MOSCOW (Reuters) - Ilya Azar does not know whether he has been fired yet from one of Russia’s most popular independent online news organizations, 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 organizations 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.
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 organization, 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 censorship.
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 favor 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.”
Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Alexei Anishchuck; editing by Timothy Heritage and Philippa Fletcher