Huge majority of Russians believe Putin propaganda ‘and cannot be reached’, says head of shut-down TV station

Exclusive: Natalia Sindeeva, founder of Dozhd TV, says Putin is winning the Russian information war because of his brutal crackdown on independent media

<p>Natalia Sindeeva, founder of Dozhd TV </p>

Natalia Sindeeva, founder of Dozhd TV

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Vladimir Putin is keeping the support of a large majority of Russians thanks to increasingly powerful state propaganda, said the head of an independent TV channel that was shut down by the regime.

Natalia Sindeeva, founder of the Dozhd TV station, told The Independent that a draconian censorship law introduced last month had destroyed any chance of reaching a large Russian audience with the truth about the Ukraine invasion.

Sindeeva said that the 20 per cent or so of Russia’s population that was already opposed to Putin still had ways of finding out what was happening in Ukraine – but the rest are now fully absorbed in messaging from state-controlled media.

“These people watch propaganda. They have completely opposite footage, they think it is Ukrainians who bomb Mariupol, they believe that Ukrainians killed people in Bucha,” she said.

“The problem is the audience of the state propaganda. We cannot reach them, and, to be honest, they do not have any demand for independent information. It is a majority of the people – they support the war, they support Putin, they make it easier for him.”

The Dozhd channel, set up in 2008, was forced to shut at the beginning of March after the Kremlin pushed through a media censorship law that punishes what it terms “fake” information about the war with up to 15 years in prison.

“Passing this law made impossible live reporting on TV online,” said Sindeeva. “We could not report on news relating to Ukraine, or we would have to use only Russian state official sources, which do not give a real picture.”

Sindeeva is the focus of a new documentary, F@ck This Job – renamed Tango with Putin for its appearance on BBC iPlayer – about the prominent socialite’s efforts to run a truly independent TV channel that was willing to challenge Putin’s government.

She had hoped that Dozhd, also known as TV Rain, could mix serious news and “glamorous television”, building an audience of young Russians eager for reform. But the Ukraine war brought an end to the regime’s willingness to tolerate autonomous media outlets.

Dozhd staff were swamped with threatening emails and calls soon after the invasion began, even before the censorship law made it impossible to continue.

Despite the crackdown in March, the minority of Russians already opposed to Putin – some of whom have been arrested for protesting against the war – are still able to 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,” said Sindeeva.

Dozhd is not the only independent outlet to have been forced to stop reporting on the invasion. The Novaya Gazeta newspaper has 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 threw a mixture of red paint and acetone over him.

Some who work for state-controlled media have paid the price for speaking out. Channel One news presenter Marina Ovsyannikova was detained after shouting “Stop the war” on air, and is now facing charges for holding an “unauthorised public event”.

Campaign groups like Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation hope that the overwhelming pressure of international sanctions might lead to an overthrow of the government.

But Sindeeva is pessimistic about the idea that the squeeze on the Russian economy will lead significant numbers to turn against the president. She said the Russian public would be willing to “endure the hardships” that arise due to the crumbling economy.

“For now, Putin’s propaganda is painting the picture that the worsening economic conditions are part of the west’s plan to weaken Russia. So Russians might even become more united against this outside enemy.”

Natalia Sindeeva, founder of Dozhd TV

Vera Krichevskaya, a former producer at the network and director of Tango with Putin, has predicted that Putin will remain in power past the 2036 date his term is supposed to end. “Putin will be there now until the physical end of his life: 2036? 2045? Dates don’t matter now.”

Sindeeva does not hold out much hope of democratic change in the years ahead. “Right now, it’s hard to imagine any reforms,” she said.

But the former TV channel boss, who does not disclose her location, said that many independent Russian journalists would find a way to keep working.

“I am sure it has a future,” she said of her media company. “I am now actively exploring new options to continue reporting on what is happening in Russia. I am thinking about how to restart the project, but I cannot give you any details now.”

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