PRESIDENT VLADIMIR Putin has reestablished dictatorship in Russia with a veneer of legality. The veneer doesn’t fool anyone who pays attention, nor is it really intended to do so; Mr. Putin prefers to rule through fear. But the pretense gives some cover to Mr. Putin’s apologists in the West and provides material for his increasingly surreal and aggressive propaganda campaign.
The autocrat’s success in walling off Russians from alternative sources of news and information, culminating now in his campaign against the country’s last independent television channel, provides a case in point. The channel TV Dozhd (meaning “rain”) was founded five years ago, when state television had become so soporifically subservient that “most people we knew had stopped watching,” as Mikhail Zygar, Dozhd’s 33-year-old editor in chief, recalled during a recent visit to The Post. Dozhd offered real news and balanced commentary. “Give TV one more chance” was its pitch. It soon built an audience of 20 million (in a nation of 142 million).
This year, Mr. Putin made his move. First, just before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, all major cable operators dropped the channel. Then its newsroom lease was not renewed. Then Russia’s puppet parliament passed and Mr. Putin signed a law which, beginning Jan. 1, will bar any private channel from selling advertising. “This is the most dangerous problem,” Mr. Zygar said.
Dozhd’s audience fell to 2 million viewers early this year before building back to 12 million, he said, by attracting viewers on the Internet, on small, regional cable systems and in neighboring Ukraine. It raised $2 million through crowdfunding and will stage another such campaign next month. But it has had to cut its staff from 300 to 150, and its prospects for next year remain highly uncertain.
Meanwhile, Mr. Zygar said, official propaganda has become less soporific and more engaging — moving from “North Korea-style” to “Fox Media-style,” he said. “Flames of hatred toward ‘Ukrainian fascists’ and ‘American aggressors’ can be seen in the eyes of every presenter, and it’s very effective. And there is no alternative, except for us.”
Mr. Putin keeps at the ready the possibility of methods harsher than advertising bans. Parliament extended the “anti-extremism” law this year in a way that allows prosecutors to charge pretty much any critic with a crime. “Hypothetically, if some news show guest says that Crimea should be returned to Ukraine, I could be thrown in jail for five years,” Mr. Zygar said. But, he noted, “It’s much easier to get rid of us with economic pressure.”
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