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Russian journalists find a bit of freedom online

The internet gives Russia's press a means to report on topics mainstream media won't cover.

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.”