Podcast: News Media in Russia and China with Repnikova and Trudolyubov

PONARS Eurasia
17 Jul 2020

In this week's episode of the PONARS Eurasia Podcast, Maria Lipman chats with Maria Repnikova (Georgia State University) and Maxim Trudolyubov (Meduza) to learn more about the state of news media in Russia and China today.

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Lipman: Hello everyone, this is Maria Lipman and our PONARS Eurasia Podcast, featuring a series of discussions about Russia and Eurasia, about the region's politics, and about other Russia and Eurasia related topics. We'll talk today about media scenes in Russia and in China.

In Russia, Putin has just secured a virtually lifetime presidency for himself. The popular vote that endorsed his status as an uncontested leader was organized with egregious violations of voting regulations and practices, which led some political commentators to suggest that Russia was shifting from competitive authoritarianism to authoritarian hegemony - a coercive regime drawing on harsh repressions. In China, the regime is often described as having near complete control over the society, down to a total digital surveillance over the citizens.

What does it tell us about media operation in the two countries? Just how bad are the constraints imposed on journalists? What are the remaining opportunities for those journalists who are still committed to professional reporting and editorial independence?

Interestingly, the actual situation may be better, or at least different, than outside observers may suggest. But let me first introduce my guests.

Maria Repnikova teaches global communication at Georgia State University. She has studied Chinese media politics for many years, and in 2017, she published a book titled Media Politics in China: Improvising Power Under Authoritarianism with Cambridge University Press. Hello, Masha.

Repnikova: Hello. Nice to be here.

Lipman: Great to have you. Maxim Trudolubov is editor-at-large of Meduza, also editor of The Russia File, and op-ed contributor to The New York Times. Hello Maxim.

Trudolyubov: Hi Masha, thanks for having me.

Lipman: Great to have you. I'd like to cite two articles authored by my guests. Maria's piece about Chinese media was published in The New York Times in early February. It was devoted to the coverage of the COVID pandemic. In that article, one comes across phrases, such as “investigative powers,” “hard hitting investigation,” “outspoken information outlets,” “new voices on social media,” et cetera.

About one year ago, Maxim Trudolubov wrote an article about Russian media for his Russia File, published by the Woodrow Wilson Center. The piece, or at least its opening part, sounds surprisingly upbeat, as Maxim wrote about an increasingly vibrant journalistic scene, a long list of scoops, independent sources, etc. In June Sergey Smirnov, the editor of the Russian website “MediaZona” that covers instances of lawless prosecution, including in political cases, described the Russian media scene as not ideal, but not catastrophic either. The government, he said, does not have the clear goal of pressuring every outlet that publishes stuff not to the Kremlin's liking.

I'll be talking with Maria and Maхim about alternative media. That is, nongovernmental sources of information, about how they survive in Russia and in China, as well as about coverage of the COVID pandemic.

Masha, let us start with China. How and what did people learn about the outbreak of the Coronavirus from Chinese media, and what role did alternative sources play?

Repnikova: Yeah, it's important to highlight first that some of the alternative sources were coming from citizen journalists, as well as doctors themselves, who exposed the very early warning signs about the disease as being much more serious than originally expected or anticipated. And in many ways, they were the ones who initially opened up this crisis to the wider public.

But slightly later, some time has passed, and investigative outlets and major commercialized news outlets, as well as some party outlets across the country, have reported really widely. Especially about the coverups of information taking place in the city of Wuhan and the silencing of those doctors who shared the first warning signs about the pandemic.

So it's been kind of layered information, channeling from doctors to social media, commentator citizens living there and videotaping what they're seeing, to journalists from across the country reporting. For a brief opening of a couple of weeks, they reported very professionally about the crisis until they got censored by the government.

Lipman: Maxim, what role did alternative sources play in covering the pandemic in Russia, and how would you describe the difference between the message of state-run media, that of course also covered the pandemic, and alternative sources in Russia?

Trudolyubov: Well, there was a difference, I think. Although I have to admit from the beginning that I follow independent media much closer than the state run media, but I do have an idea what they do, state run media. Especially in the beginning, there was a difference.

