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Meduza: can a Riga-based news outlet offer hope to Russia’s independent media?

Meduza: can a Riga-based news outlet offer hope to Russia's independent media?

The Russian government's crackdown on independent media this year has been swift and brutal. The Meduza Project's response? To leave the country — and build itself an app

20 October 2014

“The news returns.” This is the by-line for the Meduza Project, a new Russian-language independent media organisation based in Latvia, and launched today. Prior to its launch, the Meduza team had been reticent, even secretive, about the details of their project. Now impatient onlookers can finally see what the first major response to the government’s media crackdown since the Ukraine crisis looks like.

Headed by Galina Timchenko, the former editor-in-chief of Russian news website, Meduza is run by a team of around 20 journalists. They were among the nearly 70 reporters who collectively resigned from their jobs in March following Timchenko’s unexpected removal from her post by the website’s owner and Vladimir Putin ally, the oligarch Alexander Mamut.

Timchenko’s sudden removal as editor, reportedly the consequence of a dispute between her and Mamut over coverage of the Ukraine crisis, marked a turning point for the Russian media landscape. The following months saw entire newspaper editorial teams resigning in protest against censorship, sudden reshuffles at the command of newspaper financiers, and a slew of laws introduced by the government to tighten its grip over the distribution of information.

The journalists at Meduza, who have kept a low profile up until now, have their work cut out for them. Media sources critical of the Kremlin are being blocked with increasing regularity and a new opposition-minded news website could struggle to survive. As a result, the project, which will aggregate news from Russian-language media while also producing its own content, will publish on an app as well as a website. The Russian government can force internet providers to ban websites deemed “extremist”; this kind of “anti-terrorism” legislation was used to block opposition activist Alexei Navalny’s blog in March. But with no practical way of banning apps, the Meduza app would almost guarantee its unfettered distribution in Russian territory.

According to Vlad Strukov, Associate Professor in Digital Culture at Leeds University, the Russian government’s behaviour is consistent with its media strategy since the Bolotnaya protests in Russia in 2011. Although it still allows information to circulate on the internet, “what it is does instead is it increases its own presence in the media, creating a situation where the government’s voice is very strong and actually louder than any other voice”, Strukov said.

The Meduza app would almost guarantee its unfettered distribution in Russian territory

In an interview with The Calvert Journal, Ivan Kolpakov, co-founder of the Meduza Project, was reticent about the prospect of a contingency plan in case the website is banned in Russia: “We are thinking about a backup plan in case this happens all the time and we do have some ideas. But I can’t tell you the details right now. I want to emphasise — we would have preferred to stay in Russia, but Moscow is not the best place for independent political and social media today.”

Meduza’s departure from Russia is as much ideological as it is geographical. The team has a clear intention to carve out its own niche as a small, mobile media organisation. Far from creating a replica of what Lenta used to be, Meduza appears to want to bring something new to a rapidly changing media landscape.

“We can’t and don’t want to create the new Lenta. Lenta needed 15 years and a lot of resources to become Russia’s main newspaper,” Kolpakov told The Calvert Journal. “Meduza is a pirate ship, a small, mobile media organisation. Media which tries to produce quality journalism — both news and reporting journalism.”

Using Riga as a base, the information aggregated will be news, “without which, in our opinion, events happening in the country and the world would be incomprehensible”, a post on Meduza’s VK page reads. “The principle of selection is what we call ‘the information living wage’.”

“Meduza is a pirate ship, a small, mobile media organisation”

It is telling that while Meduza’s Twitter account already has over 19,000 followers, the account itself follows no one. Meduza seems to want to keep its allegiances under wraps, lest it take on the mantle of a platform for political opposition in Russia.

“We are against propaganda from both sides,” Kolpakov said. “However, we’re not going to pretend that the Russian government and the Russian opposition are in the same conditions, nor that it’s fair play. No, I personally think that it’s a conflict of the serpent and the rabbit.”

As well as its politics, Meduza is keeping its financers well hidden, too. News of the Meduza Project circulated in July this year, after news website reported that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon, was planning to finance a new media project based in Latvia to be headed by Timchenko. The latter denied involvement at the time. Boris Zimin, founder of telecommunications company Beeline, was also rumoured to be in negotiations about the project, although Timchenko has since denied his involvement.

In an interview with Forbes Russia last month, Timchenko confirmed that Khodorkovsky was a passive investor, however she refused to name any other backers: “Their names will not be told to anyone. These are strictly non-public people who have nothing to do with the media or politics.”

“We are against propaganda from both sides”

Kolpakov added: “I can’t tell you whether those financing the Meduza Project are Russian or foreign. There’s a huge discussion about our investors among Russian journalists, with some saying we have to tell people who they are. Yes, in a fairer world we probably should, but not in Russia in 2014. We have to protect our product and we have to protect our investors.”

In a media environment dominated more and more by a cabal of Kremlin allies, such discretion is unsurprising. Following a law passed last month to limit foreign shareholding in Russian media to 20%, outsider influence is increasingly unwelcome in Russia. The Kremlin’s rhetoric has, in line with the growing mistrust of the US and the west, flirted with the notion of “switching Russia off” from the internet, which Putin referred to as a “CIA project” earlier this year.

Anton Nossik, Russia’s first-ever blogger and a co-founder of Lenta, told The Calvert Journal: “There’s a law in the works that will limit all of Russia’s external connections to the state-owned Rostelecom cable. No other internet service providers will be allowed to provide international connectivity. Once this happens, Rostelecom’s switch becomes ‘The Button’ to disable all outgoing and incoming traffic. Currently, it is up to the Ministry of Communications to block any website without any explanation.”

Discussing the Meduza Project’s foreign base, Strukov said: “We will see more [Russian journalists going abroad]. One of the reasons is that the current media situation in Russia is inhospitable to them. On the one hand [their departure] is a reaction to a stifling situation in Russia, and on the other it is a further step in the process of globalisation that Russian is part of.”

“The current media situation in Russia is inhospitable”

He added: “I think the Meduza Project and others like it are part of that shift not away from Russia but on to a different level of media production which is more globalised and not one that occurs just within the boundaries of the Russian Federation.”

Whether or not the Meduza Project can survive in such an unpredictable media landscape is yet to be seen. But what is certain is that the project, as a departure from a Russian-language media increasingly dominated by a pro-government voice, was created for one purpose — to reclaim a news media stolen by the state. The new project, focused and direct, is perhaps best summed up by the final words that flashed across a YouTube video posted by the Meduza team last week — “It’s not personal. It’s just the facts”.

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