On March 3rd, 2022, in the midst of the Russian invasion into Ukraine, the only independent TV news channel in Russia, Dozhd TV (also known as TV Rain), stopped broadcasting. Its editor-in-chief fled the country, fearing for his life as well as the lives of his staffers. Russia’s prosecutor general’s office claimed that the channel had violated Russian law by referring to the current conflict as a “war” or “invasion” rather than the government-approved “special military operation.” Both Dozhd and Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow), an independent radio news show, had their broadcasts and websites censored.
Some might wonder how, in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, an independent TV channel could have even existed. Russia has intense censorship laws, many of which have gotten Dozhd into trouble over the years, but it is only recently that the government has gone to the final extreme length of censoring Dozhd entirely. What allowed Dozhd to survive before now– the tenacity and dedication of a team willing to risk their safety to bring uncensored news to Russia, or a strategic decision by Putin with long-term plans in mind? While Putin and his government have made it increasingly more difficult for Dozhd to survive, the previous lack of total censorship seems to have been driven by a concern for domestic and international backlash. Only now, with the international community already condemning the invasion of Ukraine, has Putin been willing to completely eliminate independent media in Russia.
Recognizing the presence of independent media in a country is important because it is critical for a successful democracy. According to political theorist and professor Robert Dahl, two of the eight key elements of a democracy or a “polyarchy” are “freedom of expression” and “alternative sources of information.”1 Presence of a free and independent media that can counter a government or a political candidate’s narrative is essential.
Though freedom of the press is an important part of many democratic countries’ constitutions, this freedom is not always an unlimited freedom. Author and professor Ozan Varol’s article “Stealth Authoritarianism” details the ways in which autocratic leaders can use seemingly democratic and legal mechanisms in their country in order to maintain and further their power.2 He addresses how libel laws exist in prominent democracies around the world but can also be used by “stealth authoritarians” to suppress journalists and critics, and he highlights Russia as a clear example of these laws being used to suppress freedom of speech.3 Another key way “stealth authoritarians” can protect their rule is by allowing “space for discontent;” having a small, somewhat controlled group of critics can legitimize an authoritarian leader by providing an example of how they allow freedom of speech that they can show the public and the international community.4
Does this explain Dozhd’s survival? Not entirely, but it may be a significant part of it. Dozhd was launched in 2010, during the comparatively liberal Presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, who even visited the studio. Once Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Dozhd began to face increasing difficulties as they allowed critics and opponents of the government to come on the show, and in 2014, Dozhd was targeted for running a poll that asked whether their viewers thought that Russia should have given Leningrad to the invading Nazi army during WWII. Heavily criticized by government officials, Dozhd was no longer allowed to broadcast on the major cable channels and the company was kicked out of their office and studio space.
While this was a clear move to end the news channel, the government stopped short of completely preventing Dozhd’s ability to operate. According to Masha Makeeva, Dozhd’s deputy director, “‘The authorities didn’t want to shut us down, as that would have looked bad. They wanted to create impossible conditions for us so we had to shut down ourselves.’” The government could protect its image and claim some semblance of deniability in the domestic and international spheres by not claiming victory over Dozhd. The story did gain international media attention, but little action from the international community.
The company continued to broadcast, operating online using a subscription-based service to support themselves. In August of 2021, Dozhd and many of its journalists were labeled as “foreign agents” by the government, meaning that any news or post associated with them had to be labeled to identify that it was coming from a “foreign agent.” This move was significant, not only as part of the lead up to the invasion of Ukraine or because of the even greater pressure it put on Dozhd, but because of the way Putin’s government defended it. Reminiscent of Varol’s “stealth authoritarian,” government officials pointed to the US’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) as justification, though there are significant differences in how each country uses the designation.
Dozhd has been able to survive up until now due to a mix of different factors. Part of the reason is that there were people who cared enough and had enough money to keep it going. The internet also gave Dozhd a lifeline, though not one it could use for long. As evidenced by the channel’s recent censorship, Putin had been holding back. Stamping out a relatively well known independent news-outlet in an obvious way would have hurt Putin’s image and drawn criticism from democracies around the world. While Putin is not a “stealth authoritarian,” even as an overt authoritarian he used the tactics a “stealth authoritarian” might employ in order to legitimize and defend his actions on the international stage.
As of the writing of this post, Dozhd has not begun broadcasting again. A future for independent news in Russia appears unlikely. While few would have argued that Putin was in any way a democratic leader, he has now officially destroyed one of the last symbols of democracy in Russia.
- Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. 3.
- Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 100(4): 1673-1742.
- Ibid, 1693-1700.
- Ibid, 1713-1715.