I think it was mainly in March, when the situation was not fully clear, and apparently the Kremlin at that time had not decided yet what to do, what was the best plan of action? They were looking at China, looking at Europe, and there were a lot of stories based on falsified information, all kinds of conspiracies blaming the crisis mainly on the United States, although it was sort of coming from China.

Anyway, against that background, independent, or like half-independent media looked better. They just produced a silent picture, and it was a good idea to follow them at the time. Then, I think, it conformed to some consensus with time that it was an important problem and we all had to deal with it.

Lipman: And what about doctors? Masha mentioned doctors were an important source of information in China as the COVID outbreak began. What about Russia? Did you see anything similar?

Trudolyubov: Well, to an extent, but different. I was following the situation in Europe as well, because I'm kind of right now placed in the middle, in Lithuania. And so there were a number of charismatic doctors, as it were, who emerged, during the crisis. Christian Drosten in Berlin, in Germany, was covering the situation from the very beginning from the point of view of a virologist. There were similar important sources in, let's say Greece, the Netherlands, Lithuania as well.

In Russia, we had a strange situation where there was this doctor who became famous because he was the head of a hospital that was bearing the brunt of the first wave of the pandemic, Denis Protsenko, but then there emerged this different doctor with a different background who has essentially become the spokesman for the state on matters of virology and the crisis and pandemic. And this, Myasnikov - what's his name, I forget, Myasnikov, is he Alexander? Anyways, here's this well-connected doctor, sort of a self-proclaimed friend of everyone in circles close to the Kremlin. And he sounded rather peculiar because he was this guy who said, you know, those who are destined to die will die. He essentially pontificated, being philosophical, where normal doctors would just be doctors and explain what to do.

So that was a bit surreal. And my impression was that the idea was essentially to, well, probably not to destroy, but kind of undermine the trust. Which is weird, but this is the picture I get from how I see it. Whereas in places, let's say in Germany, it was an amazing consensus, at least at some point, that you do need to listen to the doctors. And this is also the source of legitimacy, including political legitimacy, so Angela Merkel would appear with doctors or with the director of that institute that is responsible for most of the virological research in that country. She would make it clear that she depended on that source of knowledge, on doctors, on scientists, on experts.

And I don't think that was the idea in Russia. The Kremlin mostly wanted to deflect attention from the political part of its dealings, although the politics, the criminal politics, remain basically the focus of Russian politicians’ agenda.

Lipman: Right. Well, being in Russia myself, and watching and listening and reading, I certainly paid attention to those doctors who were not so much sources of medical information, but complaining about the country – or their hospitals at least – being under-equipped for the pandemic. Masha, was there anything like that in China?

Repnikova: There definitely were complaints early on, initially, as I said, about just the lack of the ability to share information about what was happening the hospitals. And then later on, there were also citizen journalists reporting on the overcrowding of hospitals, the risks that doctors were taking, the lack of protective equipment. There were also really shocking videos of bodies kind of piling up on top of one another outside of the hospital, outside of residential areas, so just a lot of really vivid images. And, of course, also the city being in lock down, the dramatic lock down, that I think all of us were watching at the beginning and now we're experiencing in different parts of the world, that was all documented as well. So kind of like a lack of freedoms to move around, but also just lack of safety and protection that came out of a lot of reports, especially citizen journalist reports.

Lipman: And were there instances when doctors would fall in trouble because of being too outspoken about shortages or about other inadequacies? The country being not fully prepared, or their region, their hospital, not being not fully prepared for the pandemic? Or did they get away with it?

Repnikova: Well, the most troubling thing was early on with Dr. Li who ended up becoming a sensation, and unfortunately died and became sort of a martyr as well. It was more about just an ability to share sensitive news about the dangers of the disease. And there was silencing by the police, so they were told not to share information.

