MOSCOW (Reuters) - It was like the bad old days of Soviet TV for Vladimir Pozner, a Russian broadcaster who began his career under Communism, when he found editors had cut parts of a pre-election talk show where he mentioned critics of the Kremlin.
But this is 2012. With censorship grown patchy and half the country online, the uncut program had been uploaded to the web - thanks to viewers in Russia’s far east who had caught the show live, before the edited version was broadcast in Moscow later.
“I think it’s just a Soviet reflex: ‘How can you criticize power?',” said Pozner, who has watched Russian leaders, from Brezhnev to Gorbachev, Yeltsin to Putin, blow hot and cold on political censorship of the media for the past 30 years.
“It’s called a hangover in English. Eventually, it passes.”
That sentiment echoes many who believe the genie of media freedom is, slowly, pushing its way out of the bottle in Russia, notably since street protests began against the expected return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency at an election on Sunday.
A public who tasted post-Soviet liberties in the anarchic 1990s, combined with new technology, will, many believe, not let the Kremlin force it back in again - despite years of tightening state control under former KGB man Putin, and despite a backlash against small, liberal media since protests began in December.
Ranked 142nd out of 179 countries worldwide on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, Russia has seen journalists intimidated, even murdered, for exposing endemic crime and corruption, while privately owned and critical media have been much diminished since Putin first took over the Kremlin in 2000.
Having retained power during his four-year stint as prime minister to his protege, the outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev, Putin has seen control of the media as a vital tool through which he has maintained his widespread popularity.
Yet in the Internet age even the state-controlled networks on which most Russian voters rely have had to offer at least some account of grassroots protests since liberal anger erupted over the handling of the parliamentary election in December.
Some cautious critics see that as little more than a sop to public opinion, in their view as much a stage-managed piece of political machination as the electoral process itself. Yet others believe the shifts of the past few months are real.
“Today, the situation is changing by 180 degrees,” said broadcaster Tina Kandelaki, who was a guest on Pozner’s show on the day of the clumsy attempt to cut out the opposition comment.
“It’s not there yet but it will change. The process has begun,” she said. “We’ll see what it leads to, especially after the election,” she added, noting that there may be clues to be had in any future personnel changes among state media editors.
Putin himself appeared to acknowledge the way the media was changing when he spoke to supporters on Wednesday: “Without free media we cannot create a stable situation in society,” he said.
“When society is absolutely open, let’s say, with the Internet, it is simply senseless to restrict something in the media ... There is just no political or economic sense in it, because anybody can read the news on their telephone.”
When protests, mainly in big cities, began over alleged fraud in the parliamentary election won by Putin’s ruling party on December 4, state television initially ignored them. But they, and channels run by companies or individuals largely sympathetic to Putin, quickly changed tack as news of the protests spread over the Internet and social networking sites such as Twitter.
The main channels have since then broadcast footage of the rallies and shown interviews with some of the liberal opposition leaders for the first time in years.
“The tone has changed on TV. The coverage of events, especially of the opposition, changed after the events on December 4 last year,” said Maxim Shevchenko, a broadcast journalist.
“It was unconditional, it was natural, and it’s a good thing,” he said, describing it as an unavoidable decision to show the rallies because the protests had become major news.
Chosen to succeed President Boris Yeltsin in 2000, and pledging to restore order and to defeat the Muslim separatists of Chechnya, Putin oversaw the end of a brief era of unfettered journalism that marked the first post-Soviet decade.
For some critics, the state control Putin ensured was imposed on Russian media groups, sometimes through leverage like tax demands, reversed even some of the tentative glasnost, or openness, introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s.
Television reporters say they have in the past decade faced being summarily sacked for airing material critical of the authorities. Some reporters have been beaten up.
Others were killed after launching investigations. These included Anna Politkovskaya, who exposed corruption and other abuses, notably in Chechnya. After her murder in 2006, Putin angered liberals by disparaging the significance of her work.
Although the sackings for stepping out of the government line have not stopped, there has at least been a degree of more open debate in the past three months, journalists say.
“After the elections, regardless of whether protests gain or lose speed, whether the opposition leader changes ... people won’t stop participating in political life,” said Konstantin von Eggert, a commentator for Kommersant FM radio.
