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IPI Watch List
IPI Watch List Report
Russia continued to be a dangerous place for journalists. Repression of the independent media continued in the period running up to parliamentary (2 December 2007) and presidential (2 March 2008) elections. Charges of criminal defamation continued to be brought against editors and journalists critical of public officials, with disproportionate penalties proving a disincentive to objective reporting. In addition, journalists who covered opposition parties or reported critically on the current administration were often subjected to threats and physical harassment.
Russia was placed on the IPI Watch List on 23 June 2000.
June 2008 Update
Repression of the independent media continued in the period running up to parliamentary (2 December 2007) and presidential (2 March 2008) elections. Charges of criminal defamation continued to be brought against editors and journalists critical of public officials, with disproportionate penalties proving a disincentive to objective reporting. In addition, journalists who covered opposition parties or reported critically on the current administration were often subjected to threats and physical harassment. Some independent periodicals had their premises raided and equipment confiscated on exaggerated charges related to software piracy. Meanwhile, the state media lavished attention on Vladimir Putin, his presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev, and their "United Russia" political party.
Russia continued to be a dangerous place for journalists, particularly for those reporting in or on the troubled North Caucasus region. Ten journalists were detained by authorities while covering a demonstration in Ingushetiaís capital in January. Eyewitness accounts indicated that one of the journalists, Mustafa Kurskiev, was severely beaten by police officers during the arrests. Kurskiev and a RIA-Novosti colleague, Said-Khussein Tsarnaev, were detained overnight without being given the opportunity to contact a lawyer, and without food or water; Kurskiev was also denied medical assistance despite his sustained injuries. Also in Ingushetia, in late November 2007, three journalists were kidnapped from their hotel and beaten by unknown assailants.
In March, in two unrelated incidents, two journalists were murdered within the space of 24 hours. Both journalists covered the Russian North Caucasus. Gadzhi Abashilov, head of the state radio and television company in Dagestan, was killed in his car by an unidentified gunman in the Dagestani capital. Only hours before, Ilyas Shurpayev, a Dagestan-born journalist and North Caucasus correspondent for Russiaís state television Channel One, was found dead in his Moscow apartment. He had been strangled and stabbed to death, with the perpetrators setting fire to his apartment in an apparent attempt to cover their tracks.
The results of Marchís presidential election were of little surprise, with Putinís selected successor, Dmitry Medvedev, winning with a landslide 70% of the vote (compared to his nearest rival, communist party candidate Gennady Zyuganov, who won just over 18% of votes). In May, IPI called on the newly inaugurated president to take steps to improve Russiaís media environment. Medvedev had previously promised to ensure personal freedoms and an independent and free press while on the campaign trail. A June letter released by the Kremlin, in which Medvedev called on the Russian parliament to scrap a bill that would give authorities increased powers to close down media institutions deemed defamatory, was at least a positive first sign.
In the ongoing investigation into the 2006 murder of prominent journalist Ana Politkovskaya, an international warrant was issued for the arrest of Rustam Makhmudov, a 34-year-old ethnic Chechen. Makhmudov was charged in absentia with Politkovskayaís murder. Authorities have released no details of their investigation, but colleagues of Politkovskaya at the Novaya Gazeta, who are conducting an unofficial investigation of their own, believe that the mastermind behind the murder is to be found in Russia, and not overseas.
November 2007 Update
With the prospect of State Duma and presidential elections on the horizon, pressure on the media has increased over the last six months. The range of methods employed by State officials and pro-government businesses to inhibit the media remains wide, from the selective use of bureaucratic regulations down to the aggressive harassment of journalists. Newspapers still contain critical coverage, but several titles have softened their reporting of the government. Even the bolder publications have curtailed their coverage to avoid problems with the authorities.
Hundreds of journalists from around the world gathered in Moscow at the end of May for a congress titled "Making News for Democracy: Building Trust in Quality Journalism," organised† by the IFJ as part of an effort to promote Russian press freedom and fight the impunity enjoyed by the killers of Russian journalists. Few government officials attended, the government denying any problem with press freedom, stating there are more outlets than ever before.
