Vladimir Putin retains the support of a large majority of Russians thanks to increasingly powerful state propaganda, said the head of an independent TV channel shut down by the regime.
Natalia Sindeeva, founder of the Dozhd TV channel, tells The Independent that a draconian censorship law introduced last month had destroyed any chance of reaching large Russian audiences with the truth about the invasion of Ukraine.
Sindeeva said that around 20 percent of the Russian population who are already opposed to Putin still have opportunities to find out what is happening in Ukraine – but the rest are now completely absorbed by the news from the state-controlled media.
“These people look at propaganda. They have completely opposite footage, they believe Ukrainians are bombing Mariupol, they believe Ukrainians killed people in Bucha,” she said.
“The problem is the audience of state propaganda. We can’t reach them, and frankly, they don’t want independent information either. It’s a majority of people – they support the war, they support Putin, they make it easier for him.”
The Dozhd channel, founded in 2008, was forced to shut down in early March after the Kremlin pushed through a media censorship law that punishes “false” information about the war with up to 15 years in prison.
“The passage of this law made live television coverage online impossible,” Sideeva said. “We could not cover news related to Ukraine, or we would only have to use Russian state official sources that don’t give a real picture.”
Sideeva is the focus of a new documentary, Fuck this job – renamed Tango with Putin for appearing on BBC iPlayer – on the high profile celebrity’s efforts to run a truly independent television network poised to challenge Putin’s government.
She had hoped that Dozhd, aka TV Rain, could mix serious news and “glamor TV” and build a reform-minded audience of young Russians. But the Ukraine war put an end to the regime’s willingness to tolerate autonomous media.
Dozhd employees were inundated with threatening emails and phone calls shortly after the invasion began, before the censorship law made it impossible to continue.
Despite the crackdown in March, the minority of Russians who are already anti-Putin – some of whom were arrested for protesting the war – can still get accurate information about Ukraine online.
“The core of our audience knows how to use VPN to open some blocked sources or how to find our reporters or Ukrainian sources. It’s our bubble,” Sindeeva said.
Dozhd is not the only independent media outlet forced to stop reporting on the invasion. That Novaya Gazeta The newspaper suspended its activities until the end of Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The newspaper’s editor Dmitry Muratov, a co-winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, was attacked in Moscow earlier this week by someone who poured a mixture of red paint and acetone on him.
Some who work for state-controlled media have paid the price for speaking out. Channel One news presenter Marina Ovsyannikova was arrested after shouting “stop the war” on the air and is now charged with holding an “unauthorized public event”.
Campaign groups like Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation hope the overwhelming pressure of international sanctions can lead to a government overthrow.
But Sindeeva is pessimistic about the idea that the pressure on Russia’s economy will result in significant numbers turning against the president. She said the Russian public is ready “to endure the hardships” posed by the crumbling economy.
“Right now, Putin’s propaganda paints the picture that deteriorating economic conditions are part of the West’s plan to weaken Russia. So the Russians might be able to unite even more against this outside enemy.”
Vera Krichevskaya, a former producer of the network and director of Tango with Putin, has predicted that Putin will remain in power beyond the 2036 date when his term is due to end. “Putin will now be there until the end of his physical life: 2036? 2045? Appointments don’t matter anymore.”
Sindeeva does not have much hope for democratic change in the coming years. “Right now it’s hard to imagine reforms,” she said.
But the former TV channel boss, who does not reveal her whereabouts, said many independent Russian journalists would find a way to continue working.
“I’m sure it has a future,” she said of her media venture. “I am now actively looking for new options to continue reporting on what is happening in Russia. I’m thinking about how to restart the project, but I can’t give you any details right now.”