By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Less than a year from Russia's March 2012 presidential election, television reporters say the pressure on them is growing to steer clear of topics that their bosses fear might offend the Kremlin's political managers.
In one recent local election, journalists at a television station say they were ordered: "Don't mention the opposition," without managerial approval.
Moscow's small circulation daily newspapers and vibrant blogosphere lampoon Russia's leaders and uncover allegations of official corruption, but their reach is limited. Polls show 80 percent of Russians say television is their main news source.
"Self-censorship today in Russia is at an all-time high," said high-profile TV host Vladimir Pozner, who began in the business when Soviet censors used to decide what subjects he and other journalists were allowed to report.
Veteran reporters, who grasped media freedoms as the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, say a generation of younger journalists who came of age in Vladimir Putin's 2000-2008 presidency accept an unspoken set of Kremlin rules on what cannot be shown on state and privately owned stations.
"The closer you get to the elections the worse it gets. There are fewer and fewer topics you can cover; more and more bans," said Ksenia Turkova, a former news presenter at Russia's sixth channel, Ren-TV, which is owned by an ally of Prime Minister Putin.
Russia's leading nationwide news channels all came either directly or indirectly under state ownership during Putin's presidency and reporters at the stations say they risk being summarily sacked if they break the rules.
"You never knew when you're going to step on a mine. People have become afraid to even ask whether they can air a subject or not," said Turkova, who now works in radio. Accumulated transgressions cost her job last year.
Two years ago, Ren-TV journalists reporting on a mayoral vote in Sochi, which will host the Winter Olympics in 2014, were ordered by their management to cover the vote but not "in any context" mention the opposition candidate Boris Nemtsov -- a politician long blacklisted at state-owned stations.
The ban was clearly laid out in a one-line email sent by the channel's then director. "Without the management's prior approval please do not under any context mention Boris Nemtsov's candidacy for mayor in the Sochi elections," the email viewed by Reuters read.
To journalists like Pozner, the turning point came a decade ago when NTV, then Russia's leading private television station, was raided by tax police and taken over by state-controlled gas giant Gazprom in April 2001.
During Putin's presidency, the most powerful media tycoons who held sway during the 1990s were pushed into exile unless they bowed to the Kremlin's new rule of no criticism.
Since Putin guided his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, into the presidency in 2008, reporters say little has changed and the three main nationwide channels routinely devote over a third of news broadcasts to the two leaders.
The Kremlin's monopoly over television news gives it a powerful tool that reporters say is used to smear opponents and keep unpalatable news off the air.
"What it really comes down to is the knowledge that if you rub the government the wrong way, it can close you down," said Pozner, who has twice in two years had parts of his Channel One program edited off the air by the channel's director for fear it might ruffle feathers.
When one of Russia's top television reporters, Leonid Parfyonov, was awarded the nation's highest TV journalism honor in December, the former NTV presenter chose to speak out.
"Journalists are not journalists at all but bureaucrats, obeying a logic of service and submission," Parfyonov, who now produces sardonic historical documentaries shown on state television, told TV executives at the black-tie event.
No state channel broadcast his criticism.
Playing to frustrations with what some reporters say is the "Sovietisation" of Russian TV, a media start-up TV Dozhd (Rain TV) launched online and on satellite last year with slogans of "Give TV another chance" and "Don't be afraid to turn on the TV!"
Bold, critical and 60 percent live on air -- a form long removed from national channels -- Dozhd's bid to contrast with the docile coverage of the federal channels struck a chord with Moscow intellectuals, who likened it to the NTV of the 1990s.
It consistently invited guests shunned by other channels and aired topics which many believed were banned, from opposition protests to the trial of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
But the channel's first birthday last month was marred when the station's director quit after its owner decided not to air a poem lampooning Medvedev just weeks before the Kremlin chief visited for an interview.
Defending her decision, the owner, Natalya Sindeyeva, said she had not been ordered to pull the segment: "No one called me," she said. "But I know we are being closely watched."
The verses "crossed the boundary of acceptable constructive criticism," she told entertainment weekly Afisha.
TV Dozhd's Facebook page filled with expressions of dashed hope from its viewers. "It's shameful. Medvedev tamed ... you," Yevgeny Pustoshilov wrote.
"There was an overall feeling of betrayed hope. A feeling that a new, free product was possible but that now we have slid backward again," former Dozhd director Vera Krichevskaya said.
Many asked why Dozhd's young reporters had skirted tough questions in the subsequent Medvedev interview.
"I am surprised at these young people who weren't reared on Soviet censorship and represent a liberal voice," said Anna Kachkayeva, the head of Moscow State University's TV journalism faculty.
"It shows how much fear has accumulated in these 10 years, when all the freedom-loving reporters have been eliminated."