Against a backdrop of flickering news images, bathed in cool white light, the anchor of Russia’s only independent TV channel Dozhd asks an analyst what the fall of the ruble means for ordinary Russians.
The set looks state-of-the-art but if the camera zoomed out viewers would see that Maria Makeyeva is sitting in a living room crisscrossed by wires and that the lights are stuck to the wall with masking tape.
Such are the conditions of independent television in today’s Russia, where questioning the official Kremlin line can spell death for a news outfit.
For the privately owned Dozhd, it has meant having to move out of a trendy loft across the river from the Kremlin to a cramped flat belonging to one of the staff.
“Our universe has shrunk… and mostly to just news,” said Makeyeva, who is also the deputy editor of the channel.
Dozhd’s riches-to-rags transformation began in January, when it lost 80 percent of its 15-million-strong audience after major cable providers dropped the station from their packages, nixing most of its advertising revenue.
The ostensible reason for the move was a poll on the channel’s website asking whether Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) should have surrendered to German forces during World War II rather than holding out under siege for 872 days, during which more than 800,000 people died of hunger.
– ‘Crossed the line’ –
Officials branded the poll unpatriotic, with President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman declaring that the network — which apologised for the poll — had “crossed the line”.
Many observers agree, however, the channel is being punished for going boldly where pro-Kremlin channels fear to tread, by, for example, giving a voice to Putin’s opponents and interviewing Russian soldiers captured in Ukraine after Moscow had denied sending troops across the border.
In March, the owner of Dozhd’s studio space ordered the channel to move out by the end of the year, a deadline that was later brought forward to October.
Dozhd moved to an adjacent space rented from a magazine owned by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov but was asked again to leave after just two months.
At the same time as the walls were closing in on the network its funding sources were drying up after Russian lawmakers passed a law banning cable channels from using commercials.
Dozhd launched a campaign to boost its subscriber base, amassing eight million viewers in the effort.
“Their main goal, as I see it, is to make our demise look like it was brought on by economic factors, so that no political factors are evident,” Makeyeva said.
– ‘Absolute unanimity’ –
Dozhd’s influence is relatively small but observers say its existence challenges the staple diet of militant, pro-government fare served up by state media since the start of the crisis in Ukraine.
“Dozhd has provided an alternative to Kremlin-controlled federal TV channels by focusing on news content and giving a platform to opposition voices,” the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said last month, bestowing its International Press Freedom award to Dozhd’s editor-in-chief Mikhail Zygar.
The official scrutiny to which Dozhd is subjected contrasts with the disregard shown towards heavily biased or fabricated stories on state media.
Months after running a report claiming Ukrainian troops had crucified a little boy, state-run Channel One admitted it did “not have proof” of the alleged atrocity but argued it was nonetheless a valid illustration of other children’s deaths in the country.
“It seems that, right now, absolute unanimity is needed” by the Kremlin, said free speech campaigner Alexei Simonov, calling the pressure on Dozhd “the last stage” in a state-orchestrated purge of the media.
This year that process included the overhaul of the state-owned RIA-Novosti agency, the ousting of editors from at least two independent news websites, and passage of a law that severely limits foreign ownership of media outlets.
The focus of pro-government channels on “ideological warfare and state propaganda” led the simple act of reporting the news to be considered as “an act of sabotage”, Makeyeva complained.
She hopes Dozhd will eventually be able to decamp from its current home, where staff have to squeeze past an antique piano, reports are frequently interrupted by the din of traffic and suspicious men loiter outside.
“The flat is being watched,” she said.
Those watching Dozhd could be fooled, however, into thinking all is well.
Dozhd journalists attended Putin’s annual press conference this week, Zygar interviewed Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and former finance minister Alexei Kudrin came by the studio to be interviewed.
With that kind of access to people in power it is hard to convince Russians that Dozhd is struggling.
“On air you can’t really tell,” Makeyeva admitted.