June 29, 2021:
In May 2021 Newsru, the Russia online news site, shut down. Not because Newsru wasn’t popular, it was. The decision to close was economic because the government had been telling advertisers that Newsru was not patriotic and was posting fake or misleading news. What the government did not say was that Newsru refused to follow government guidelines and not posting foreign news that contradicted the Russian government version of whatever was going on. This was not a new government policy as for over a decade Russia has been passing laws making it more difficult for “foreign agents” to operate in Russia. At first this was directed at foreign NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) that represented ideas at odds with the police state attitudes introduced after former Cold-War era KGB officer Vladimir Putin was elected president in 2000. Putin pledged to reduce corruption and improve the living standards, especially the elderly who were suffering from shrinking (due to inflation) pensions. Putin delivered for a while but in 2014 decided that Russia had to be more willing to accept the return of the Police State and declared that NATO was at war with Russia and he would deal with that. His first move was to invade Ukraine and seize Crimea and two other provinces in eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas (Don River industrial basin). The Ukrainians responded faster than expected and confronted Russia in the Donbas, where there has been a stalemate ever since. That did not slow Putin down. He manipulated the constitution and then got new laws passed that enabled him to become president-for-life. Corruption returned and living standards declined and Putin decided that news of these developments should be suppressed or controlled as much as possible.
Putin began going after the media as soon as he was first elected. By 2010, using intimidation and violence (17 murdered journalists), the state-controlled mass media returned after more than a decade of a (largely) free press. That has meant the return of the vibrant Soviet period rumor networks, seeking to find the truth that the state-controlled press hides. The Internet made it easier to find the truth, although the government began putting a lot of effort into limiting what news gets into (or around) Russia via the web.
The government also wants to prevent Russians from getting the truth about Russian history. The government is rewriting the history books, an effort that plays down (or ignores) the mass murders and state sponsored terror of the Soviet period. During the seven decades of communist rule, Russia had a third of its population killed off. The Soviet government killed more Russians than German armies and Nazi death camps. The current Russian government wants to keep that knowledge buried, along with all of Stalin's victims. The new government is basically a dictatorship of the politicians and secret policemen, many of them Soviet era vets. The Putin government is very much like the old Soviet one, but without the communist theology. The current dictators preach democracy, and believe in it about as much as their predecessors believed in Marx and Lenin. The downside of this is a business climate that lacks the rule of law, which is keeping a lot of foreign companies out, and making it difficult for Russian firms to innovate and be competitive in an international market. Thus, in many respects, the Russians are back in the USSR. News of how this works is dangerous in the new Russia and such destabilizing news must be prevented or kept out.
Russians are not alone in this respect. In Pakistan the military has been a major political force for decades and recently achieved sufficient power to get a law passed that made criticism of the military a crime. This was directed at web-based news outlets as well as the traditional electronic and print media. This is a reminder that the free press isn’t free because there’s always someone who sees the free press as a threat rather than an asset and acts accordingly.