censorship.
Several well-respected media outlets released articles on Fedotov's background. Vedomosti found out that Alexander Fedotov was related to Fighting Brotherhood, an organization founded by Dmitry Sablin – a person who also launched the Anti-Maidan, a diehard pro-Kremlin movement to fight against the opposition.
Meduza looked into the terms of the deal, which was signed without evaluation of the financial condition of the buyer. Therefore, the fact that Fedotov found money for the purchase of the publishing house after years of owning only unprofitable media assets looks suspicious, Meduza implies.
Moreover, some journalists, including Yulia Taratuta, a former editor-in-chief at Forbes Women, have already left the publishing house, saying that they had disagreements about the new editorial policy.
#3. TV 2: An example of how local media ceased to exist
TV 2 was one of the first privately owned regional TV channels in the U.S.S.R. It was launched in 1990 and six months later started broadcasting in Tomsk. Highly regarded in the industry, its journalists received numerous TEFI awards, which rarely happens to local media in Russia. In April 2014, cable operators stopped transmitting its signal, saying that they couldn't fix the technical problems. From there, the closing down of the station was inevitable. On Jan. 1, 2015 the channel stopped broadcasting.
“This story is a story of the demolition of an independent and commercially successful medium which used to enjoy a trustworthy reputation on the market,” said Anna Kachkaeva, a journalist and a professor for The National Research University Higher School of Economics, in an interview for Novaya Gazeta. “It was supported by both professionals and viewers who organized meetings and wrote petitions for its survival.”
“This channel fought against arbitrariness, cynicism, the manipulation of laws and regulations and didn't want to follow unwritten rules of nepotism,” Kachkaeva said. “These kind of people are hardly ever loved by political functionaries, regional officials, or federal authorities who feel they are being disregarded because a small local company reminds them about their duties.”
#4. Open Russia: A controversial documentary resulted in police search
In spring 2015, Open Russia, a media project launched by former billionaire Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, released a documentary about Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The film (“Family”) explores how power works in Chechnya.
After the documentary was published on the Open Russia website, the police came to search its headquarters. The officers removed all computers from the office but soon returned them.
The former owner of the Yukos oil company, billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, stated that this search was the consequence of the film.
#5. Echo of Moscow: How an opposition radio station got into trouble
Echo of Moscow, the oldest news talk radio station of post-Soviet Russia, found itself in the middle of a huge media scandal around Lesya Ryabtseva, a former assistant of the editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov.
The NTV pro-Kremlin TV channel, now well known for its biased one-sided documentaries about dissenters and opposition activists, recently released a new film of this kind featuring Ryabtseva. A promo was very bombastic in its attempt to reveal the secrets of Russia’s opposition leaders and the journalists who worked for the Echo of Moscow radio station.
However, the only thing that the film presented was Ryabtseva's attempts to boost her publicity. While being sycophantic toward the Russian president and his team, she was very negligent toward her former colleagues at Echo of Moscow.
The name of Ryabtseva was publicly discussed the first time in 2014. She suggested adopting a so-called ethical code of journalist behavior in social media responding to a tweet by Alexander Plustchev, another journalist of Echo of Moscow.
He was very sarcastic about the death of the son of Sergey Ivanov, the head of the Presidential Admiration. Plustchev tweeted that the death of the son of this high-profile official can be seen as proof of the existence of the God, meaning justice, because the junior Ivanov ran down a old lady and didn’t face criminal charges despite this.
Given that Ryabtseva was completely unknown in the professional community, many journalists were puzzled why this young girl in her early 20s had influenced the industry so much.
In 2015, Ryabtseva earned a reputation as the most scandalous media person - not for contributing examples of top-quality journalism, but mostly for her offensive posts on the website of Echo of Moscow. Leaving the radio station, its founder Sergey Korzun said that this was the main reason of his decision to stop the collaboration.
One of a few interviews conducted by Ryabtseva that attracted public attention contained factual mistakes. One of the most remarkable mistakes happened when she said that the total population of Russia is only 8 million when, in fact, it is less than he population of Moscow.
Some journalists share a theory saying that Ryabtseva is part of a plan to destroy the reputation of Echo of Moscow, a medium, which had been previously known for its objectivity and high-quality journalistic standards. Indeed, Lesya too often complemented the president and his team in public while being simply rude to members of the opposition as well as to her co-workers.
Nevertheless, Echo of Moscow’s Editor-in-Chief Alexey Venediktov, a harsh critic of the Kremlin, usually defended her by saying that she was extremely efficient at work. However, after the NTV documentary, Venediktov presented his apologies to the members of the Echo of Moscow team.
#6. Match TV: Hipsters and propaganda
Match TV, a new sport TV channel launched in fall 2015, has been seen by many as a painful diagnosis about the future of Russian media. Scandals had been pursuing the channel long before it started actual broadcasting. It began from the decision to appoint the controversial media figure Tina Kandelaki to the post of the executive producer for Match TV.
Kandelaki is mostly known in Russia as a former hostess at the Russian analogue of the British TV show Brainiest, an intellectual children's contest. Later, she developed her career through close collaboration with the Kremlin.
During Dmitry Medvedev's presidency, she became a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber and in 2011 joined the team for forming government standards in education. When famous Moscow protests against the results of the 2011 parliamentary elections started, she wrote a post on LiveJournal in support of United Russia, a ruling party, which won these elections.
Match TV started broadcasting on Nov. 1 even though it was the day of national mourning for victims of the Russian charter crash in Egypt, a day when other media had to cancel all entertaining shows.
The content of the channel seems to present a mix of styles: Soviet sport broadcasting, the Nashi pro-government movement, and hipster style. New scandals accompanying Match TV do not benefit its reputation as well. For instance, when the TV channel did a promo campaign in the Moscow subway, they printed its logo on metro cards along with a photo of Russian basketball player Timofey Mozgov but mixed up his sport awards.
“Match TV was built up in a very short term for huge amounts of money. Sport is one of the most important elements of propaganda. This helps to boost patriotic feeling. The Soviet Union did the same thing when the state was collecting victories of its sportsmen. At some point, now the Kremlin may think that a new sport TV channel of this kind is a safe way to extend the mood of the Sochi Olympics,” Yury Bogomolov, an independent TV critic says.