when the only Russian independent TV channel rises from its ashes

when the only Russian independent TV channel rises from its ashes

Dozhd TV resumed broadcasting programs on Monday. This channel, the last independent and critical voice on Russian television, had been censored at the start of the war in Ukraine. His return is an important sign to demonstrate that dissonant voices can exist despite Vladimir Putin’s war on press freedom.

On the menu: a report from the Ukrainian town of Boutcha – described by the presenter as “the symbol of the war crimes of the Russian army” –, an interview with the filmmaker and opponent of Vladimir Putin Kirill Serebrennikov, and a discussion around Sino-Russian cooperation during the “war in Ukraine”.

The Russian channel Dozhd TV [prononcer Dojd, qui signifie pluie] Although it was silenced for nearly five months by Kremlin censorship, it marked its return to the air on Monday, July 18, with programming that was still just as anti-Putin in tone.

Exile in Riga

But if its editorial line seems unchanged, everything is not back to normal for the only independent Russian PAF news channel. First, it left Russia and now broadcasts from Riga, Latvia.

Dozhd TV has joined other famous Russian opposition media like the Meduza site. “Latvia offers the advantage of proximity to Russia, of having a strong community of Russians in exile interested in this kind of media, and above all these independent publications are here safe from the censoring arm of Moscow”, summarizes Joanna Szostek, specialist in political communication in Russia at the University of Glasgow.

>> To read also on France 24: Between exile and silence, the dilemma of Russian artists opposed to the war in Ukraine

For now, this channel only broadcasts on YouTube – still uncensored in Russia – and only for a few hours in the evening. But the management team promises to expand the offer this fall.

It is certainly still only the minimum service for Dozhd TV, but its return to life remains nonetheless “a major event in the small world of liberal Russians, opposition to Vladimir Putin, and his war in Ukraine”, assures Yevgeniy Golovchenko, political scientist at the University of Copenhagen and specialist in the media landscape in the countries of the former Soviet bloc.

The cessation of broadcasting, just ten days after the start of the war in Ukraine, was seen as one of the most blatant symbols of the turn of the screw decided by Vladimir Putin to erase any dissonant voice from the PAF.

Dozhd had indeed decided from the start of the offensive “not to adopt the official terminology of ‘special military operation’, but to name things clearly when speaking of war”, recalls Françoise Daucé, director of studies at the ‘School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences and specialist in state-society relations in Russia.

The channel thus fell very quickly under the influence of censorship, boosted by the adoption in the wake of the start of the conflict of a law prohibiting discrediting the army by publishing “false information”. On March 3, the editorial staff of Dozhd decided to broadcast its last newspaper, the end credits of which had paraded against the backdrop of music from Swan Lake. A far from trivial choice: excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet were often broadcast to replace programs censored during the Soviet period.

The “chain of optimism”

The shutdown of Dozhd TV was all the more significant as it was the only independent television channel which had, since its founding in 2010, “survived the ever more authoritarian drift of the Russian regime”, explains Jaroslava Barbieri, specialist of Russia at the University of Birmingham.

In a Russian media landscape where the voice of the opposition passes almost exclusively through online media, Dozhd TV gave the impression that there was still a small space for independent speech on television. For Françoise Daucé, she was “the only one with the means of a real television channel”, which made her appear as the only opposition media to play in the same court as the big channels under the orders of the Kremlin .

Originally, this channel was not intended to carry the anti-Putinian voice in this way. Founded in 2010 by journalist Natalya Sindeyeva, Dozhd TV “was intended to broadcast cultural and entertainment programs and it had no political vocation”, recalls Jaroslava Barbieri. Its slogan was – and remains – the “chain of optimism” for the new Russian middle class that was on the rise in the late 2000s.

In any case, his values ​​seemed to be shared in the Kremlin where the “young” Dimitri Medvedev – 43 years old at the time – had temporarily replaced Vladimir Putin (from 2008 to 2012). The new president even praised the tone of Dozhd TV during a visit to the channel’s premises in 2011 and very officially subscribed to the young medium’s Twitter account.

But the illusion of freedom was only short-lived. “Dozhd TV’s shift towards a more politically engaged channel illustrates the fact that under Vladimir Putin, it was impossible for an independent channel to remain neutral in the face of ever more oppressive censorship”, analyzes Joanna Szostek.

Dozhd TV multiplied the positions taken and broadcast reports capable of irritating the master of the Kremlin. The channel has thus often defended the rights of homosexuals who are far from being in the odor of holiness with Vladimir Putin. His reports also showed another reality of Chechnya than that conveyed by the official media of a region pacified by the Russian army, says the Vice site.

Censored from 2014

Shortly before the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin decided to crack down on the little troublemaker of the PAF, whose audience was then only increasing, recalls the British daily The Guardian. The pretext: a question posed by a presenter to find out if the public believed that during the Second World War, Stalin should have ceded Leningrad [nom de Saint-Pétersbourg sous l’ère soviétique] to the Nazis to avoid hundreds of thousands of deaths. It was the double provocation too many. Not only did this poll question the official version of the history of the war promoted by the regime, but it also looked at a particularly painful episode in the city… where Vladimir Putin was born, underlines Vice.

Everyone then expected a ban on Dozhd TV, especially since the channel had also taken an interest a little earlier in the luxurious lifestyle of certain close friends of power. But Vladimir Putin did not want to outright banish the last independent channel when all eyes were on Russia because of the Winter Olympics.

The power preferred to act in a more underhanded way. The authorities “limited its audience by ejecting it from cable and reducing its access to advertising resources, which forced Dozhd TV to switch to a subscription model”, underlines Françoise Daucé.

The Kremlin has thus ensured that Dozhd TV becomes a channel primarily for young executives in large cities who can afford to pay for independent information. “The power has ensured that the majority of Russians who live in rural areas or in small towns are, in fact, no other choice than the propaganda of state television”, notes Jaroslava Barbieri.

Dozhd TV’s viewership has thus declined over the years. In 2019, “only 1% of Russians questioned by the Levada Study Center claim to watch this channel regularly”, underlines Joanna Szostek. And since 2021, she has also been put on the very infamous list of “foreign agents”.

>>Read also on France 24: How Moscow uses the status of “foreign agents” to harass opponents

When the war in Ukraine broke out, Dozhd TV was far from a channel that could claim to change public opinion. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t a channel that matters. “Within the small community of liberal Russians, she served as a unifying element,” says Yevgeniy Golovchenko, of the University of Copenhagen. “These reports and its debates were often taken up by other opposition media,” adds Françoise Daucé.

In other words, it fed the debate within the opposition. For Joanna Szostek, “the fact that she is broadcasting again will allow Russians who are opposed to the war to realize that they are not alone and to have access to serious reports on the reality of this conflict and its consequences for Russia”.

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