Later reports came out that the hospital also tried to silence them, so there were multiple levels of censorship on them speaking out about the gravity of the situation. And when it comes to the equipment, there were not many people willing to speak out as much because it is sensitive. So it was more, kind of, citizen journalists sneaking in, coming inside the hospitals, showing some of his images.

But the interesting thing was, maybe a month or two later, when things seemed to be under control, doctors were kind of used as images of things working well. And they were shown as very hard working, successful, beating the disease. So they started to come out into the media as a way to, kind of, almost promote unity of the nation, the efficiency of the party, and everything basically coming together.

So they came out in large numbers as kind of this sign of a volunteer spirit and the strength of the party, the strength of China's nation, in a more positive sort of spin that things are actually being fixed. But when it comes to negative issues, sensitive issues, there was not a lot of space to speak about those things during that period.

Trudolyubov: Can I jump in just for one second? I just remembered, I'm sure Masha, you read it too, that piece by Maxim Osipov, the doctor from Tarusa. It's a small hospital, about a hundred kilometers Southwest of Moscow. And he wrote a sort of a letter, addressed to the general reader at the first stages of the pandemic, essentially saying not to trust the system, not to trust the state healthcare system, which was rather radical, I would say, as a statement of mistrust. It is something that I thought was quite unimaginable in many places in many countries, because the whole point was that you go with the system, this is one thing, this is one story where you actually trust the government, otherwise, what are you going to do?

So this tells you something about the state of affairs in society where you basically have a doctor, a professional, saying that, you know, really, you really have to be careful and you have to think twice before you get into contact with the official healthcare system, because you might be worse off doing that than actually recovering all by yourself.

Lipman: Masha, I don't think this is something that is possible in China, is it?

Repnikova: Yeah, that would be pretty sensitive, especially when it comes to declaring that you can't trust the government. Especially the broader use of that word, the government at large, or the party, that can be very sensitive.

You can point to a local failures more openly, but if you point to mistrust of the whole system and especially of the president Xi Jinping or anything central level, that becomes really difficult territory to navigate.

Lipman: Right. Masha in your article, you wrote that social media spawns journalism, and you also mentioned new voices – that  probably has to do with the same phenomenon. What do you mean by that, social media spawns journalism? And how do you see it on the Chinese media scene?

Repnikova: Yeah, social media has been really kind of a double-edged sword, I think, for critical journalism in China for some time. But the positive side of it is that it's become a really important information source for these journalists. It's a really fast information source, and there's a lot of daring voices that appear on social media that wouldn't just appear in mainstream media because these communities are more gated, there are gatekeepers that might not allow them to go into those spaces easily. Especially if they deceive others with, sort of an identity just as citizen, and they come in and film, those things are not really easy for normal mainstream journalists to do. So social media has become a source of some of these videos, pictures, even just, information, data points to construct an investigative report.

So in many ways, the very early signs of what was going on came out of social media, and then mainstream media followed those signs and channels and stepped in to support. So it's an important channel and flow of information, of sources, potential contacts, with interviews, sometimes they work together.

So it's been a very, very important force. At the same time, it's also very sensitive because a lot of the citizen journalists have been censored, but also some of them have been detained, disappeared from public eye, in the aftermath of these kinds of leaks. And once things started to get managed, they weren't able to produce the sort of reporting anymore because they don't have the organization of the media to protect them, they don't have those gatekeepers to keep them in check. They also face a lot more risk. So that becomes kind of a double-edged sword in the sense that they're helpful, but then they can also disappear more easily than a mainstream journalist.

Lipman: Maxim, does it sound similar to you in any way? Social media spawning journalism, and actually the two merging sometimes so that you don't even know what is social media and what is journalism? Do you think what Masha has described is in any way similar to the Russian scene?

Trudolyubov: Well, yes, we do have some of that. I mean, we have a lot of that too, but, I think what we have is this so-called “mini-media,” this is Nataliya Rostova, who's a researcher, a student of media in Russia. And she calls it that, “mini-media.”

