Television, where most Russians get their news, has increasingly been under pressure in Russia. It is now almost completely state controlled. But in Moscow, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin media attacks.
Privately owned TV Rain is one of Russia’s few remaining broadcasters willing to regularly air views critical of Kremlin policy and give air time to opposition politicians.
“We’re not a politically motivated network. We don’t really see it as our goal to challenge the political establishment or anything like that,” anchor Natalia Shanetskaya tells VOA. “You know, we just try to be as objective as we can and that’s really what we’re about.”
President Vladimir Putin’s government has increased state ownership of news media and imposed restrictions on critical reporting.
Since 2005, U.S. democracy watchdog Freedom House has labeled Russia’s press freedom status as “Not Free” while its civil liberties and freedom rating fell in 2015 to a ranking of 6 out of a possible 7, with 7 being the worst.
Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index ranks Russia at 148 out of 180 countries, just behind Pakistan.
Attracted by independence
TV Rain's independence is what brought many of its staff to the station, including some like Shanetskaya who left state media as the Kremlin tightened its grip.
“I actually quit RT (formerly “Russia Today”) about a month before the Crimea events,” she says, adding that “I just had a feeling that things there were tightening in a very uncomfortable way. And, as somebody who was there from the beginning, I found that disturbing."
The change in editorial line hit political reporting the hardest. “For a while, since I covered business and economics, we were left alone,” says Shanetskaya. “But, at some point I started to feel like we too were no longer unaffected by that.”
At TV Rain, Shanetskaya says she has gained back the media freedom she lost at RT.
But refusing to join state media in pandering to authorities has come at a price for TV Rain.
Political pressure over a program that questioned Soviet strategy during World War II led cable companies to drop the channel in 2014.
Most at the news organization think it was an excuse. “I sincerely believe that if it wasn’t that story, about the siege of Leningrad, they would find something else,” TV Rain’s Digital Media Chief Ilya Klishin tells VOA. “It was just a matter of days or weeks.”
Even after a quick apology for those offended, the pressure continued to mount with some calling for the station to be shut down.
Klishin says they were tipped off about a month in advance that authorities were coming after them.
“We aggravated the guys at the Kremlin because, you know, we co-sponsored some of (Russian opposition leader Alexei) Navalny’s research on corruption. Specifically, of the people in the president’s administration,” says Klishin. “They were trying any way to get their revenge.”
The Kremlin routinely denies being behind any political pressure on the media. But, at the time, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, voiced support for the nationalist campaign mounted against TV Rain and backed by pro-Kremlin politicians. “I do not know of any laws that these actions violated,” he said about TV Rain.
“But, I think that there is something more serious from the point of view of morality and ethics,” he concluded ominously.
To survive financially after the loss of advertising revenue, TV Rain was forced to change to an online subscription-based business model.
Subscribers have grown to more than 70,000, and Klishin says its web site gets some six million unique views a month.
But, along with all Russian media, TV Rain is caught up in a growing downpour of restrictions.
“We cover everything that doesn’t violate Russian criminal laws,” says Klishin. “But, at some point, Russian criminal laws now are contradicting the issues of freedom of speech.”
Vague but strict laws against “extremism,” promoting “gay propaganda” or “calls for secession” have cast a shadow over discussions on rights issues and Russian-occupied Crimea.
“So, if you say on air that Crimea is not a part of Russia,” Klishin says to underscore the point, “then it could be interpreted as a call to secession.”
While pro-Kremlin nationalists attack Russia’s few independent broadcasters like TV Rain as “opposition media,” Shanetskaya says they welcome audience response.
“What’s beautiful about TV Rain is that we get a lot of feedback from our audience, period,” she says. “As somebody who worked at RT (Russia Today) for seven years, I can tell you I had no idea who watched the network or who watched the product that I was responsible for producing.”
Critics question RT’s claims of a massive and fast-growing international audience for what it calls its “alternative perspective on major global events” and “the Russian viewpoint.”
Still, Russia’s few independent, domestic broadcasters like TV Rain are swimming against a tide of state media.
TV Rain is looking to entertainment programming to reach a larger audience in Russia beyond its small urban, liberal, and well educated base.
“One of the ways is reaching out to the younger audience that kind of, you know, thought we were not that cool anymore because all we talked (about) was war in Ukraine, corruption, Putin, Syria,” says Klishin.