Tightening the News

The Last Free Russian TV Station

The last surviving independent news channel is still online, and feisty as ever. But for how long?

MOSCOW — The young, hip, talented journalists of Dozhd TV (literally, Rain TV) looked happy last week unpacking boxes with equipment and setting up shop at their sleek, modern studio in the Design Factory Flakon in downtown Moscow.

It wasn’t easy getting here.

The last remaining independent television channel in Russia, Dozhd TV, normally a satellite channel, was just in the process of moving out from underground, and the happy news was celebrated by at least 10 million households—Dozhd’s fans across the country—who need valid information now more than ever.

Last year, authorities tried to kill Dozhd twice. First by taking the channel off the air right before the Sochi Winter Olympics in January 2014; then, by forcing journalists to leave their studio in December 2014. But Dozhd survived for almost a year on private donations, and continues to broadcast online. The crew worked temporarily from a private apartment. And the number of online subscribers just kept growing.

In 2014 the Committee to Protect Journalists honored Dozhd Editor in Chief Mikhail Zygar with the International Press Freedom Award for defying imprisonment, repression, and censorship.

Want to see video footage and hear voices from both sides of the front line in the Ukraine war? Click on Dozhd TV. Was the Russian military fighting in Ukraine? How corrupt were top officials? Who to blame for the economic crisis? For less than $10 a month Russians could find the answers to their questions, see investigative reports on corruption, hear about the life of Russian opposition and coverage of increasing social crises around provinces.

Dozhd’s coverage is dramatically different from the content provided by state television channels. “We’ve become a social institution for civil society,” Zygar told The Daily Beast. “At this difficult time of crises, when people have no spare money we experience an increasing wave of subscriptions, as we’ve become one of the symbols for good quality new media.”

On Wednesday night, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, on Dozhd’s live show, talked about the consequences of “one more Putin victory”—in the town of Debaltseve, where Russian-backed rebel forces defeated the regular Ukrainian army.

Belkovsky said that it was important for Putin to demonstrate to Russians that he beat the West again and again, as, unlike Obama, he had “eternity,” unlimited time to keep his power. Belkovsky said bluntly that “Russia was the main sponsor, the main aggressor” in the war in Ukraine, opinions one would never hear on state channels.

The increasing popularity of Dozhd TV means that “not all Russians have Stalin in their head and actually no Russians want a nuclear war with the United States,” Zygar suggested.

A tall, handsome Muscovite in his mid-30s, Zygar insisted that there are a large number of Putin supporters who tune into Dozhd because they are curious and eager to get real information; and Zygar said that even inside the Kremlin there are liberals who still sincerely respect democratic values.

“One of them might be our quiet, these days, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev—if he were not, he would not have invited the underground Dozhd to participate in his annual press conference last December with five leading TV hosts of Russia’s main television channels,” Zygar told The Daily Beast.

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During that press conference, Zygar famously asked Medvedev: “What happened to you? Have you stopped being liberal or have you never been one?” Russia’s current prime minister and former president Medvedev, who once dropped in at a regular diner for a burger with Obama, said: “I think I remain to be the one I was.”

But there was obviously a non-liberal power in the Kremlin putting pressure on information agencies, controlling all the main television channels, newspapers and magazines, and squeezing the two remaining independent strongholds, Vedomosti newspaper and Forbes magazine, with a recently adopted law to limit foreign ownership.

On a recent afternoon, Dozdh’s Timur Olevsky, a star reporter famous for his coverage of the war in Ukraine, told The Daily Beast that in fact Dozdh TV does not exercise full freedom of speech. Dozdh has to watch out for legal problems. Along with other media, Dozdh suffers from the constant pressure of new orders, rules, and laws against freedom of speech, which seem to pop up like mushrooms after the rain.

“Our lawyer now has to think of what to do about the new order by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications that demands we cover Ukrainian Right Sector only negatively,” Olevsky said. “If tomorrow authorities demand that we say only positive things about Putin, we’ll have to invent a secret language, as they did in Soviet times, something like ‘A good boy beat up three innocent men,’” Olevsky joked.

Zygar argued that there was still a chance for Dozhd to work without giving up its balanced and professional style. “We survived because we did not break the law,” Zygar told The Daily Beast, “and we've managed to develop into a better channel, thanks to all our troubles.”

For now, anyway, when Rain TV is on, it shines.