For the past, let's say five to six years, a whole bunch of new projects have emerged, and all of these are actual professional media, done by actual professional journalists who very often used to be reporters or editors with major mainstream, newspapers, radio stations, and I would say rarely but some come from TV – especially if it's TV Rain – but yes, we do have this group of media. Like The Bell, like run by MBK Media by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, MediaZona, I think is important. Or OVD-Info, a special media that is dealing with arrests and detentions.

So we have this group of Project Media it's called Project, just like that, or Proekt in Russian, which is specialized in investigations. And all of those investigations are produced by professionals, or people with experience in mainstream media, so I think that this is an important phenomenon. You can have all kinds of ideas about it, but it does produce quality journalism. And they are expanding into broader areas. So right now, for example, just recently, Proekt Media has started an opinion section, which originally they never thought they would be doing, because that was something associated with a very mainstream, old school kind of media.

I mean, why would you need columns? But with Vedomosti newspaper, a mainstream media which used to be one of the leading newspapers in Russia, now being essentially a censored and shut down as an independent source of information, probably they see more sense in reaching for this way of expression, which is, you know, opinion. So it's an interesting development, I think.

Lipman: Right. And we'll talk about Vedomosti a little later, I hope. Because you mentioned this "mini-media," I would quote Sergey Smirnov, who is the chief-editor of MediaZona, who I quoted earlier from the same interview. He said the more popular a publication, the larger its weight, the higher are its risks. And he also said that economic survival is an issue of great concern. This is, he said, “our major problem. Nobody in Russia wants to invest in independent journalism”.

So first, Maxim, is this what you also had in mind? Because it is risky to be a publication with a large weight. This is one reason why those mini projects emerge, and actually quite a few of them have emerged over the years. Do you agree with that, Maxim?

Trudolyubov: Yeah, sure, they are emerging because the big media – that more traditional mainstream media – have in various ways been dealt with by the Kremlin. And what is actually amazing to me, what I'm thinking about when I'm looking at it, is how come the Kremlin, the presidential administration, seems to be really concerned with all that?

I mean, they have this large country, and there are lots of problems and lots of areas where expertise is needed. And yet we see that there is this something that I can only call micromanagement, where there are all those very important people from the very top echelons of power who deal with, you know, a newspaper for God's sake, which is really strange.

Although when I was talking about it recently with a political scientist, actually with Dan Treisman from UCLA, he immediately reminded me of his theory of informational dictatorships. And so basically, if your dictatorship is informational as their model, the Guriev-Treisman developed theory of dictatorships, basically you rule through information. Through managing information channels. And the important thing is what the public thinks about the ruler, and you manage that. So in order to do that, of course you need to manage the media. So probably in the end it does make perfect sense.

Lipman: Right. Masha, would you respond to the second part of the quote from Sergey Smirnov about economic survival and about, well, -- of course, Sergey Smirnov was talking about Russia and saying that nobody in Russia wants to invest in independent journalism – what about China? Where does funding come from for independent journalists, for alternative media?

Repnikova: Yeah, there are several points of comparison there, but also one clarification is that unlike Russia, there are no completely independent news outlets. There are citizen journalists who publish online, and they can kind of use a Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo, to post some of their things, as well as WeChat, which is kind of a version of WhatsApp, you can have many, many followers on that platform as well. You can create your own official account also on WeChat, but it's not really officially registered media, if that makes sense. So the officially registered media and other dependents, all of them are owned by the state, it's just the ownership proportion varies from, you know, 51% is the smallest proportion and then it goes up to 100%. So there isn't really the equivalent of the private news outlets that exist in Russia. That’s one point that's very different.

And the second interesting point is that in China, there's actually a lot of new investment coming from local state into the media. So some of the interesting outlets that emerged online in recent years, such as the outlet named The Paper, or Pengpai, in Shanghai, it's actually completely owned by the Shanghai government. So the reason why they do that – and actually that outlet has done quite a bit of critical reporting – is because they're interested in redesigning the guidance of public opinion, sort of channeling propaganda type coverage on social media. They're worried about losing their audiences because most people don't read papers anymore, they don't watch TV. Young people just follow social media, so they're trying to create attractive outlets, and in order to be attractive, you need some credibility, you need some critical reporting. So ironically, some of its officials, because they seek more public attention and following, kind of for propaganda purposes, they also create outlets that might produce some more critical content. 