Allegations of growing direct state censorship on the major media outlets are widespread. Moreover, the purchasing of controlling interest in independent news outlets is taking place. Government loyal business tycoons have recently acquired key print-media properties.
On 17 August, the government ended broadcasting of the BBCís Russian-language programming on FM.† BBC Global News director Richard Sambrook said "we are extremely disappointed that listeners to Bolshoye Radio will be unable to listen to our impartial and independent news and information programming in the high quality audibility of FM."
On 12 September the investigation into the death of Ivan Safronov, a respected military correspondent who fell more than four stories from a staircase window in his apartment building in March, was closed with the conclusion that there was an absence of foul play. Safronov had been in the process of reporting on several sensitive issues which were proving embarrassing or had angered powerful people in Russia. The prosecutorís verdict was greeted with scepticism.
Little progress was made in the investigation of the murder of renowned journalist Ana Politkovskaya. A comment by Russiaís Prosecutor General following a meeting with Vladimir Putin and the FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev in August suggested that it had been agreed that the murder must have been a foreign attempt to destabilise the country. At present, a former head of a Chechnyan district is being held on charges of complicity.
In September, the government filed a lawsuit against newspaper Saratovsky Reporter over the publication of some cartoons depicting Putin. The charges are related to the dissemination of extremist materials. In July, journalist Larisa Arap was illegally detained in a mental institution she had written a critical report about. She was drugged and beaten. In June, Editor-in-Chief of an internet magazine Mikhail Afanasyev was beaten unconscious by a police officer. Also in June, investigative reporter Andrei Kalitin, who had been working on a book alleging criminal dealings in Russiaís aluminium business, was shot while leaving his home.
May 2007 Update
Russia was the first country to be placed on the IPI Watch List in 2000, and the situation for the mass media in the country remains difficult. In addition to the attacks on journalists, the media have engaged in self-censorship. The Moscow-based Glasnost Defense Foundation (GDF) recorded over one thousand cases of harassment of journalists and press freedom violations in 2006. Among these violations are not only journalistsí deaths, but also physical attacks, threats, lawsuits, cases of censorship, attacks on newspaper offices, and the confiscation of print runs.
The investigation of Paul Khlebnikovís murder continues. In May 2006, a court in Moscow acquitted two Chechens of the murder of the Forbesí editor-in-chief. The trial of his alleged killers was criticised by many human rights organisations for a lack of transparency. The organisers of the killing have never been found.
On 5 April, Vyacheslav Ifanov, a cameraman for the independent Novoye Televideniye Aleiska (NTA), in the Siberian city of Aleisk, was found dead in his car by his relatives. Police classified this case as suicide, but colleagues and family are not convinced. Reportedly, on 4 April, Ifanov was featured in a television report describing an earlier attack against him and the reluctance of local police to investigate. In the broadcast, Ifanov said he hoped to identify his attackers with the help of the police.
Russian journalist Ivan Safronov, died on 2 March, when he fell from a stairwell window in the building where he lived. Police also classified his death as a suicide, but the Taganka interdistrict prosecutorís office in Moscow later started a criminal investigation into the possibility that he may have been forced to jump.
Many journalists covering the 15 April protests in St. Petersburg were harassed and assaulted. Among them were local journalists, as well as international journalists working for broadcasters such as ARD and ZDF. German television journalist Stephan Stuchlik, working for ARD network, was arrested and forced into a police vehicle, but was later freed. Colleagues said police had beaten him. An ARD sound technician was also attacked.
A photographer working for the epa agency was beaten by a police officer. Furthermore, riot police and special forces used excessive force to break up a peaceful demonstration on 14 April in Moscow, beating numerous demonstrators and detaining hundreds. Journalists were also arrested during "The Other Russia" rallies on 3 March in St. Petersburg and on 24 March in Nizhniy Novgorod. The demonstrations were held at a time of growing political tension, eight months before legislative elections and less than a year before a presidential election.
