On March 18, Russian voters will elect a new president. Just a few weeks later, the football World Cup will take place in Europe's largest country. Both events are sure to be covered intensively by an army of journalists. But 2017 showed just how dangerous the country can be for members of the media: Nikolai Andrushchenko, a reporter for the newspaper Novy Peterburg, was attacked in Saint Petersburg and died later in the hospital. Tatyana Felgengauer, deputy editor-in-chief of the radio station Echo of Moscow, was stabbed by a newsroom intruder. Reporters from the paper Novaya Gazeta were also threatened and attacked. Some have left Russia as a result, including journalist and human rights activist Olga Romanova.
Russian secret service expert and journalist Andrei Soldatov is familiar with all of these incidents. He has also considered leaving Russia on several occasions, but has always decided to remain. For the last 18 years, he has been researching the Kremlin's influence on the internet and the media. How has that influence changed due to digitalization? How does censorship work in the Russia of today? And what do those issues have to do with Vladimir Putin's likely re-election as Russian president? We addressed those questions in the following interview.
ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Soldatov, do you feel safe in Russia?
Andrei Soldatov: It has been 15 years since the domestic intelligence agency FSB first initiated proceedings against me and began an investigation for alleged disclosure of state secrets. That's why I can understand those journalists who left Russia in 2017. Those who engage in critical journalism in this country are taking a risk. And they must deal with a system of censorship.
ZEIT ONLINE: How does that system work?
Soldatov: Some journalists are attacked or murdered. Just like similar cases involving opposition activists, these crimes are only investigated superficially by public prosecutors. That is one, extremely callous side of the censorship. But the system is much more extensive when it comes to self-censorship. The regime tries to send a clear message: You as a single critical journalist can't achieve much anyway.
ZEIT ONLINE: What are the consequences?
Soldatov: If journalism no longer brings about change, then why should one engage in critical journalism at all? That is something that many journalists ask themselves. It makes more sense to give up, they think. And that is what the government wants them to think.
ZEIT ONLINE: Giving up means that they stop reporting?
Soldatov: Exactly. Or they stop writing about certain things.
ZEIT ONLINE: In Germany, journalists are allowed to be deeply critical of politicians. Former German President Christian Wulff, for example, was forced to step down following a series of critical reports. Is something like that possible in Russia? Could a journalist in Moscow write about Vladimir Putin lying to the public in connection with, for example, Russian soldiers operating in Ukraine?
Soldatov: The Russian way of controlling the media has changed. In the beginning, security services’ officials only sought to influence individual journalists. But they quickly realized that it is much more effective to control entire media outlets. Now, they exert control over the owners of publishing houses who, in turn, control their editors in accordance with instructions from above. That is how critical stories are blocked.
ZEIT ONLINE: It sounds like a system with several different levels ...
Soldatov: ... one that is extremely effective and avoids the appearance of censorship. If there is a conflict between an editor and a critical reporter, it looks like an internal disagreement that the Kremlin has nothing to do with. Nobody can prove that the prevention of an article was actually the result of political pressure. There is no evidence.
ZEIT ONLINE: Can you give an example?
Soldatov: Imagine for a moment that a reporter wishes to write something critical, perhaps about the influence exerted on newspapers by individual industrial magnates. Then the editor-in-chief simply postpones the publication, and postpones again, and then says that the reporter is too emotional about his or her story. And suddenly there is a reason to reject the story. The government can always say: We had nothing to do with it.
ZEIT ONLINE: But when it comes to issues like war crimes or corruption, it is extremely difficult not to become emotional.
Soldatov: On these issues as well, the publisher or editor-in-chief can simply say: We are killing your story because you are too emotionally involved in this issue. Once that happens two or three times, the journalist is likely to leave the newspaper. His critical stories won't be published. That is how the censorship system works.
ZEIT ONLINE: In the United States, critical journalism is experiencing a boom, in part because of a president who is the focus of intense reporting and myriad stories.
Soldatov: It is really difficult to make a comparison with Russia. Many media outlets have closed their investigative departments. When I began writing about the Russian secret service in 1999, every large media outlet in Moscow had its own investigative section with several reporters. In 2016, a survey was undertaken to determine how many of these investigative journalists still worked in Moscow. The result was eight. Even if the count might have missed one or two, no more than 10 people have remained. Media outlets have learned through the years that it is much too risky to maintain a critical department. They bowed to the censorship. But recently we got some new independent investigative projects launched online, that is a good sign.
ZEIT ONLINE: Has the media's influence changed in recent years?