So it's kind of an interesting, messy picture. But it's the state that invests mostly into these media outlets. It's not private interest, per se, so that's a big difference there. As a result, they face fewer struggles of survival, but they also have a lot more constraints when it comes to what they can say.

Lipman: Yeah. This, of course, is a very important difference. And I think we'll come across more differences as we discuss the media scenes in the two countries. I would like the two of you to speak about very recent events and how they were covered by alternative media, if at all, especially in China.

In Russia, of course, we had this popular vote on the constitutional amendments that I mentioned in the beginning of my introduction. That was very heavily criticized, and I hope Maksim, you will say a few words about that. In China, well, no such constitutional process is going on, as far as I know, but a very important law has just been adopted in China if I'm not mistaken. This is a life sentence for the violation of the Hong Kong security law. So Masha, would you start and tell us, is it even possible to cover such a sensitive issue by journalists who are trying to be independent?

Repnikova: Yeah, Hong Kong is an extremely sensitive issue. It hasn't been possible to cover much of any critical line on that issue for some years, and especially now. So we see some of the critiques coming out of, again, some citizen journalists, but also some academics. And some of them are getting detained and silenced.

So it's an area that's kind of the red zone. You really cannot say much out of line. But one important thing to also keep in mind is that, alongside some of these attempts by some individuals to critique, there's also highly rising nationalistic sentiment in China, which maybe it's comparable to Russia to some extent, in that many young people, especially young people actually, are very much in support of this law in mainland China. So when I was in Beijing last summer, I met, just in regular conversations, many different types of people, very intelligent, some of them have spent lots of time in the West, some came straight from Hong Kong after finishing their PhDs, but they're mainland Chinese – they really believe that the heart of that protest that was happening in Hong Kong for some time now is really the economic problem. Kind of the Chinese explanation, you know, struggling economically – as long as that gets fixed, we can help them fix it, they're going to be fine. There's nothing ideological about it. They're not idealistic, they're not political. It's just all economic grievances.

So there was this really vast gap in understanding, there was no empathy for any of these causes that were on a more idealistic level, that I think a lot of young Hong-Kongers actually feel. So I haven't met really almost anyone amongst younger Chinese students or faculty who would say, yeah, I really understand exactly what they're doing and why they're doing it.

It was really interesting, and many of them were quite frank. And they were willing to engage in a discussion, but they also had a really strong sentiment that this is really a domestic issue, which is very much the line of the party. It's about domestic security and they're creating disorder, and also the main problem is that they're a little bit jealous of mainland China, because we're doing better economically, so they actually want to have more of what we have, but they don't have it yet. So really kind of a different logic. I think the critical voices here in mainland China are really not the main voices. The main voices are more nationalistic, patriotic, they're pro-law, they're pro-order, and they see Hong Kong as part of China.

Lipman: Huh, very Interesting, and unexpected to somebody like us. Maxim, I think you would agree with me. So, Maxim, would you please say a few words about how this whole process of the popular vote was covered by state media, to the extent that you know about it and you followed it, and of course, mostly by the alternative media.

Trudolyubov: Well, there was a striking difference between the two, obviously. The constitutional amendments, actually – it was a sweeping change of the Russian constitution. By one count, up to 60% of the constitution was affected, Vedomosti reported that before it changed.

But many on the oppositional side concentrated on the one important amendment that essentially allowed the sitting president Vladimir Putin to bypass a constitutional ban and run for president again in 2024, and then again in whatever it will be, in 2030? I don't know. But it all sounds like going to space, it's like, really? We're all discussing things like 2036.

Anyway, everyone's been talking about this and this is a very important change. Independent media, especially alternative mini-media, were highly critical of that move. They saw it as an authoritarian change, and comparing Russia to other countries that made similar changes has become common.