November 2006 Update
The 2006 G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg, hosted by the Russian Federation, has once again placed the spotlight on Russia. While the agenda was dominated by the Middle East, events surrounding the summit reminded the international community that press freedom in Russia should not be taken for granted. The murder of well-known journalist Anna Politkovskaya once again proved that journalism continues to be a dangerous profession in the country. Aside from problems with central government, local authorities, as well as others, interfere with the work of journalists.
The coverage of Politkovskayaís murder in the Russian media, as well as the governmentís response, have been widely criticised. President Putinís statement, issued four days after the killing, was described as tardy and failed to focus on Politcovskayaís journalism. Some media were also criticised for not devoting their prime time to the event.
Yevgeny Gerasimenko, a journalist working for the Saratovsky Rasklad weekly, was found dead in his apartment in Saratov on 26 July. His computer was missing, although police found no signs of a violent entry. He had reportedly been investigating the corporate takeover of a local commercial enterprise. In May, a Moscow court acquitted two Chechens of the murder of Forbes Russia editor-in-chief Paul Khlebnikov. The trial was criticised by many human rights organisations for a lack of transparency.
Independent media in Moscow and the regions have faced pressure from local authorities or other groups when the absence of a powerful supporter has meant that the media outlet could be bullied. The Permsky Obozrevatel (Permian Observer) independent business weekly newspaper, based in the city of Perm, has suffered repeated harassment. Its offices were stormed in August, when computer equipment and documents were confiscated. Distributors and printing houses have been told not to work with the paper, and in March, local police withdrew part of the print run of a special edition of Permsky Obozrevatel from circulation.
Another area of concern is new legislation that restricts the mediaís right to criticise officials. The Russian Parliament approved a bill in July amending the Law on Fighting Extremist Activity and President Putin signed the bill into law on 28 July. According to the bill, media criticism, such as public slander of state officials, is included in the definition of extremist activity, and is punishable by up to three years' imprisonment for journalists.
Attacks on journalists are numerous. The Moscow-based GDF has documented over 100 cases of harassment of journalists. Acts of intimidation against journalists are frequent in the provinces, where the local authorities control the media. Furthermore, news media, including Websites, have been censored and journalists have been the targets of judicial investigations as a consequence of their articles. Elsewhere, officials have refused to give journalists accreditation, and there were cases of access to information being blocked, arrests, physical attacks, and other forms of harassment.
May 2006 Update
In Russia it remains difficult for journalists to report on sensitive topics and the government has tightened control over news sources.
During January, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a restrictive bill regulating the work of NGOs, including those dedicated to promoting press freedom and supporting independent media. The law gave the Justice Ministryís Federal Registration Service additional power to close NGOs whose activities violate the constitution or run contrary to Russian political independence.
According to a media study conducted by the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ) and the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, the newscasts of Russian national television stations dedicate about 90 per cent of their broadcasting time to activities carried out by the Russian authorities, President Putin and the ruling party.
Most media outlets cover Putinís activities in a favorable or a neutral tone, and give them more airtime, while the activities of opposition parties receive very little coverage.
Supporting this view, the RUJ Chairman, Igor Yakovenko, has said, "There are no journalists left in Russia, they have turned into propagandists." The Russian media is under pressure not only externally, but also internally and TV stories are often edited to present the authorities in a favorable light, while the opposition is shown negatively.
In November 2005, Olga Romanova, the host of REN TVís daily news programme 24, encountered problems after she criticised the channelís management for censoring news programmes. Based on media reports, she claimed that she had been forced to drop two news items for political reasons during a chat show on radio Ekho Moskvy. Before these claims, REN TV was considered to have retained a measure of independence.
A possible explanation is that REN-TV had previously changed owners. Responding to the sale of the broadcaster, Yakovenko, and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, reportedly commented that one of the last independent voices in Russian television had been shut down.
