‘Free’ media in Russia may be a myth

8 August 2011

Written by: Samantha Afetian

They were warned.

Playing with politics in the Russian media means walking an invisible tightrope between right and wrong, acceptable and intolerable. Though Russian mass media is technically free of governmental restriction and censorship, the media needs to be cautious of meddling in politics.

‘You know, guys, you think it is all about business, but it is actually about politics.’

That’s the advice that Arthur Daylidonis and his business partner were given in January 2009 when they signed a contract to represent the online television channel First Online TV in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia.

‘When we entered into the contract they gave us a list of instructions and one of them was not to talk about politics,’ Daylidonis says. ‘They told us we could say things against the government, but it is better not to.’

‘There are not any specific lines drawn. You can only feel it. You either get shut down, or you can be careful and play by the rules.’

Daylidonis, a 21-year-old Russian citizen now studying at La Trobe University in Melbourne, knew that ‘playing by the rules’ meant aligning with the United Russia party, the long-standing majority party—especially since one of the channel’s owners is the son of a prominent United Russia politician, and a coordinator for the channel was rumored to be related to former Russian President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The political lines seemed clear.

But in late June, men in black suits, well-known to be government representatives, showed up at the house of Daylindonis’ business partner with an offer to buy the business.

‘They told us that we had a choice to sell it but you already know you have to agree, especially when they say you don’t have to,’ says Daylindonis.

At the time, the business was generating US$4,000  in revenue in an average month, with the potential to gross even more money in the future. Despite the profitability of the company, Daylindonis and his partner were ‘bought-out’ for only US$10,000 .

Daylindonis, to this day, does not know by whom the men were sent.

‘The only thing they told us was that ‘it’s all about politics, so now politics should take care of it,’ he says.

Suspicions, however, point to the local governor, who may have been worried that the channel could be harmful to his political campaign.

‘Young people in Russia think that the people now in power still have the same fears left over from the USSR, mostly the fear of change,’ explains Daylindonis.

In Russia, it is not uncommon for media to be bought-out or shut down by the government.

Earlier this year a Russian newspaper was shut down by the government for printing campaign flyers for an oppositional party candidate.  Although, officially, Russian media laws prohibit the censorship of mass information.

Reports from Russian media state that fears of a government mass media crackdown are mounting.  Officials recently passed an amendment to the country’s Mass Media Law giving the government the power to limit the activities of ‘extremist’ websites.

However, the nature of extremism in the media has not been officially defined by law, leaving the meaning of the classification open to ambiguity and government interpretation. Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev recently suggested that extremist threats come from ‘nationalists, hooligans, sport fans and bikers’. He also suggested that Russian youth must be monitored more closely.

Even though Daylindonis was careful to not meddle with the opposition, somehow his business still posed a threat. Perhaps it was simply the youthfulness of Daylindonis, only 19 at the time, that somehow threatened the political force that bought-out his business.

Daylindonis may never know.

‘Every media in Russia is about politics,’ he says. ‘It could eventually change; more people with different minds, who don’t care only about money, need to come to the country and create a better system first. Then maybe things will change.’

Samantha Afetian is a Journalism student at La Trobe University, currently on exchange from San Diego State University, and a member of upstart’s editorial team.  You can follow her on Twitter: @SamAfetian.