When Russia's state-controlled television channels led their Saturday evening newscasts with reports on the huge protest that day in central Moscow, where tens of thousands demanded a rerun of a tainted parliamentary election , it was seen as a sign that the Kremlin understood it needed to loosen its vice grip on media – and by extension, politics – in the country.
It was indeed remarkable that the crowd of mostly middle-class Muscovites was shown on national television airing their claims that Dec. 4 election for the State Duma had been marred by massive fraud. Opposition leaders were stunned to see themselves on television being identified as opposition leaders.
But there was something missing from those telecasts: the loudest and most frequent chant heard on Bolotnaya Square – "Russia without Putin!" – didn't make it past the censors.
Russian journalists received another reminder this week that there were lines they still can't cross when senior managers of Kommersant Vlast magazine were fired after publishing an issue that spotlighted the accusations of election fraud. Few think it was anything that the magazine revealed about the conduct of the election that landed it in trouble. Most of that is already widely available online via YouTube and other sites.
As every journalist in Russia quickly understood, what really offended the Kremlin was Kommersant Vlast's decision to publish a photograph of a spoiled ballot, on which an angry voter had written an expletive directed at Mr. Putin.
As Yevgeny Kiselyov, a former anchor on NTV television and former editor-in-chief of the Moscow News, explained to me years ago, the fastest way for a publication to get shut down, or for a television station to get taken off the air, was to attack Mr. Putin personally. (Mr. Kiselyov now works in Ukraine, having said there was no longer any point trying to cover politics in Russia.) The firing of Kommersant Vlast's longtime editor-in-chief Maxim Kovalsky – and the omitted footage from the Bolotnaya Square protests – shows that the despite the seemingly more open media environment, you still can't target Mr. Putin personally.
"We are being forced into cowardice, which is inadmissible and counterproductive," reads an open letter published Wednesday by 40 Kommersant journalists protesting the firings of Mr. Kovalsky and chief executive officer Andrey Galiev. The letter said the dismissals were an "act of intimidation, aimed at preventing any critical statement towards Putin."
Even tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov – who declared this week that he will run against Mr. Putin in the March 4 presidential election – knows the rule well. The country's would-be leader avoided giving a direct answer when asked at a press conference whether he would criticize Mr. Putin during his run for office. "Criticism must make up no more than 10 per cent" of the campaign, Mr. Prokhorov said. "I would like to focus on the things I would do."
None of which offers much hope that the coming presidential race will be any different than the controversial Duma election, which monitors from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe concluded was "marked by a convergence of the state and the governing party, limited political competition and a lack of fairness." The same report noted that "most media were partial" during the Duma campaign.
Seeing the opposition protests on TV was a breakthrough, after 12 years of declining media freedom in the country. But it has since been made very clear to the Russian media that Mr. Putin still remains untouchable.