It’s not a completely silly question, given the recent attack on journalist Tatyana Felgengauer, who was stabbed in the neck in her radio station’s office, and the infamous death toll of journalists working in Russia. But it reflects an ignorance of the greatest danger facing journalists in Russia today: It is not a violent death, but a quiet starvation. After years of outcry and bad press for the Kremlin every time a Russian journalist met a grisly end, Putin figured out a better way to keep the press in line: economics.
Take, for example, TVRain, the only national independent TV channel in Russia. It existed outside the rules that governed television, which Putin ruthlessly nationalized as one of his first orders of business when he became president in 2000. In the winter that spanned 2011 and early 2012, TVRain extensively covered the pro-democracy—and anti-Putin—protests in Moscow, giving voice to their organizers and participants. (State TV barely showed the protests, and minimized them when they did.) This did not please the Kremlin, and so, as pro-European protests seized Kiev in the fall of 2013 and terrified Putin, the Kremlin cracked down on TVRain, which also reported on Ukraine’s EuroMaidan protests extensively.
The Kremlin didn’t kill anyone who worked for TVRain, it didn’t even beat anyone up or arrest anyone. Instead, it applied financial pressure. First, seemingly independent loyalist activists raised a public outcry that TVRain ran a segment that offended World War II survivors. Behind the scenes, government officials called advertisers and intimated that it wouldn’t be such a good idea to advertise with TVRain anymore. They called the national satellite and cable providers and hinted that it might be a good idea to cut TVRain out of their cable packages. These companies, for whom TVRain represented just a fraction of their business, immediately got the hint and dropped TVRain. In a matter of days, TVRain went from one of the most watched channels across the country to a marginal channel you could only watch online for a subscription fee.
No one died, no one was arrested, but the channel, suddenly strapped for cash, had to fire half its staff. Those that remained had their salaries cut in half. Many of them had families to support, so they left voluntarily, looking for more remunerative work. Some left journalism altogether. The Kremlin, meanwhile, had a ready excuse: What happened had nothing to do with politics. If advertisers and satellite operators didn’t want to do business with TVRain, what did the Kremlin have to do with it?
Or take the example of RBC, Russia’s rough equivalent of Bloomberg. It is owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who also owns part of the Brooklyn Nets. In 2015, a team of investigative journalists not only found the name of Putin’s younger daughter but discovered that she oversaw a slush fund of nearly $2 billion, allegedly funded by her father’s friends, meant to expand Moscow State University. They also uncovered a whole lot of things that Putin didn’t want them to uncover, like his private oyster farm. Soon, the FSB appeared at Prokhorov’s holding company, which held billions’ worth of assets of which the media company was a tiny part, with a search and the threat of a criminal case. Prokhorov got the message, and the entire investigative reporting team, including the editor in chief, was pushed out in less than a month. The new editor in chief made the rules very clear to the new team, and RBC now avoids stories about Putin’s family and personal wealth.