There are countries in Africa that did it, there are lots of countries in Latin America that did that, where presidents were getting rid of presidential term limits, so that became a subject. Also the whole discussion of one sitting head of state continuing indefinitely does immediately remind anyone who remembers anything in Russia, that we did have in our history long, long periods of time when the country was ruled by one person. And those really never were the most successful times. Although, the last one with Leonid Brezhnev is kind of considered a golden age for some reason in popular imagination, which is a separate subject.

But basically, yes, there was a difference in coverage, and the state run media were essentially saying that those were amendments about social change. I mean, they would almost never mention that one amendment about “zeroing” n, or whatever you call it, about discarding the term limits for the president. They would talk about the social parts of it - I don’t know, minimum wage, the amendment that says that Russia will never allow any secession of any territory, something like that. And Putin would mention lots of those amendments, but I think with one exception, almost never the amendment about the term limits. And on the opposition side, all the talk was about the term limits. So I think that's probably the main difference.

Lipman: Right. Yeah. And of course, there was a lot of information about rigging, and reports of actual fraud.

Trudolyubov: Yes, yes. After it all ended, yes. And there was this by now very well-known report by Shpilkin, the mathematician who has a way of counting that, and he came up with a figure that's very different from the official figure. So yes, we had a lot of that too.

Lipman: Right. Yeah. So it is conventional wisdom among independent journalists in Russia, and their readership of course, that it was a highly fraudulent election. Well, Masha, I would like you to probably remember an episode of especially daring coverage. What are the risks involved? And maybe you can cite an example of what might happen to a journalist who crosses the red line. And then Maxim, probably you tell us, briefly the story of Vedomosti after that.

Repnikova: Yeah, I guess in terms of finding the one example, it's a little tricky because there are many examples that are more routine, but they don't necessarily cross the red red line, because most journalists don't do that in China. They tend to stay away from them. They tend to operate in what I described in my book and other work as the gray zone.

That's the zone where one can talk about corruption at the provincial and local level, one can talk about failures of infrastructure projects, one can talk about major disasters and crises, but we don't really see coverage like we do in Russia where one could question the entire kind of system - for example, XI Jinping’s term limits.

It's kind of the equivalent, right? He got rid of the term limits so he's allowed to be the party leader indefinitely. Although similar to Putin, he promised to step down at some point. Supposedly he's not there to stay forever, but you know, he has the right to do so. And there isn't a particular date, so it's almost even more, I don't know, abstract, I guess. But nobody could really write about that and question that directly.

The professor who did, Xu Zhangrun from Tsinghua University, was arrested, I think it was yesterday. Twenty guys got into his house and took him out of his house, and he's being held in detention. He's a very famous legal scholar from Tsinghua University, one of China's top universities. He was questioning that the rule of Xi Jinping is becoming much more similar to Mao, where there's the personality cult and there's lack of any accountability on his power.

But then, the media itself, we don't have such voices questioning these sorts of rules and new steps in concentrating power, because it's too sensitive. So the kind of daring coverage we see includes in particular, the recent example of COVID-19, would include questioning how some of these silencing mechanisms worked for a period of something like a month, where the disease kept getting out of hand, but nobody really knew about it.

The most impressive coverage I found is still being done by Caixin magazine, it's an in-depth magazine out of Beijing. They do more economic and business coverage. And their reporting consisted of four parts, it's like 72 pages long all together, and it's really a step by step explanation of how things went wrong with the market, how the doctors were silenced, and also how some of the bureaucratic mishaps worked, where one bureaucracy was allowed to speak about it, one wasn't, why are the laws the way they are that are, you know, silencing people when they speak about infectious diseases? So they really kind of tackled every detail of why we didn't know about this for such a long time. And some of it also targeted some central level policy apparatus, so not Xi Jinping himself, but some of the central bureaucracies and how they did some things wrong that kind of didn't allow for this to be discussed more widely, and why the information wasn't available.

