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.