Kremlin tunes out ‘extremism’ to counter critics

In seven years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, says his independent-minded radio station has had few serious run-ins with the Kremlin. But then, a couple of months ago, the letters started.

First, prosecutors and security services demanded the station account for itself over interviews with Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov, leaders of the small but vocal “Other Russia” pro-democracy coalition. Then came letters about Yulia Latynina, an outspoken Ekho Moskvy presenter.

Several invoked possible breaches of recently amended laws that ban “extremist” activity. Free speech advocates warned last year these laws could be used to stifle opposition.

They suspect a systematic attempt to tighten control ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections in the next nine months.

Mr Venediktov replied to each of the 15 letters he has received in the last two months and is now waiting to see what happens. Ekho Moskvy has previously enjoyed unusual freedom – possibly as a “showcase” for the west, or because even the Kremlin needs at least one source of unbiased news.

Media that broadcast content deemed “extremist” can get away with one official warning; but after two they may lose their licence.

Such pressure will inevitably affect some editors, Mr Venediktov says. “This law poses a new threat to the media – and huge scope for self-censorship,” he says. “Which editor is going to risk inviting ‘extremists’ on air?”

The extremism laws, and a similar article banning “incitement of hatred or enmity”, are also being applied to writers and academics. Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst and an acerbic critic of Mr Putin, says prosecutors visited his Moscow apartment late last month and summoned him for “explanatory talks”.

Shortly before invoking the extremism law, prosecutors had halted distribution of his books,Unloved Country and For the Motherland! For Abramovich! Fire! A warning was also issued to the liberal Yabloko party for distributing the books.

Mr Piontkovsky was in Washington, where he is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute think-tank, when the prosecutors visited. He is to return to Moscow on Sunday, despite the threat of criminal prosecution.

“I’m returning deliberately to demonstrate that I’m not scared, that it’s impossible to arrest people just for what they are writing in papers or internet sites,” he says.

Prosecutors are also examining whether a blog by Viktor Shenderovich, a satirist, contravened the “inciting hatred” law. Mr Shenderovich – who also has a show on Ekho Moskvy – is used to taking heat; he created Kukly, a satirical TV puppet show dropped in 2003 after Kremlin pressure over its portrayal of Mr Putin as an ugly dwarf.

“What’s new today is that everything said against Putin is considered extremist,” he says.

And Vladimir Pribylovsky, a political analyst who heads Moscow’s Panorama thinktank, says that after his website published what the FSB domestic security service said was a leaked confidential document, FSB officers searched his apartment and seized his hard disk. He fears they are scanning it for “extremist” materials, including a Putin biography.

Meanwhile, several of the dwindling number of independent media outlets have seen new editors appointed – often with a background at VGTRK, the state broadcaster whose TV news is still tightly controlled.

In April, Ren TV, the last independent station with national reach, saw a Kremlin-loyal bank take a 70 per cent stake, and a former VGTRK radio director arrive as editor.

Soon after, seven journalists resigned from the commercial Radio News Service, claiming that new management brought in from VGTRK’s national Channel One had demanded the station carry “50 per cent positive news” and blacklisted opposition figures.

Then last month, Profil, a political news magazine, saw its editor replaced by Mikhail Leontiev, an ardent Putinite.

The Kremlin, however, says no campaign is under way against media or critics, and that the west frequently exaggerates Russian media freedom issues.

Igor Shuvalov, an aide to Mr Putin, told Ren TV it was wrong to assume that “if somebody somewhere has acted rigidly on the part of a prosecutor ... then this definitely means that the Kremlin threatened and gave an instruction”.

“This is all untrue,” he added, saying the Kremlin often had to reverse lower officials’ actions.

Mr Venediktov says he believes law enforcement agencies are indeed working independently, “but taking into account the general circumstances surrounding certain names”.

But he vows he will not compromise, as he told an extraordinary staff meeting held to discuss the new media climate last month.

“I told them, ‘Never mind the Kremlin, if I see you’re involved in self-censorship, or covering up information, I’ll fire you myself!’” he says.

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