MOSCOW — Among the five TV journalists interviewing Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the odd one out was easy to spot. Mikhail Zygar’s questions were sharper than those of the others, who headed back to spacious television studios while Zygar broadcast his piece from a Moscow living room.
The Dozhd news channel rose to prominence in 2011 with its coverage of the mass protests against Vladimir Putin, who was then prime minister but was preparing to return to the presidency. State-owned television largely ignored the protests.
As other Russian television channels have grown increasingly subservient this year, providing propaganda backing the annexation of Ukraine’s autonomous Crimean Peninsula and Russia’s aggressive policy toward Ukraine, Dozhd didn’t follow the lead — and is now paying for it.
Putin’s government has been careful not to order the channel to shut down, but a Kremlin-instigated smear campaign has driven this rare independent broadcaster to the brink of demise.
Past strollers and bicycles in the hall, a Soviet-era apartment in central Moscow now houses the studio of Dozhd, whose combined online and TV audience is about 12 million. Anchorman Pavel Lobkov sits on a chair in what was once a spacious living room.
The 47-year-old Lobkov shrugs off the challenges, recalling his early days in television during the Soviet Union’s perestroika era.
“Things were probably even tougher then: We had no Internet, no Skype, no cellphones. I went live from war zones, so these comfortable surroundings of an apartment can hardly unsettle me,” he said.
Lobkov spent most of his television career on NTV, a legendary channel taken over by state-controlled gas company Gazprom in 2001, a move that forced independent journalists to flee.
NTV, owned by oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, was a leading channel that offered a view different from the Kremlin’s. The government effectively wrested the channel from Gusinsky and entrusted it to Gazprom to run, in Putin’s first major crackdown on independent media.
Now at Dozhd, Lobkov says he’s reliving the same pressure and harassment campaign he experienced at NTV.
Pressure on independent media outlets intensified this year as the Kremlin sought to unify the country behind the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine.
Since its inception in 2010, Dozhd had had its studio in a former chocolate factory on the Moskva River, but its landlord broke the lease in November, forcing the channel to look for new space. Sympathizers offered Dozhd a place, but last week it was told it could not broadcast from there anymore.
Dozhd doesn’t want to make public its new temporary location.
During Putin’s 15 years in power, the Russian television landscape has been sanitized so much that news coverage on all channels is almost identical. State channels toe the Kremlin line, and private channels, most owned by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs or state-controlled conglomerates, are just as obedient.
As recently as January, Dozhd broadcast online and on cable networks, expanding its reach to Russian regions that still largely get their information from state-owned television. Its troubles began when it started aggressively covering the daily anti-government protests in Ukraine, demonstrations that state-owned Russian television dismissed as part of a neo-Nazi coup.
The crackdown came at the end of January, when Dozhd hosted a history program on the 1941-44 siege of Leningrad and put a question up for a vote: Should the Soviets have surrendered Leningrad to save lives? Famine in the city, now called St. Petersburg, during that epic siege killed more than 500,000 people.
The question caused a stir for its implication of a lack of patriotism, prompting Kremlin officials to call for a shutdown of the channel. Dozhd apologized, but that didn’t seem to help.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, accused Dozhd of “crossing a moral and ethical red line,” while the State Duma condemned the channel for “neo-Nazism” and “betraying your own people.”
Nearly all cable networks dropped Dozhd in a matter of days, and since then the channel has been treated like a leper.
The problems multiplied over the summer, when the parliament passed a bill that barred cable channels from running ads, according to Natalya Sindeyeva, who has led Dozhd since its inception. The channel cut its expenses in half, shed about 30 percent of its staff and reduced its monthly budget before being hit with the eviction notice.
Talks with potential landlords have been futile.
Zygar, the editor in chief of Dozhd, says broadcasting out of an apartment is temporary and does not affect the quality of the content Dozhd is providing.
Russia was ranked 148th in the 180-country press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders this year.