Elsewhere, journalists continue to be attacked, detained, and otherwise harassed by authorities and other groups. With regard to the cartoon controversy, the government has condemned foreign newspapers that had printed them, and Russian media outlets that published the cartoons were given warnings, and some closed.
November 2005 Update
According to a report from the Russian Union of Journalists and the "Public Expertise" Institute, the political situation in Russia has become less democratic, and similar to the less democratic regime of Belarus. Freedom of the media in Russia continues to be limited. Government control of media outlets is widespread, as is self-censorship. Television continues to be one of the most popular media, but all nation-wide channels are either controlled by the government or by groups close to the authorities.
Reporting on topics such as Chechnya is limited, and journalists wishing to pursue independent investigative work often encounter many obstacles. Yury Bagrov, a North Caucasus correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), has had considerable difficulties reporting on the Caucasus. He was unable to travel to Chechnya to cover the elections, because of problems with his accreditation, in 2004, and was unable to cover meetings held for the first anniversary of the Beslan school siege for similar reasons.
Bagrov, an ethnic Russian journalist, who moved from Georgia to Russia in 1992 and has received Russian citizenship, has recently had criminal charges upheld against him for obtaining citizenship illegally. This has also prevented him from travelling for his work.
The channel ABC, which broadcast an interview with radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev in the United States without consulting the Russian authorities, came under strong criticism from the Russian authorities for giving a platform to terrorism. The channel was told that its Russian accreditation would not be renewed.
Polish journalists who tried to travel to Chechnya were stopped in Ingushetia and prevented from further travelling. FSB agents confiscated their footage of Ingushetia, filmed earlier in the trip.
Defamation remains a criminal offence and several journalists received prison sentences for defaming government officials. Many journalists were attacked throughout the country, and two journalists died this year, in cases where their work was a likely cause of their death.
Magomedzagid Varisov, a prominent journalist and political analyst, was shot and killed on 28 June 2005, in Mahachkala, capital of Russia's republic of Dagestan. Varisov has written many critical articles, received several death threats, and was reportedly under surveillance by unknown individuals. On 30 June, the pro-Chechen KavkazCenter website posted a letter from the Wahhabi Islamist group "Sharia" claiming responsibility for the murder. The group said that Varisov was murdered for writing pro-Kremlin propaganda.
Pavel Makeev, a journalist for Puls channel, died in May, just outside the city of Azov. His body was found on 21 May on the side of a road where illegal drag races reportedly take place. The death has not yet been cleared up.
May 2005 Update
The situation for the mass media in Russia continues to be difficult. In addition to the attacks on journalists, the media have engaged in self-censorship, a fact adequately demonstrated by the coverage of the January social-benefits reform protests.
Direct censorship, as well as physical intimidation, is less frequent now than in the early 1990s, but indirect censorship is increasing. Alexey Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation claims that few truly independent media remain, and "while Russians may be legally entitled to say or print controversial statements, these sentiments are ignored by the powers-that-be." In addition, regarding press freedom, commentators are convinced that the Kremlin is unconcerned with the image of Russia around the world. The head of the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ) is in agreement with the conclusions of Freedom House that there is no freedom of expression in Russia.
Many dailies criticised television coverage of the January wave of pensioners' protests across Russia. Massive protests took place all over the country, yet according to reports, no more than one or two protests a day were shown. This gave the false impression that unrest was localised when, in fact, demonstrations opposing the social-benefits reform took place in all but nine of Russia's 89 provinces. Talk-show guests speaking about the reform were from the government. Viewers, therefore, only received the official explanation.
Chechnya remains a sensitive topic. In February, federal authorities in Moscow issued an official warning to the Kommersant daily for publishing a 7 February interview with Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov.
Putin's government has intensified its efforts to block coverage of non-official views. The Foreign Ministry pressured several countries to shut down the pro-rebel news Website Kavkazcenter in 2004, and strongly criticised British authorities in February 2005 for allowing Channel 4 independent television to broadcast an interview with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev.
