With stations like state-owned Russia Today (RT) losing anchors who are sick of "whitewashing the actions of Putin,” it’s becoming difficult to be a legitimate journalist in Russia. Such is the battle of Dozhd TV.
Dozhd is the only news station not owned by the state or strong supporters of the government, according to their editor-in-chief. This being the case, the station has faced opposition from Russian President Vladimir Putin for showing news that defames his character and presents the side of protesters who oppose the government. A pro-Kremlin website included Dozhd as one of the most anti-Russian news sources in all of Russia just last week.
Their advertisers have pulled out since state-run media stations started accusing them of being traitors to the country, seemingly for actually presenting a whole picture of it. Several stations dropped them simply for asking the question of whether Russia should have surrendered St. Petersburg during World War II, in order to save lives. The final straw was when Putin decided to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea in March. The level of nationalism that came with the invasion caused people to take even harsher conservative views of what companies like Dozhd were doing — which was showing them the good, the bad and the ugly.
Dozhd isn’t some kind of anarchist collective news channel, but it is a balanced source of journalism that shows both sides of every story, without self-censorship. Many Russians care deeply about the station, as they are disenfranchised with the amount of propaganda shown at all other Russian news stations. With the amount of support the station currently has, directly from fans, they can survive as a company for two months. If the company shuts down, it’s going to be hard for journalists of their kind to find work, and they may be reporters without a country.
We spoke with Dozhd TV’s Editor–in-Chief, Mikhail Zygar, as the staff fights to keep their station alive.
What's a situation when the real news didn't get out in Russia because of the government censoring it?
Actually, there is no direct censorship in Russia. Government doesn't need to censor anyone — self-censorship is much more effective. The bosses of all state-run or state-related media know all the dos and don'ts, they have blacklists of newsmakers or topics that should never been mentioned. They'll never cross the invisible red line.
For many years that situation was absurd because no one believed the official news of the state TV — that was one of the reasons of Dozhd's success. We gained the trust of the audience.
But during the Crimean crisis the situation changed. The level of state propaganda became so shameless, and many people started believing it. The society is polarized and divided into two groups: those who watch state TV and therefore became a victim of the propaganda and those who don't watch (or probably prefer Dozhd). In this situation Dozhd is being labeled as unpatriotic and treacherous only for giving the floor to the second — Ukrainian — side and for reporting from Kiev.
VICE News: The criticism of Dozhd became more vocal around the time of the Sochi Olympics, when Putin wanted to protect Russia’s image. What happened around the Sochi Olympics? Why did the government come after your station?
Zygar: Well, many things happened: tons of money had been stolen during construction; Russia gathered the biggest harvest of medals. Our TV-channel provided the full coverage of both — but that wasn't the reason for the attack on us. The latest attack on Russian media had started long before the Olympics, in November 2011, right before the parliamentary election. The government wanted to conceal the election fraud that was being prepared. The result of that fraud was the outrage of civil society and series of protest rallies.
The Sochi Olympics were dubbed the “Hunger Games” by a protest in Moscow on February 15.
Dozhd was the only TV-channel in Russia that provided live coverage of the protests in Moscow and became widely known across the country due to that bold and highly professional work. But later our society has become tired of protests. During the Olympics patriotic excitement took over the nation. That atmosphere allowed the authorities to get rid of the remnants of free media in the country.
What differentiates your station from other news stations in Russia?
We are the only independent news channel in Russia that does not belong neither to state nor to Putin's friends, which brings about all the advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, we are free to choose any topic we're interested in, we can give floor to any political figure no matter if they are oppositional leaders or government officials. On the other hand, we are very short of money — our budget could not be compared to that of any of state TV-channels…we manage to create a modern and innovative media with extraordinary little amount of money.
One more important difference is the fact that Russian state media started an information campaign against us, blaming us for being traitors of the nation. That scared our commercial partners and they quickly escaped — we have almost no advertising anymore though it used to be our main source of income.
How are you raising money for the station? Are you getting a lot of support?
Since all of our commercial partners have gone, we survive only thanks to our viewers. For the last two months, we spend only what we get from our subscribers. Lately, we've organized the record breaking fundraising campaign — the biggest one in the history of Russian media. Dozens of prominent Russian artists, writers, actors and journalists brought their special presents for us and we sold them through our online store. We've raised a considerable amount of money that allows us to broadcast for next two months.
The moral support is even more important to us. Our viewers organized a couple of protests (for example a flash mob with umbrellas on the Red Square — as Dozhd means ‘Rain’ in Russian). And we are getting so many letters from the people telling that we are the only reliable source of information, the real hope for a change and even the reason not immigrate from the country. That's a huge responsibility for us.
What do you see as the future of Russian journalism?
The trend is negative. No new independent medium of high quality has turned up during the last year but many disappeared - or their best journalists and editors were fired. We suspect that the profession is under threat of extinction. But there's also good news. The interest of the civil society to the fair investigative journalism has increased. More and more people are interested in finding the truth and social networks are becoming the new and important substitute for independent media.
Five years ago, any impressive investigative story published in a leading newspaper would hardly be quoted by the other media. Now it gets thousands of reposts. The pressure on the media proves that it's still highly important. Otherwise the Kremlin ideologists wouldn't have spent so much time and effort to intimidating them.
What will you and your coworkers do if Dozhd shuts down?
First, we don't think that Dozhd is going to shut down — although it's getting harder. For example, the owner of the studio we work in has informed us that he is not going to renew the contract that is going to end in the end of June. That would be the hard blow. But maybe that would make us more efficient and technologically advanced. The future of news television is surely TV not connected to any studio, table and decoration — the anchor should always be right on the hotspot, not on a comfortable sofa.
Anyway, we already asked our journalists and staff to start finding a new job. We'll have to shorten our budget and number of employees by 50 percent. That makes me feel like I'm cutting my arm with no clear understanding if it's going to help or not.
The other problem is that not so much independent media remains in Russia. I know that my colleagues consider changing professions or even emigrating, but staying a journalist. Probably that may seem naive but all of us still believe that one day we will be able to join again together on Dozhd — because our audience still needs us.