So that to me is some of the most impressive coverage, because it's so detailed and scientific. It's not particularly provocative, and actually it stayed around, I think it's still available. Many of the reports have been censored, but this report is still accessible. And as far as I know, the journalists did not get in trouble. So the kind of issues where you get in trouble, it's when you directly provoke, again, the leader or the system. You create some movements about secession when it comes to Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang is completely off limits, the weaker region where there are massive allegations of detention camps.

Those kinds of issues are not discussed. So basically, we don't see a whole lot of cases of somebody directly getting in trouble because, for the most part, they stay within the gray zone. So what can happen to them is they can lose their job, they can have a hard time getting hired, they may get criticized from within the outlet, they may also have to write a self-criticism report – kind of a Soviet style sort of a report where you have to actually criticize yourself publicly. So you can have all kinds of different ways to be reined in, but being jailed, detained, and especially physically assaulted, those are kind of the last case scenario that happen pretty rarely.

Lipman: Right. Well, journalists of course also get in trouble in Russia, but I guess our gray zone or whatever you call it, something that you can get away with, seems to be much broader than in China. However, Vedomosti is a case in point, and I will not introduce this topic. I think, Maxim, you can tell everything, yourself. Just please try to be brief if possible.

Trudolyubov: Well, yes, I will try. Although, I did work with Vedomosti for a long time. I was part of the launching team, so it's an issue close to my heart, inevitably. We started Vedomosti as an independent business newspaper back in 1999. And originally the publishers were American, Dow Jones, the Brits, the company that was at the time publishing the Financial Times, and there was an entrepreneur from the Netherlands who has been working in Russia for a long time.

Anyway, we had that a group of publishers who are very good as publishers because they were never ever interested in running the editorial policy, which was all the job of the actual editorial office and the editors. So it was an important project and, well, fast forward to recent events. And we see that it was gradually reined in, in stages. And by now we know that the idea was to actually stop it, silence it, which - myself, I have to be frank, I watched in disbelief. Again, because I never thought, in the years 2010-2015 when this law appeared, the law capping foreign ownership of media, which many told us later was actually aimed at Vedomosti as one of the main targets - not just Vedomosti but Vedomosti a was very important target of that law.

So there's this entire law, you go those kinds of lengths to do that, to silence a media, you create a law, then the media changes hands, then you appoint sort of an owner then, you, I mean you, the Kremlin, then you are disappointed with that owner and you change that owner to a different owner. And that's basically what happened recently, now Vedomosti has a new owner that is even closer to the Kremlin and apparently they're just running the editorial policy directly.

So this is the change from a freedom of editorial content to total control. This is amazing and you really need to be into this as an administration, right? To go into all those lengths and all those details to run a media that reaches, I don’t know, at the very most 200,000 people, if we were generous – because Vedomosti has never been a really mass product. It has always aimed at this kind of prime audience of sort of upper level bureaucrats, businesses, and educated readership. Something that you, as a Kremlin, or as any ruler, you probably have to be relaxed about. You know, these people are never satisfied, so forget about them.

No, it means that basically, even that is important. And now they have closed that window also. But you know, to conclude, I would just say that, indeed, Masha, you were right when you said that we do have in Russia much more of that “gray zone”, of something that you could do despite the desires of the ruling group. Because this kind of regime that Russia has is sort of leaky. It's not complete. It's not, really fully, fully running the show. There are lots of ways where you can express yourself.

What does it mean in reality? I mean, we can argue, but it definitely means that, there are lots of opportunities for expression that simply fall through the cracks and somehow reach the audience despite all the attempts of the ruling system, of the political system.

Lipman: Right. Well, unfortunately we are running out of time, and there are many more issues to discuss. What I would like to point out in the end is that even though there was this major difference between Russia and China, that we in Russia have privately-owned media as opposed to China, still the government in Russia has virtually unlimited power to orchestrate the redistribution of media ownership so that more and more media outlets, especially larger, slightly larger ones are in loyal hands.

And this is the Russian government's way of keeping under control, not absolutely, but significantly in a media scene that has outlets that are privately owned. Thank you both, for a very interesting conversation. I wish we had more time.

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