Ten years ago, Russian authorities terminated the broadcasts of TVS, the country’s last nationwide independent television channel. The monopoly on information has allowed the Kremlin to consolidate its power and expand corruption on an unprecedented scale. According to IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza, the purging of independent TV has allowed Vladimir Putin to significantly delay the development of Russian society—but not to stifle it altogether.

 

 

Crimes are easier to commit in darkness, so it is not surprising that Russia’s independent television was Vladimir Putin's first target. The presence of an alternative source of information—indeed, a source of information rather than propaganda—with access to tens of millions of people was a barrier both to consolidating unlimited political power and to satisfying the corrupt appetites of the Kremlin leadership. This barrier had to be removed. The work on its removal began on the fifth day after Putin’s inauguration in May 2000. Operatives from the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Federal Security Service, and the Interior Ministry conducted raids on the offices of Media Most, at that time Russia’s largest independent media company that included NTV channel, the main thorn in the side of the Kremlin and the newly installed president. Its programs regularly shed light on government corruption and crimes against civilians in the North Caucasus; criticized the creeping re-Sovietization of Russia; and sharply ridiculed the claims by Putin, until recently a little-known security service bureaucrat, to the role of a “national leader.”

The presence of an alternative source of information was a barrier both to consolidating unlimited political power and to satisfying corrupt appetites.

The “war on NTV” lasted a year and ended with an early-dawn raid and forced takeover of the channel’s studios at Moscow’s Ostankino Television Center on Holy Saturday in April 2001. The role of the Kremlin’s propaganda outlet that NTV plays today is the direct result of those events. Even though the situation was clear at the time—Putin’s Press Minister Mikhail Lesin personally signed the so-called “Addendum # 6” that offered NTV owner Vladimir Gusinsky the termination of criminal prosecution in return for control over the channel—many respected figures chose to support the Kremlin’s claims that the dispute over NTV was purely “economic.” The formal pretext for the channel’s takeover was a debts dispute with Gazprom—even though Gazprom itself had refused to sign a restructuring deal. “Economic” arguments looked even less convincing in the case of TV6, the channel that housed former NTV journalists. It was shut down in January 2002, ostensibly on the demand of a minority (15 percent) shareholder, Lukoil-Garant, on the basis of a legal provision that had already been repealed.

 

Mikhail Lesin (left) helped Vladimir Putin silence three independent television channels.

 

With TVS, Russia’s last nationwide independent television channel, the government did not even bother with formal appearances. The channel’s signal was switched off in the early hours of June 22, 2003, on the order of Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, with the mocking explanation that this was being done “to protect the interests of viewers.”

It is well known how the “interests of viewers” were protected in Russia in the past decade. The Kremlin’s monopoly on television—the main source of information for 80 percent of Russian citizens—has enabled the purging of political opposition, the falsifying of elections, the transformation of Parliament and the judiciary into rubberstamps, the order to open fire on children in the Beslan school during the 2004 hostage crisis, and government corruption on a scale that Russia has probably never seen in its history. And it is hardly a coincidence that the “Yukos case” was launched just as Russia’s last independent television channel was being shut down; Alexei Pichugin was arrested on June 19, and Platon Levedev, on July 2, 2003.

The continuing government stranglehold over television is no longer able to prevent mass opposition protests that were unthinkable in 2003.

“There was a time in Russia when people who angered the powers-that-be had their tongues cut out. One person would be silenced; a dozen people would not hear his speeches. But progress has changed things. Today, one TVS channel is being closed down; a dozen journalists will be silenced; but millions will not be able to hear or see,” Elena Bonner, a towering human rights leader, commented in the summer of 2003. “So the choice is not great—we can blame either progress or those who have closed down the channel. Or, maybe, we should blame those millions who remain silent?”

In the past ten years the situation with television in Russia has remained unchanged. What has changed is Russian society. It has changed so much, in fact, that even the continuing government stranglehold over television is no longer able to prevent mass opposition protests that were unthinkable in 2003. The purging of the mass media, conducted between 2000 and 2003, allowed Putin to significantly delay the political and civic development of Russian society. But neither Putin nor his propagandists, who have maintained an unchallenged hold on Russia’s airwaves for a decade, have been able to halt it completely.

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