According to reports, the Federal Security Bureau and the prosecution have launched a series of politicised criminal investigations against journalists covering human rights abuses in the North Caucasus. They appear to be part of a broader campaign by the Kremlin to suppress independent war reporting and create an image of life returning to normal in Chechnya.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has strongly criticised Swedish authorities and media for independent news reporting on the conflict in Chechnya, claiming the information was fomenting violence. The Russian embassy in Stockholm criticised the independent Swedish news agency TT on 23 March for publishing an interview with Basayev on 21 March. It claimed the agency was partly responsible for a Russian diplomat's car being set ablaze the next day. The diplomatic row erupted as Moscow intensifies its effort to prevent European media from publishing or broadcasting independent news about the conflict in Chechnya.
November 2004 Update
Although only three journalists were killed this year, and only one directly targeted, Russia remains an extremely dangerous place for journalists. Throughout the last six months there have been a series of violent attacks on journalists, while the Beslan hostage crisis provided additional proof that the Russian government wishes to control media output in situations where it might be criticised or embarrassed.
The number of violent attacks on journalists in Russia continues. On 9 May, Adlan Khasanov, a Reuters' cameraman, died in the blast that killed Chechen President Akhmed.hadji Kadyrov. Tagib Abdusamadov, director of GTRK Dagestan TV Company, was shot in the chest on 18 June by unknown assailants in Mahachkala. Paul Khlebinov, editor-in-chief of Forbes Russia, was shot and killed outside his offices in Moscow on 9 July. Eight days later, on 17 July, the body of Payl Peloyan, editor-in-chief of the Russian-language Armyanski Pereulok was found beside the Moscow ringroad.
Media bias remains a feature of elections in Russia. The Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ) monitored the lead up to the 2004 presidential elections held on 12 May. The results of the monitoring showed clear evidence of self-censorship and favouritism towards the incumbent president.
Perhaps the most striking evidence of media censorship came during the Beslan siege. After the siege there were claims that some Russian journalists were prevented from travelling to the town. In addition, Raif Shakirov, editor-in-chief of the daily Izvestiya, resigned on 6 September, stating he was forced to do so after being informed that his publisher did not agree with his coverage of the crisis. Two prominent journalists, Andrei Babitsky and Anna Politkovskaya, who have reported on the situation in Chechnya and are known for their critical reports, were forced to delay their travel to Beslan in North Ossetia under suspicious circumstances.
The Russian government is also making it harder to report on Chechnya and it has taken steps to control news stories on the issue. In August, new reporting regulations were introduced for the region forcing journalists to apply to the Interior Ministry as opposed to the office of presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii.
On 30 May, the NTV television station withdrew an interview with the widow of Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Leonid Parfyonov, the director and anchorman of NTV's political programme "Namedni" was also dismissed on 1 June. There were some reports in the Russian media that the security services had ordered the interview to be banned.
Libel cases in Russian courts against the media remain problematic. In October, a court ordered the Kommersant publishing house to pay all the damages that Alfa bank sought in a libel case - 321 million rubles (US$ 11.7 million). IPI member Vikto Loshak also resigned as editor-in-chief of the weekly Ogonek apparently due to pressure from publishers, although the official version was the need to change the weekly's "strategy."
However, the Duma continues to fight on behalf of the media. On 19 May, for example, the State Duma rejected a controversial bill amending the law on mass media, which would have banned the showing of terrorist acts on TV without the permission of law enforcement agencies. Proposals by the State Duma to regulate the Internet have so far not seen support from President Putin.
May 2004 Update
The situation for the media in Russia continues to be difficult. Attacks on journalists are frequent, however, it is not always clear whether they are related to the journalistís work. The media have also engaged in self-censorship as evidenced by the mediaís reporting of the March presidential elections. On the positive side, the use of "black PR" has decreased and there has been a reduction in the number of journalists murdered.
Last year, there was a series of violent attacks that worried press freedom organisations. Yurij Burgrov, editor of the Provintsialínij Telegraf newspaper, was found dead on 30 September. On 9 October, in Togliatti, unidentified men killed Aleksey Sidorov, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Togliattinskoe Obozrenie, and, on 31 September, unidentified assailants assaulted Olga Krupenje, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Naryana Vynder.
