Under Putin the content of mainstream media has become dispiritingly predictable. Fines and penalties are levied on media not conforming to the Kremlin’s political narrative. As a result independent outlets have either closed down due to lack of funds or been forced into self-censorship. The remaining mainstream media companies are either state controlled or funded by government loyalists, effectively silencing the voice of the opposition.
There are many examples. When the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections were on, the state run RIA media agency would often quote Alexei Navalny, the anti-government candidate, in its campaign news reports. Needless to say Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Alexei Gromov, contacted the agency’s editor-in-chief warning her that a state news agency must not work against the state’s own interests by promoting the opposition.
At the end of 2011, mass anti-government protests were organised through social media, highlighting the effectiveness of the internet as a tool for political mobilisation. In response to these demonstrations the government introduced new legislation allowing them to censor and block internet content.
Online space for the public debate of sensitive issues, such as Syria, Ukraine and LGBT rights, has begun to shrink and people have even been arrested for blogging. In the same way that media companies were forced into self-censorship, members of the public have now become increasingly insecure about limits of acceptable speech. Combine this with the spate of arrests during the 2017 anti-corruption protests and it becomes clear that the opportunity for public dialogue is being stifled in all areas.
Putin’s brand of authoritarianism treats freedom of expression not as a right but as an impediment. This ‘we-know-best’ policing of anti-government ideas reflects the insecurity of Putin’s government. 20th century political history tells you that fear mongering and the suppression of dialogue are the foundations on which oppressive governments are built. The Russian people must be granted their right to receive and disseminate opinions of all types.