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Fear and Censorship in Russia's Huffington Post

RuNet Echo This post is part of RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project to interpret the Russian language internet. All Posts · Learn more

PublicPost, an internet news publication that for a time sought to become the Russian Huffington Post, met its end last month [ru], when it became the latest in a series of innovative online media to be shut down this year. Founded in 2011 and funded through a collaboration between the state-owned Interfax news agency, Sberbank Bank, and Echo Moskvy's editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov, PublicPost melded independent and regional blogs with original reporting, while trying to remain even-handed in it's political coverage. When the news of its looming closure were announced in June, 2013, PublicPost's acting editor-in-chief declared [ru] that the project was not meeting with expectations, and its general director said that the reasoning was purely economic — not enough daily visitors [ru] to maintain funding.

PublicPost is shut down completely, not even an archive remains.

PublicPost is shut down completely, not even an archive remains.

With this, PublicPost joins the ranks of recently shuttered Openspace.ru [GV] and Russkaya Zhizn’ [ru], as well as Bolshoi Gorod [ru] (which lost much of its funding and editorial team, but is technically still operational). These projects are alike in that they were ostensibly closed for financial reasons, with political underpinnings vehemently denied by investors. They are also alike because, despite all claims to the contrary, their closure invited a myriad theories that politics was somehow to blame.

That's not to say that some commentators don't see PublicPost as part of an overall trend. To journalist Andrey Miroshnichenko, writing [ru] at Slon.ru, PublicPost is just a symptom of an overall divestment from new media — a divestment caused in equal parts by lack of money, lack of interest, and lack of success. The optimism of the post-crisis years (2009 and 2010) when many of these investments were first made is gone, and now:

Праздник кончился, гирлянду тушат. Для отрасли это тоже грустно, конечно. Где теперь бюджеты? Нет теперь бюджетов. А рынка и подавно нет – с него живут единицы. Что остается? Украина, корпоративные медиа, погружение в ил до следующего цикла.

The party is over, the party lights are going out. This is sad news for the industry, of course. Where are the budgets now? There are no budgets now. And, moreover, there is no [real] market [for innovative media] – it's capable of supporting a few individuals at best. What's left? The Ukraine, corporate media, hibernating in the river mud until the next cycle.

Pro-government blogger Dan Bialik thought [ru] that the real reason was PublicPost's faulty business model:

[...] пабликпоц основывался не на “юзер дженерейтед контент”, а на обычном пиздинге. А по сути, дублировал так называемые “блоги Эха Москвы”, которые тоже всего лишь копии других блогов, и не всегда даже с ведома их авторов. В общем, гавно засохло и вонять перестало, не о чем жалеть совершенно.

[...] publicpotz [sic] was based not on “user generated content,” but on your run-of-the-f*cking-mill theft. And at its core, it cloned the so-called “Echo Moskvy blogs,” which are also simply copies of other blogs, and sometimes without permission by the authors. To sum up, sh*t has dried up and stopped stinking, there is nothing to be upset over.

PublicPost's erstwhile acting editor-in-chief Nikolai Klimeniuk had a different story to tell in a very long post [ru] on his Facebook page. The project was doing fine until it lost its legs in January, 2013, when it's editorial policy was hobbled and a hiring freeze was instituted. The reason, according to Klimeniuk, was that:

[...] что проект воспринимался как резко антипутинский. Генеральный директор PublicPost, он же – заместитель гендиректора Интерфакса Алексей Горшков, объясняя ситуацию, использовал именно это выражение, а не например, «либеральный», «критический» или «оппозиционный». [...] с какого-то момента подчиненные Грефа обращать его внимание на «антипутинские» материалы на PublicPost – в основном это были ругательные блоги [...]

[...] the project was received as starkly anti-Putin. The General Director of PublicPost, who also happens to be Deputy General Director of Interfax, Alexey Gorshkov, used precisely this phrase [anti-Putin] when describing the situation, and not, for instance “liberal”, “critical” or “oppositionary.” [...] at some point [Sberbank Director German] Gref's underlings started directing his attention to “anti-Putin” materials on PublicPost – mostly these were abusive blogs [...]

This, in turn, was due to infighting in the Kremlin administration as Vyacheslav Volodin tried to impose his power over state-owned media, including the Interfax news agency:

PublicPost, по всей видимости, оказался слабым местом одновременно Грефа и Интерфакса. Из разговоров с людьми, информированными о ситуации, у меня сложилась такая картина: Грефу лично делали выговоры за PublicPost Медведев, Сергей Иванов и Володин. [...] Путину приносили распечатки ругательных материалов про него.

PublicPost, it seems, turned out to be the Achilles heel of both Gref and Interfax. From talking to people who have internal information I got the following picture: Gref received personal reprimands from Medvedev, Sergey Ivanov and Volodin. [...] Putin was brought printouts of abusive materials about him.

The catalyst, however, was not a blog, but rather an article about the possible retirement of the heads of Russia's three major TV channels and personnel changes in state-owned media and the President's Administration. It was this article, says Klimeniuk, that brought about tangible meddling with PublicPost's editorial policy:

PublicPost было строго запрещено впредь писать про госмедиа. Рекомендовалось по возможности не писать ничего, при невозможности – ничего острого про первых лиц (Медведева и Путина). [...] Не использовать выражения «закон подлецов», «марш против палачей», «антисиротский закон» и т.п., а использовать только политически нейтральные выражения [...] Рекомендовалось не трогать РПЦ. [...] Было дано (и исполнено) указание стереть все «антипутинские» блоги.

PublicPost was forbidden to write about state-owned media. It was recommended to not write anything, or at least anything biting, about top officials (Putin and Medvedev). [...] Not to use phrases like “law of scoundrels,” “march against butchers,” “anti-orphan law” and so on, but to use only politically neutral phrasing. [...] It was recommended not to touch the Russian Orthodox Church. [...] We received (and executed) a directive to delete all “anti-Putin” blogs.

Facebook user Natalia Konradova had a slightly different take [ru] on what finally broke the camel's back, blaming PublicPost bloggers, rather then their original reporting (her information is admittedly second-hand):

какой-то мудак написал блог с заголовком, в котором были слова “Путин” и “мудак”

some dickhead wrote a blog with a title that included the words “Putin” and “dickhead”

Regardless of the proximate cause, PublicPost deleted numerous individual blogs from their website, and their pre-moderation policy became even stricter. Anastasiya Mironova, a former PublicPost contributor, experienced the new policy first hand [ru]:

[...] вдруг они перестали публиковать мои блоги и заказывать мне репортажи. У меня появилось подозрение на цензуру [...] Посты не принимали под предлогом сменивлшейся политики сайта, которая предполагает лишь репортажный материал в блогах.

[...] suddenly they stopped publishing my blogs and requesting pieces. I started to suspect censorship [...] My posts were not accepted under the pretext of new site policy, which involved only reporting [as opposed to opinion] in blogs.

In the end, none of the compromises worked — after several months the publication was still shut down. The difference is that it went out on a sour note, a sentiment clearly visible in this quip [ru] by Mironova:

Не исключено, что среди тех мудаков, которые написали про Путина, была и я. Однако же блоги премодерировались полностью, так что еще неизвестно, кто мудак…

It's possible that I was among the dickheads that wrote about Putin. But, the blogs were completely pre-moderated, so it's not that clear who is the dickhead here…

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