In another worrying incident, on 3 November, Mikhail Komarov, deputy editor-in-chief of the Ryazan edition of Novaya gazeta, was brutally beaten outside his home by two attackers.
Elsewhere, on 19 September, investigators from the Moscow Prosecutor Generalís Office searched the office of the Moscow-based independent news Website Grani.ru. The search was carried out on behalf of the Prosecutor Generalís Office in Chechnya that is investigating the 27 December 2002 abduction of two prosecutors working for the pro-Russian administration in the southern republic of Chechnya.
On 29 December 2003, the FSB intercepted a truck outside Moscow carrying 4,400 copies of a book titled, "The FSB Blows Up Russia" intended for the independent Moscow news agency Prima. The FSB confiscated the books claiming they contained anti-state propaganda.
A bomb exploded on 2 February near the apartment of former Kremlin correspondent Yelena Tregubova. In 2003, Tregubova published "Tales of a Kremlin Digger" chronicling her years covering the end of the Yeltsinís and the beginning of Putinís administration.
The Russian authorities also continue to prevent some foreign journalists from entering the country, while others have been questioned by the FSB. Vibeke Sperling, the Russian and Eastern European affairs correspondent for the Danish daily, Politiken, was denied a visa on 6 October 2003. In most cases where a foreign journalist or researcher is denied a visa it is related to their reporting of the Chechen conflict. Sperling had covered the region on a number of occasions.
Rebecca Santana, Moscow correspondent for Cox Newspapers, who travelled to Chechnya without official authorisation from 8 to 11 February was questioned by the FSB as she prepared to return to Moscow on 12 February. After Santanaís return to Moscow she found that her driver and "fixer," Ruslan Soltakhanov, had been abducted in Mozdok, North Ossetia. Soltakhanov has not been heard from since.
The mediaís role in the presidential election also caused controversy. Control of the State media assisted President Vladimir Putin when he dismissed the government of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on 24 February. The Kremlinís grip on the media and the Duma were ensured when the changes were portrayed as the acts of a calm, reasoned leader. Putin easily won the 14 March presidential elections.
According to reports by the OSCE and the Russian Union of Journalists, the Russian media failed to provide fair and objective coverage of the election campaign -- media outlets devoted between 57 to 100 per cent of their campaign coverage to Vladimir Putin, and there was no substantial difference between state-controlled and private media.
While, in the election campaign of 2000, less than one third of the total airtime was allotted to Putin, four years later the share had increased by almost 50 per cent. However, the role of the media as a factor influencing election results was significantly reduced in the 2004 presidential campaign.
The former IPI Board Member and IPI Fellow Alexander Pumpianskiís magazine Novoe Vremya remains in trouble. After the building housing the magazine was occupied in September 2003 by armed individuals claiming to be the new owners, the magazineís staff were banished from their offices. Court proceedings were begun on 12 April.
September 2003 Update
The main threats to press freedom in Russia are government control of the independent media through financial or legal pressure, the undermining of the independent media by the government, persecution of journalists by the security services, attempts by media owners to use journalists for their own interests and the absence of economic conditions enabling the financial independence for the mass media.
While the number of the financially independent press has increased from about twenty to forty per cent, and continues to provide different views, direct criticism of the president or other senior officials has become more restrained and less frequent than in the 1990s.
Since the beginning of 2003 two journalists have been killed, over twenty attacked and many more harassed or subjected to legal and judicial persecution. Journalism remains a dangerous profession in Russia, where 8 journalists were killed in 2002; a figure that represents 80 per cent of all journalists killed in Europe. In 2003, so far, Russia is the fifth most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism and the most dangerous in Europe.
The owner of a Murmansk TV station, Dmitri Shvets, was killed on 18 April. Shvets was co-owner and deputy managing director of the TV-21 station. On 18 July, Alikhan Gulyev, a freelance journalist for the station TV Tsenter and the newspaper Kommersant was killed as he was entering his apartment in northern Moscow.