Fellow broadcaster Tina Kandelaki said it would get harder for the state to tighten controls further as Russians become better informed and better equipped to track censorship and draw it to others’ attention on the Internet.
“To say that freedom of speech will disappear after election day is to say that we will wake up with pagers instead of iPhones on March 5,” she said.
More than 43 percent of the Russian population was online in 2011, according to figures released by the website Internet World Stats. So news of any censorship quickly gets around and can be countered, as shown with the experience of the February 6 edition of “Pozner” on the public station Channel One.
Kandelaki said the bureaucrats who cut the segments referring to opposition activist Alexei Navalny should have known they could not suppress them: “It was so expected and so understood that all the pieces that had been cut would emerge.”
The show had gone out live to viewers in the far east, eight times zones ahead of Moscow. Some there had recorded it, long before the censored version was transmitted in the capital.
”Society has changed,“ she said. ”Information channels have changed. The Internet allows people to record what is being shown and to pull it out at the right moment.
“I often told Kremlin officials that because Russians use the Internet so actively, there would be consequences from not changing the information policies. And here they are.”
Many opposition leaders are still cautious, however, and fear the signs of change are limited and could be reversed.
Boris Nemtsov, a cabinet minister under Yeltsin and a critic of Putin, took part in a debate in February at the studios of NTV. The channel was, once, a bastion of liberal thought, but has long been firmly in the Kremlin camp. As such, Nemtsov said, it was the first time he had set foot there in five years.
Though he took part in the debate, entitled “If not Putin, who?,” he said the authorities’ aim was only to provide token media freedoms that would attract voters: “This is most likely an imitation of freedom of speech,” Nemtsov said. “Everything is pre-recorded. The most critical things about Putin’s thieving circle of friends - all these things get cut out.”
Other protest leaders have appeared on screen but mainly as caricatures, said Anna Kachkayeva, dean of media communications at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and media commentator for the Russian service of Radio Liberty, a U.S.-funded station.
”The notion that a revolution has reached mainstream television, and freedom of speech has arrived, is too simplistic a view,“ she said. ”It has simply become much more subtle and is manipulated.
“It is a fully conscious tactic agreed with the political establishment.”
There has been no shortage lately of grounds for worry among journalists wishing to be free of government control.
Two weeks ago, the editor of the small, liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy complained when its state-controlled owners demanded changes to the membership of the editorial board.
State prosecutors have opened an investigation into Dozhd, a cable and Internet television channel, after a member of parliament accused it of helping promote opposition protests.
The editor of a weekly news magazine was sacked in December after a story on ballot fraud was accompanied by a photograph of a ballot form marked with an obscene phrase directed at Putin.
A new political talk show, Gosdep, was axed by Russian MTV after inviting the activist Navalny on as a guest. Host Ksenia Sobchak called that censorship and has spoken out against Putin - even though her late father, as mayor St Petersburg in the 1990s, was a political mentor to the future Kremlin chief.
“GENIE OUT OF BOTTLE”
To this day, criticism of Putin or Medvedev, or even discussion of Chechnya and its troubled North Caucasus neighbours, is largely absent from the airwaves.
The Russian blogosphere, on the other hand, challenges the state-directed channels as a forum for open discussion and the state has found no definitive way to prevent it, however much, like its still Communist neighbour China, it might like to try.
“Today, due to the increasing ‘internetisation’ of Russian society, it is much more difficult to have complete censorship,” said Kommersant FM’s Eggert. “It is more difficult to hide those things than 10 years ago.”
For veteran broadcaster Pozner, it was too late for Russia to even consider a Chinese-style wall around its Internet in the hope of insulating debate and opinion from the world outside:
“The genie is out of the bottle, and to put it back in would be exceptionally difficult. Only with a lot of blood,” he said.
For the state not to see its credibility with voters further eroded by the Internet, it would be better for it to abandon its policy of tentative, selective engagement and open up entirely:
“It’s an obvious thing - you talk to people openly, you tell them what’s going on in their media. That’s all they want,” Pozner said. “I hope it’s something Mr Putin and company will have the intelligence to realize.”
Additional reporting By Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Alastair Macdonald