Russia's embattled free press was struck another blow this week by the ouster of two high profile journalists who provoked the ire of authorities.
The owners of Echo of Moscow, one of Russia's oldest critical media outlets, fired popular radio personality Alexander Plyushev on Thursday over a crass tweet. But the move smelled more of political censorship than moral indignation, coming only a week after Plyushev hosted a banned show about Ukrainian troops holding the Donetsk airport against pro-Russian separatists.
The outlet's editors had little doubt as to why Plyushev had been dismissed. "This is part of a trend toward the standardization of the mass media as a propaganda tool rather than a place of dialogue, so that there will be less criticism and fewer alternative opinions," Echo of Moscow deputy editor-in-chief Sergei Buntman told VICE News.
On Monday, Mikhail Mikhailin, editor of the respected newspaper Kommersant, resigned amid a scandal over a report that state oil behemoth Rosneft, run by President Vladimir Putin's close ally Igor Sechin, was preparing a draconian response to Western sanctions.
Meanwhile, in an indication of what the Russian press may look like without pesky critical voices like Kommersant and Echo of Moscow, leading state media propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov unveiled SputnikNews.com on Monday. The pro-Kremlin outlet will publish news and commentary and eventually radio broadcasts in 30 different languages. One of the promoted pieces on the day of the site's debut was a column by Polish neo-Nazi Mateusz Piskorski, who attempted to argue that "Trotskist (sic) policy has grown into a global threat," and is driving the US foreign policy agenda.
The Kremlin's other main English-language news outlet, RT, was summoned to a meeting with the UK's media regulator Ofsted on Monday for a "failure to preserve due partiality" in reports about Ukraine.
The saga around radio host Plyushev started with an October 29 broadcast discussing Los Angeles Times correspondent Sergei Loiko's time inside the Donetsk airport, which pro-Russian rebels have not managed to capture in two months of heavy fighting. Describing the Ukrainian soldiers who are holed up up in the new terminal, where "cigarettes aren't allowed — the sniper shoots by the third puff," Loiko said he "saw that in the airport, absolute good … is fighting with absolute evil, with these orcs who surround the airport and pummel it with Grad rockets, mortars, etc."
The Russian government's communications watchdog evidently didn't like the comparison of the Russia-backed rebels to "orcs" and the rest of the interview, as two days later Echo of Moscow received a warning for spreading "information justifying war crimes." A media outlet can be closed after two warnings in one year.
But Plyushev was only fired by Gazprom Media after a tweet, admittedly in poor taste, about the accidental death of presidential chief of staff Sergei Ivanov's son, who had previously made headlines in 2005 when he avoided charges for striking and killing a 68-year-old woman with his car. "Do you think the death of Ivanov's son, who once crashed into a pensioner and sued her son-in-law, proves the existence of god/higher justice?" Plyushev wrote. He soon took the tweet down and apologized after a public outcry.
Plyushev's dismissal sparked a Twitter "flashmob" of selfies with people contorting their mouths to one side in the style of the host's trademark jokey facial expression. He himself has declined to comment on the situation.
However, Echo of Moscow editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov argued that according to the company charter and to Russian mass media law, Gazprom Media didn't have the right to fire Plyushev without the editor's permission. Barred by security from entering the outlet's offices, Plyushev nonetheless conducted his show early Saturday morning via Skype.
"There's a desire among the country's elite for single-mindedness and a unified information policy," Venediktov said. "It's clear that Echo of Moscow is breaking out of this. The main, big media, nationwide media are media without debates, without alternative points of view, without the possibility of discussion, because the discussions they have … are ridiculous. In such a situation, the existence of Echo of Moscow is a rebuke to the rest."
Under its crusading editor, Echo of Moscow has been running critical coverage of those in power since 1990, even after it was acquired in 2001 by the media company of state gas giant Gazprom. But in February, the outlet's long-time general director was replaced by the senior editor of state radio station Voice of Russia, who is married to the deputy director of the presidential press service.
In October, Gazprom Media head Mikhail Lesin, a former adviser to Putin, reportedly tried to prevent Echo of Moscow from running a controversial interview with opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the first interview since a court lifted a ban on speaking with the press during the ongoing criminal trial against him. A week later, Russia's emergencies ministry conducted an unusual surprise inspection of the station's offices in what many viewed as an intimidation tactic.
The turmoil at Echo of Moscow is part of a larger crackdown on independent media this year. In January, TV channel Dozhd was dropped by broadcasters, and in March the editor of news site Lenta.ru was replaced with a pro-Kremlin figure. In October, newspaper Novaya Gazeta received a warning for "extremism" over a column criticizing attempts by Putin and other politicians to position traditional "Russian culture" as a bastion against Western cultural and religious depravation.
In September, the parliament passed a law banning foreigners from owning more than a 20 percent stake in Russian media outlets, a restriction that will impact the major independent newspaper Vedomosti and numerous glossy magazines and television channels. The legislation is allegedly designed to limit nefarious foreign influence in the midst of a propaganda war with the West over Ukraine. Russian state media have misleadingly portrayed the Kiev government that came to power in February as a "fascist junta" carrying out a genocide against Ukraine's Russian-speakers.
Another law this summer requires popular bloggers to register as mass media outlets, subjecting them to government oversight and, in the opinion of critics, intimidation and censorship.
Even in the movie industry, state oversight has been expanded. A new law requires all films to obtain a distribution certificate, including just to be shown at a festival, and other recent regulations require scripts to be defended before a panel of cultural ministry experts.
In an incident that may or not be tied to the intimidation of Kremlin critics, actor and outspoken opposition activist Alexei Devotchenko was found dead last week in a pool of blood, with one police source reportedly saying foul play was suspected.
The departure of Kommersant editor Mikhailishin on Monday hinted at pressure on the newspaper, despite Rosneft's denial that it had anything to do with his resignation. The publication has been in hot water since it reported in October that Rosneft had demanded Putin take extreme steps to support the economy amid Western sanctions, including allowing the expropriation of equipment from Western oil and gas companies working in Russia. In response, Rosneft said it would sue Kommersant, accusing it of attempting to "provoke a new round of Western sanctions."
Some pundits are predicting that the closure of Echo of Moscow, the oldest truly critical news outlet in Russia, may not be far off. RuNet Echo editor Kevin Rothrock, an expert on the Russian-language internet, argued in a recent piece that the outlet's special relationship with the Kremlin that allowed it to speak truth to power had unraveled. Putin reportedly once told Venediktov that he considered him an "enemy," but not a "traitor," the difference being that at least enemies can be negotiated with. Now, however, Venediktov says he doesn't "understand the new Putin" and hasn't spoken to him in a year.
"That is a very bad sign," Rothrock wrote. "Vladimir Putin talks to his enemies. A traitor, on the other hand, must be destroyed."
Buntman said he expects there will be attempts to close the radio station but vowed it would not change its editorial policy.
"Our future is unclear because, as we've been saying, the trend to limit the mass media as much as possible to a single tone and a single way of presenting information is only growing," he said.
Follow Alec Luhn on Twitter: @ASLuhn