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The Kremlin Is Fighting the Internet by Buying It Up

A marriage of Russian media old and new. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

A marriage of Russian media old and new. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

The Russian government has tightened control over all media platforms, but it's been especially active in corralling the Internet. News programs and other video content from state Russian television will soon flood top news websites in Russia, creating a monolithic news agenda in a market where independent media outlets have all but disappeared.

According to a new agreement between Pervyi Kanal (state-owned Channel One) and the media holding Rambler & Co., websites like Gazeta.Ru and Lenta.Ru will carry the government-controlled channel's daily news bulletins, while other websites from the holding might rebroadcast Pervyi's films, documentaries, and sports programming.

TJournal.ru points out that examples of embedded video content from Pervyi Kanal are already available on Lenta.ru, like this conspiratorial piece about U.S. and U.K. ‘agents’ in Germany. The 34-second video is dropped squarely in the middle of the news story, cutting it in half.

Reactions to the marriage of independent media content and state-run TV videos were swift and merciless. Twitter user Ivan Yermokhin joked that Pervyi Kanal doesn't go far enough:

Better to put a cork on the website and just offer a link to Pervyi Kanal. Why stop there! RT @FastSlon: Lenta and Gazeta.ru to show Pervyi's news.

User “Marigold” wondered whether the video content would also be syndicated on popular Twitter accounts:

So when is Pervyi going to be in @navalny's Twitter feed? RT @ColtaRu: “Lenta.ru” and “Gazeta.ru” to broadcast Pervyy Kanal's news.

Journalist Roman Dobrokhotov suggested facetiously that the state TV channel should just take over every online platform:

I think this is all right on. All these Internet media are a waste of space. We just need to broadcast Pervyi Kanal exclusively on all websites (even the porn ones).

It's a wonder that a content partnership between Russia's main state TV channel and Rambler & Co. has taken this long. Co-owned and run by Alexandr Mamut, an oligarch loyal to the Kremlin, joining Rambler & Co. with the traditional mainstream media seems like a no-brainer, given the Kremlin's campaign to expand its presence online. In fact, Pervyi Kanal recently created a special department to improve its Internet ratings. The main task of that department is to increase the online influence of television programming. The Internet is perceived as “the main competitor of television, especially for younger viewers,” says a financial report the station published last year.

At Rambler & Co., Mamut's takeover in March 2013, brought massive changes to the editorial lineup of the main news websites in Russia, changing the face of Russian independent journalism. Gazeta.ru got a new, pro-Kremlin editor in September 2013 and lost most of its journalists shortly after. In March 2014, Mamut personally fired Lenta's editor Galina Timchenko and replaced her with a government-friendly successor, causing the majority of Lenta's newsroom to abandon the site in protest.

Changes in media ownership and content-sharing initiatives are certainly not the only tactics the Russian government has used to exert its influence on the Web. In recent months, Russia has adopted a number of laws that regulate and limit user activity online, including the infamous Blogger Law and anti-obscenity legislation, which came into force on August 1. Major opposition portals, such as Kasparov.ru, Grani.ru, and the blog of opposition leader Alexey Navalny have been on a government blacklist since early 2014. Most recently, the government published a 4-million-ruble procurement contract for decrypting the Tor anonymity network, which many Russian Internet users employ to circumvent state censorship. Given Russia's precarious international position and the Kremlin's steadfast posturing, we are unlikely to see Moscow pull back from its digital offensive.

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