Russian journalists find a bit of freedom online

MOSCOW, Russia — Marina Litvinovich remembers the day in 2001 when she sat down with Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s president, and taught him how to use the internet.

“I taught him how to use search engines, to look at the press,” she said, peaking out from behind her laptop at her makeshift office in a Moscow cafe. “I told him it’s like a huge database — I figured he would understand what that is.”

Putin, a former spy, went on to become Russia’s most powerful politician. Litvinovich, now 36, left her position at the Foundation of Effective Politics, a Kremlin-linked think tank, and joined the opposition, becoming one of the country’s most influential bloggers along the way.

Today she runs, overseeing a team of three that tirelessly scours Russia’s growing blogosphere to find the most popular and controversial political subjects of the day.

“We try to gather things that you won’t find in the press,” Litvinovich said. “We hope to pick out the important themes and help that become the thing that people talk about.”

In a country dominated by state-controlled television and an oft-compliant print media, the internet has become an essential source of information, and the last one free of government control (Litvinovich says Putin didn’t take to the web). Blogs have even begun to influence the agenda. But many are beginning to wonder how long that will last.

Russian internet use has skyrocketed in the past decade. Whereas just 6 percent of Russians regularly used the internet in 2002, over 43 percent do so today, according to the Public Opinion Foundation, an independent Russian pollster.

A study released last month by internet research firm Comscore found that Russians are the world’s most active social networking users, with visitors spending an average of 9.8 hours on social networks monthly, more than double the global average. One of the most popular sites is LiveJournal, the Russian blogging platform of choice.

“The internet is like a god today,” said Zoya Svetova, a journalist with the New Times, Russia’s leading — and, since the closure of Russian Newsweek for financial reasons in October, only — opposition magazine. “It’s a free zone where people can say what they want.”

“In Soviet times we had samizdat,” Svetova said, referring to the self-produced and distributed dissident writing of the Soviet era. “Now the internet is like samizdat, but with a huge print run.”

One of the main reasons Russia’s journalist community united so quickly and loudly after the brutal beating of Oleg Kashin earlier this month was the journalist’s active online presence, his friends said.

“Everyone in the community from the ages of 20 to 35 knew him,” said Tikhon Dzyadko, a journalist with Ekho Moskvy, a prominent radio station, and the Russian representative of Reporters Without Borders. “When he was beat up, everyone thought, ‘This could happen to me too.’”

Kashin’s blog and Twitter feed are often more absurd and biting than his reporting. Friends like to note he was instrumental in giving prominence to a rumor that made its way around the Russian blogosphere last month, alleging that Putin’s estranged wife, Lyudmila, had been cloistered in a monastery in the northern city of Pskov.

“This can be totally untrue (or true),” Kashin wrote. “I’m writing this post to say that information about the marriages and divorces of high officials, famous politicians and others — this is socially important information, and any obstruction of its propagation is the same sort of hidden censorship that is accepted in other forms of relations between the leadership and the press.”

The subject grew to become the second most popular ever on (the first is a discussion of Putin’s alleged lovechild with Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva).

Both, however true or absurd, are forbidden topics in the mainstream press. A tabloid owned by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev was shut down two years ago after reporting Putin’s alleged affair.

“The internet is the most free place for discussion,” Dzyadko said.

The medium is starting to make its mark. A number of topics born on the internet — the most high profile being car crashes involving Russian officials — have already gotten nationwide coverage. On Thursday, the head of the Audit Chamber was forced to respond to a well-known blogger’s investigation into a multi-billion dollar theft at the oil pipeline monopoly, Transneft.

If the internet is the most free, then television is the least. “We know there is a blacklist of forbidden subjects and people,” Dzyadko said. Russia’s three federal channels are state-controlled, with a close relationship to Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief idealogue. Images of President Dmitry Medvedev holding meetings and Putin visiting dairy farms regularly top the agenda.

Enter TV Dozhd (Rain TV), a new television channel that found its start on the internet, which has been broadcasting since April via its website and through a long-form deal with YouTube.

About 60 percent of the channel's programming comprises live presentation of the news and discussion shows — a form long stricken from federal television. Subjects long banned from deep coverage on federal television — opposition protests, the trial of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the state of press freedom, political killings — are regular subjects of discussion.

But don’t call it an opposition channel.

“We’re not opposition,” said Svetlana Dolya, who has been with the channel since the beginning. “We’re just the only channel in Russia today that speaks about what is happening around us.”

“We try to show different points of view. We don’t give one view of the situation like other channels,” she said.

With 168 young and energetic employees, the channel is small but ambitious (their sites currently get about 100,000 unique viewers a week, according to Dolya). Its three slogans play on the Sovietization of Russian TV and its decreasing popularity: “TV is not our profession”; “Give TV another chance"; “Don’t be scared to turn on the TV.”

It’s a project that has excited a certain segment of Russian society — particularly those who disagree with the current leadership but aren’t necessarily enticed by opposition calls to take their discontent to the streets.

The question is how long will it last.

TV Dozhd ran into trouble soon after its launch on cable provider Akkado, which shut access to the channel after 10 days. Soon after, they switched to cable provider NTV Plus.

“I’m concerned, but I’m not scared,” said Mikhail Zygar, the channel’s top editor and on-camera personality, when asked whether he was scared the channel wouldn’t be allowed to last.

“There were signs of a real threat, but now we seem to be going in the direction of liberalization,” he said. “The general trend is that the screws are loosening, not tightening.”

That might be wishful thinking. Many at the channel and in the Russian blogosphere point to Medvedev’s love of the internet (the president runs a blog and has just opened a second Twitter account) as a sign that it will remain free.

“Some think that the leadership hasn’t understood the value of the internet and that’s why Russia hasn’t gone behind the Great Firewall, like China,” Dzyadko said. And neither he, nor Litvinovich, nor the people at Dozhd, think that will likely ever happen — in part, because it doesn’t have to.

A number of bloggers and commentators have already been imprisoned for violating Russia’s extremism laws, a wide-reaching framework that has also been used to crack down on opposition.

“Today we have this ‘Department E,’ some have already started to nickname them the Gestapo,” Litvinovich said. “They grew up learning how to deal with real criminal groups and now they deal with people who simply speak their minds.”

The question, particularly in the case of TV Dozhd, is how well rounded their coverage really can be. The culture of Russian officialdom is such that bureaucrats rarely speak unless they are sure to receive positive and needed coverage.

On a recent Monday evening, creative director Vera Krichevskaya was sitting in her office reviewing footage of a report on the controversial case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for foreign investor Hermitage Capital, who died in a federal prison last year. The plan was to show a short film created by Hermitage and then host a discussion.

She took a phone call from a friend and asked what she thought of running the program. “How do you assess the risks?” she asked. “We need another point of view but nobody like that will come in.”