* Critics says Russia wages propaganda war over Ukraine
* Editors dismissed, independent outlets under pressure
By Elizabeth Piper
MOSCOW, March 14 Ilya Azar does not know whether
he has been fired yet from one of Russia's most popular
independent online news organisations, but he is pretty sure he
soon will be.
His editor, Galina Timchenko, has already been sacked, and
Azar says her departure was his fault, for interviewing a leader
of Ukraine's right-wing paramilitary group Right Sector for
their Lenta.ru website.
Lenta.ru's journalists say Timchenko's sacking, after 10
years running one of a handful of media organisations offering
an alternative to state-controlled outlets, shows President
Vladimir Putin is tightening his grip over news.
As the crisis in Ukraine escalates, that news has taken on
shades of Soviet-era propaganda, with anchors and reporters
peppering their reports with references to what they say was the
cooperation of some Ukrainians with the Nazis in World War Two.
"I think I have tried objectively to show both sides in
Ukraine but when the Russian troops went into Crimea -
unofficially of course but we know they are there - the trend
was for official propaganda," Azar said.
"Any other opinion and you are treated as if you are the
enemy," he said by telephone from the western Ukrainian city of
Lviv where he is reporting.
In the freewheeling 1990s, Russian media took on everyone
and everything including the Kremlin. Increasingly in the 14
years Putin has been in power, almost all toe the official line.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied there was any
campaign to silence critical media. "Those are standard
accusations which we are fed up of hearing," he said.
Azar's interview with Right Sector leader Andriy Tarasenko
was published on Monday. By Wednesday morning, Russia's
telecommunications watchdog had warned Lenta that Russia had
banned publication of "extremist" material.
By Wednesday evening, Timchenko had been told by billionaire
Alexander Mamut, the owner of Lenta's parent company,
Afisha-Rambler-SUP, that she had been replaced.
More than 80 of Lenta's staff signed a letter saying her
dismissal was a result of Kremlin pressure, something Peskov
said was impossible.
"Lenta.ru is a private publication. Decisions are made by
its owner, and therefore it is absolutely unacceptable to blame
anything on the Kremlin here," he said.
Tarasenko and other Right Sector leaders deny they are
"neo-fascists" as Moscow calls them, but just interviewing them
was enough to get Lenta into trouble.
"There was nothing scary in the interview. In fact, it
probably showed in fact that they were fascists," Azar said,
referring to Moscow's position that "extremists and fascists"
are leading events in Ukraine, where a new pro-Western
government has formed after ousting its pro-Russian predecessor.
Azar, like many other Russian journalists, is considering
seeking work elsewhere. Perhaps Ukraine would be a better bet,
he says, calling what happened to Lenta a second wave of attacks
on the media since last year.
WORLD WAR TWO
Most journalists in Russia have become used to a
merry-go-round of editors since Putin returned to power for his
third stint as president less than two years ago.
Some do not mind. Ukraine has become a rallying cry for many
Russians who agree with Putin that attempts to separate what the
president calls the "brotherly nations" should be stopped.
They say "extremists" are dictating events in Kiev and are
bent on harming Russian speakers in the southern Crimea region
and eastern Ukraine.
The seizure of Crimea by Russian forces - who Putin says are
local forces of self defence - has been welcomed by many
Russians, propelling the president's approval ratings to over 70
percent for the first time in three years.
The West, which has ridiculed Putin's denial, is portrayed
as a hypocritical backer of the extremists, unable to appreciate
the close bonds between Russia and Ukraine formed by the extreme
suffering of the Soviets under the Nazis.
As Russian officials start to use Soviet-era speech to
define a relationship at lows not seen since the Cold War,
Russian commentators have accentuated the gulf in understanding.
"The West will never understand us and do you know why?"
asked morning radio host Vladimir Solovyov. "Because of the
Second World War."
While some embrace the new war-like tone, others working in
state-owned media companies find it hard to stomach.
"It's pure, simple and utter lies they're telling about the
so-called provocations against Russians in eastern Ukraine,"
said a disillusioned employee at a state television company who
said the boss had hammered home editorial policy in a letter.
Much of the time, bosses do not need to step in, and the
Kremlin does not need to issue orders at its weekly meetings
with Russian media editors.
Media owners are keenly aware of changes in the mood of the
authorities and their viewers.
"Maybe (Lenta owner) Mamut was not responding at all to
Kremlin opinion, or to phone calls from the presidential
administration. Maybe he is focused on ratings, on the opinions
of readers, because the public mood is clear," said Andrei
Fefelov, chief editor of Internet television channel Dyen (Day).
Mamut, who has a fortune of $2.3 billion according to Forbes
magazine, could not be reached for comment.
With only Lenta and online newspaper Gazeta.ru, Mamut's
media interests are tiny compared with the market's biggest
tycoon, Yuri Kovalchuk, a close friend of Putin. He indirectly
controls a stake in Russia's biggest media holding, Gazprom
Media, and a stake in National Media Group.
But even media under the official thumb, like the main state
news agency, is not immune to the drive for absolute control.
Putin dissolved RIA late last year, and is replacing it with
a new organisation, headed by Dmitry Kiselyov, who once caused
outrage by saying the organs of homosexuals should not be used
in transplants and who says the new group will restore "a fair
attitude towards Russia as an important country in the world".
Remaining independent media are seen as fair game. Dozhd, a
television and Internet channel, was taken off the air by
providers nationwide earlier this year in what its head said was
Pavel Durov, founder of Russia's biggest social network
Vkontakte, said in January he had sold his stake to an ally of
tycoon Alisher Usmanov, sealing the Kremlin ally's domination of
the site, where anti-Putin protests were advertised in 2011.
Timchenko's sacking was similar to the removal of Maxim
Kovalsky as editor of Kommersant-Vlast news magazine in December
2011 after the weekly printed a photograph featuring an obscene
message addressed to Putin as part of extensive reports on
alleged fraud in an election won by the ruling party.
It is part of a pattern since Putin came to power in 2000,
when he ousted the old oligarch-owners in favour of his allies.
"Today many people are talking about maybe having to change
profession, that quality journalism is not needed in this
country, where there is only propaganda," Marat Gelman, a
gallery owner who helped found Lenta, told Ekho Moskvy radio.
"There really is this feeling that we are in a military
situation. Yes, really, when a country is at war, then criticism
is not allowed."