Russia is killing what little independent press it has

Updated 4:00 PM ET, Mon November 27, 2017

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Mikhail Fishman is an anchor at TV Rain. He is the former editor in chief of Russian Newsweek and Moscow Times. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. This is the next installment in the CNN Opinion series on the challenges facing the media, under attack from critics, governments and changing technology.

(CNN)In April 2012, shortly after Vladimir Putin had been re-elected as President and returned to his throne in the Kremlin following a four-year intermission as prime minister, protest demonstrations broke out in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan. A local political activist, who was running for mayor but lost, went on a hunger strike after what he claimed was a totally rigged election. The crowds rallied in the streets in his support, echoing the Bolotnaya Square protest movement in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

I was covering the demonstrations for TV Rain, an independent cable news network that was established in 2010 -- under what was known as then-President Dmitry Medvedev's political thaw -- and got a strong foothold with its exclusive in-depth coverage of Bolotnaya Square protests in Moscow. At that time, millions of Russians had access to TV Rain's channel.
Yet I was surprised when an Astrakhan law enforcement official, who was clamping down on local protests, confided in me that he and his police unit watched TV Rain regularly. Wow, I thought back then, things were going to change quickly because even the police forces were paying attention to independent media.
Things did, indeed, change fast. The protests in Astrakhan were crushed, the Bolotnaya movement was defeated, hundreds of protesters were arrested and the crackdown on civil freedoms was codified with repressive legislation. Eighteen months after I heard the Astrakhan official's confession and a few weeks before the Crimea takeover, TV Rain -- still independent and working opposite to the state's growing ideological pressure and propaganda -- was widely pulled. Private cable television providers unanimously cut it from their list of available channels, under the pretext that they had felt offended by one of the network's onscreen polls about the cost of not surrendering St. Petersburg to the Nazis during World War II.
    During the Soviet era, political censorship was an established governmental institution. It had its regulations, procedures, offices and staff. Nowadays, in Putin's Russia, it isn't as conspicuous as it was, but it's still very powerful. It comes in the form of phone calls, hints or nods. Across Russian media, except for two or three publications, an acute self-censoring instinct -- put simply, fear -- is now a commanding feeling.
    Putin learned from his own experience the power that media wields: With its help, in 1999, as a former KGB official with little recognition across the Russian nation, he propelled himself to nationwide popularity and to the presidency in less than a year. So it made sense that, 17 years ago, Putin started to exercise his power by cracking down on media.
    Just one month after Putin became President, Vladimir Gusinsky, a media tycoon and owner of NTV -- a major private television channel -- was arrested. Putin denied that the arrest was politically motivated.
    Gusinsky then fled Russia and NTV soon passed into the ownership of Gazprom, Russia's state gas behemoth, under the pretext of an undischarged financial debt.
      Since then, Putin has continued to act on the principle that tight control over media is key to power.
      From the early 2000s, Russian national television has been a direct extension of the Kremlin apparatus -- a massive propaganda tool. Print publications with mass circulation have been put in the hands of either state corporations or friendly oligarchs.
      The system has been redesigned to boost Putin's cult and bash any alternative to it. It has portrayed his critics as extremists and outcasts. It has shown him as Russia's only protector from the hostile world. It has savored war and presented the military intrusion in Ukraine's Donbass region as a sequel to Russia's fight with Nazis during World War II.
      Meanwhile, what remained of the independent news industry has faced intimidation and was taught one lesson after another about what issues should be considered "sensitive." The list started with a southern republic of Chechnya, which under Ramzan Kadyrov's rule has proven to be a deadly territory for reporters and human rights watchers.
      Soon the list of what should be kept out of the public eye included Putin's private life. After a while, it was clear the list included essentially any nonsanctioned information about how the Kremlin operated on political or financial matters. Professional political journalism now resembled a mine field. Many decided not to cross it and turned away, switching to less adventurous activities. The industry was bleeding from the inside.
        Putin regards governing as largely a secret operation. The less the nation knows about his plans and actions, the better (and this is the primary reason why he didn't announce yet that he is running for president in 2018). The nation, along with the rest of the world, is welcome to observe the facade of Russian governmental edifice, a projection of Russian dream, as shiny as the stone-block pavement on the Red Square in Moscow. What is cooking behind it -- murky financial transactions, appointments and promotions -- is nobody's business. Prying into it comes at a cost.
        Among the latest -- and probably last -- examples is how the Kremlin treated the Panama Papers, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. In April 2016, the investigation, based on the leaks from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, implicated members of Putin's inner circle in an alleged $2 billion money-laundering scheme and identified musician and Putin's close friend Sergei Roldugin as the owner of a number of offshore companies that allegedly helped to channel funds back to Russia.
        (CNN reached out to Roldugin for comment. While he did not respond, he did tell the Guardian that Russian businessmen had donated a good deal of money to him to purchase instruments for young Russians. Meanwhile, Putin is not mentioned in the leaked documents, and there has been no indication that he will face any legal scrutiny regarding the allegations against Roldugin.)
        Russian media -- sadder but wiser-- largely abstained from exploring the subject, with the exception of the RBC media holding, whose recently assembled editorial team was already famous for its investigative coverage of Russian business and politics. A few weeks after reporting on the Panama Papers, the RBC top editors were dismissed. In a few months, RBC holding changed ownership.
          It wasn't always like this. In the late 1980s, after decades of Soviet censorship, Russian media emerged as harbingers of freedom and a key institution of the new system of checks and balances -- the one that was expected to become a civilized democracy in the future.
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          That didn't work out as initially planned. It was turned into an industry deprived of purpose and competitiveness. It has been purged of any players that would be able to efficiently report on what's going on inside the Kremlin walls, let alone to break the news that is not expected to be broken.
          TV Rain news network, banned from cable, never fully recovered after a coordinated attack three years ago. It subsequently transformed into a web-based online television. Shrunken from what it once was, it now operates mostly under a pay wall: It's the only way to survive as an independent voice. Nowadays in Russia, editorial freedom and professional integrity in journalism come at a price, and you either prepare to pay or not try at all.