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Analysis & Opinion
29.04.10 Pressing Fears
By Tom Balmforth

Russia’s “extremely repressive” media environment worsened marginally last year, according to a Freedom House report released this evening, but analysts warn there are already signs that Russia’s rating will slump further in 2010. President Dmitry Medvedev has been making the right sounds about press freedoms, but the reality on the ground is somewhat different. What’s more, a bill currently being discussed in the State Duma could make journalists fair game for an upgraded version of Russia’s notoriously malleable extremism law.

Russia shared 176th place with Gambia in Freedom House’s 2010 Press Freedom Index of 196 countries released yesterday, down one place from 2008. The report found that “Russia remained among the world’s more repressive and most dangerous media environments.” Only Uzbekistan, Belarus and Turkmenistan ranked lower than Russia in its regional Central and Eastern Europe grouping of 26 countries.

“I cannot say that freedom of the press went down last year,” said Mikhail Fedotov, secretary of Russia’s Union of Journalists. “There was little freedom to start with and there still is little.”

Freedom House notes that “the space for independent media in Russia has been steadily reduced as legal protections are routinely ignored, the judicial system grows more subservient to the executive branch, reporters face severe repercussions for reporting on sensitive issues, most attacks on journalists go unpunished, and media ownership is brought firmly under the control of the state.”

Fedotov said that 2009 had not been remarkable in terms of state attempts to curb press freedoms but warned that they loomed large for Russia in 2010. “Last year the state didn’t do anything particularly bad or good for the freedom of the press,” said Fedotov “But this year there has been a draft bill submitted, which to me is unthinkable. It is a cause for very serious concern. This is a clear attempt – at least at the moment it is still an attempt – to curb freedom,” he said.

In the wake of the March 29 Moscow bombings the opposition predicted the authorities would tighten up the power vertical. On April 24 a bill was submitted to the State Duma which would extend the powers of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, and expand the remit of the Russia’s infamous extremism law, adopted two years ago, which can currently only be imposed on organizations. The draft gives the FSB the right to take preventative measures against individuals suspected of the malleable offense of “extremism.” The draft bill posted on the State Duma Web site also contains a specific warning to the press.

“The media, both print and electronic, are openly encouraging the formation of negative processes in the spiritual sphere, affirming a culture of individualism and violence, fomenting disbelief in the ability of the state to defend its citizens, and practically inciting the young toward extremist activity,” reads the draft.

“This has really shaken me up,” said Fedotov. “I haven’t seen this kind of thing probably since the proceedings on the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. I read such documents which were extracted from the archive of the Central Committee. Those documents were written by the KGB,” said Fedotov.

In tense post-March 29 Russia, media ethics have come under fire from Russia’s leadership. Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, argued that the Vedomosti business daily was playing into the hands of the terrorists through its coverage of the double suicide bombings on the Moscow metro, and even implied a link between the paper and the terrorists.

Gryzlov reasoned that the Vedomosti business daily’s coverage “gives rise to the suspicion that these publications and the actions of the terrorists are connected,” RIA Novosti reported. The broadsheet then filed a defamation suit against him. Yesterday in an “unprecedented” victory for the press over the state, Vedomosti won its case against Gryzlov, forcing the parliamentary speaker to make a public apology.

“I am so happy that they’ve won this trial because usually the media cannot win trials against high-up civil servants and officials,” said Fedotov. “This is unprecedented. But I worry that Gryzlov will get out of it.”

Elsewhere, Fedotov said there had been tentatively positive signs for media freedom, including positive rhetoric from President Dmitry Medvedev on press freedom, and the continuing development of “technological bases for informational exchange.” The Internet, often touted as the last bastion for independent media in Russia after state moves to swallow up independent outposts in television, print, and radio, is growing as an informational resource. “The number of Internet users is increasing constantly and fairly rapidly, which is good,” said Fedotov, adding that this has “nothing to do with the state, but rather with advances in economy and technology.”

Freedom House’s 2010 report notes that there have been state incursions into Internet, however. “Russian authorities are also moving to restrict Internet freedom through manipulation of online content and legal actions against bloggers.” The blogosphere, which modernizing Medvedev in particular makes use of, has been inundated with pro-Kremlin propaganda for some years.

Aside from such hands-on measures by the authorities, one of the main problems with Russia’s media environment is an atmosphere of fear that hinders the work of journalists, said Mikhail Melnikov, an analyst for the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. The bill being discussed in the Duma only contributes to the general atmosphere of fear and journalists’ consequent self-censorship, he said.

Crimes against Russian journalists also often go unpunished. The Freedom House report notes that “continuing impunity for past cases of murder and other crimes against journalists is encouraging new attacks, significantly hampering media freedom.”

Melnikov said that at least five journalists were murdered in connection with their work last year. There was Shafik Amrakhov, the editor of a news agency in Murmansk; Anastasia Baburova the rights activist and journalist, in central Moscow; Vyacheslav Yarashchenko, chief editor of the Corruption and Crime newspaper; Natalia Estemirova, a human rights activist and journalist in Chechnya; and Abdul Malik, the editor of local paper in Dagestan. Melnikov said there were other suspicious cases that suggested a similar connection, but which had not been officially recognized as murders, including the “fantastical” circumstances surrounding the death last year of Olga Kotovskova, a journalist in Kaliningrad who officially committed suicide by jumping off the eighth floor of an apartment block.
With the exception of Baburova’s case, which itself is still not yet closed, none of the murderers have been brought to justice.

Yesterday a peppering of events characteristic of Russia’s adverse media environment came to light. The Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists called for an investigation after Arkady Lander, the 62-year old editor of a local Sochi newspaper, was assaulted with metal bars on his way home and his skull broken. Meanwhile in the Tyumen region in Western Siberia, the state opened a case against Vladimir Yefimov, the editor of a local newspaper, for “inciting hatred” toward Russia’s embattled Interior Ministry. Yefimov will face five years in jail if he is convicted.

Signals from the authorities about what can be written, such as latest draft bill, along with the murders and harassments of journalists that go unpunished – these all contribute to an “atmosphere of fear,” which ultimately means that all it takes to intimidate a journalist is a phone call, said Melnikov.

“If a journalist doesn’t feel protected, then he may just stop writing on a theme. And this happens all the time because most people aren’t prepared to go all the way like Anna Politkovskaya, who wasn’t perturbed by threats,” said Melnikov.
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