Aleksandr Stetsun, a journalist with the TV company Ural Television Agency (TAU) was violently attacked on 19 May. Local sources in Ekaterinburg reported that the attack occurred in the morning while Stetsun was standing outside his home. An unknown assailant on 18 March attacked Olga Kobzeva, a journalist with GTRK Don-TR television. Her colleagues at Don-TR believe that Kobzeva was attacked for her work.
According to press reports, German Galkin, the publisher of Rabochaya Gazeta and deputy editor-in-chief of Vecherny Chelyabinsk, was convicted on criminal defamation charges in the city of Chelyabinsk on 15 August and sentenced to one year in a labour camp for allegedly libelling and insulting two deputy governors of the Chelyabinsk region. Other parts of the country saw a police raid on the popular opposition radio station Krasnaya Armiya and the closure of opposition daily Noviye Izvestia.
The Russian Media Ministry issued a decree on 21 June closing down the independent national television channel TVS, the only channel that remained critical of the Kremlin, and replacing it with Sport TV, a state-run sports channel.
The October 2002 hostage crisis in Moscow continues to have ramifications for the media.
Directors of several leading national broadcast media outlets accepted voluntary restrictions on their coverage of terrorism and anti-terrorist government operations and signed "The Anti-Terrorist Convention" on 8 April.
Media executives who signed the agreement agreed to obtain official authorisation before interviewing "terrorists" live on air, forbid journalists from acting as independent mediators during a crisis situation, be mindful of the "tone" of their coverage and comply with a series of other restrictions.
On 18 June, the State Duma approved a series of legal amendments that could severely restrict the ability of the media to report on the forthcoming December 2003 parliamentary elections and the March 2004 presidential elections. The upper house approved these amendments on 25 June.
On a more positive note, Grigory Pasko, the journalist imprisoned in December 2001 for his reports on dumping of nuclear waste by the Russian Pacific fleet was freed on 23 January. Paskoís release follows a decision made by a civilian court in Ussuriysk that overruled previous decisions made by military courts. However, Pasko was denied a travel passport, when he applied for it in March.
November 2002 Update
With eight people murdered already this year, Russia is now the second most dangerous country in the world behind Colombia to practice journalism. The last six months have seen numerous violent attacks on journalists both in Moscow and in the outlying regions, political pressure on journalists for investigating corruption, continued reporting restrictions in Chechnya, and a number of defamation cases against media outlets.
One of the most serious incidents was the October hostage crisis which had wide-ranging ramifications for the media. The incident showed that the government of President Putin continues to be obsessed with impeding the free flow of information and remains intensely secretive.
During the crisis when Echo Moskvy posted an interview with one of the hostage-takers on its Web site, it was notified that it would be shut down. After the rescue, in which approximately 117 people died, the Russian authorities refused to give out details of the gas used in the rescue bid, even though this may have assisted treatment, doctors were also forbidden to talk to the media. At the time of the attack, Moskovia TV was switched off for 15 hours and a newspaper was officially reprimanded for showing a dead body. Journalists and relations of the hostages were also prevented from visiting hospitals and officials refused to provide information on loved ones.
After the crisis was over, the Duma passed a number of new laws on mass media and terrorism. Under the new legislation, the media would be prevented from publicising statements by individuals "hindering anti-terrorism". The law must now go before the second house before being enacted. Moreover, in the war torn break-away republic of Chechnya, journalists find it difficult to report on the war and Russian officials continue to block free movement and accreditation.
Worryingly, there are a number of defamation cases against Russian media. On 30 March, a legal investigation was launched against Igor Zotov, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, owned by businessman Boris Berezovsky, for libelling a Moscow judge. The case was similar to the 2001 harassment of Yevgeny Kiselev, head of the TV6 television station and led to accusations that the government was continuing its purge against the media. In June, there were fears that the Novaya Gazeta would be closed after an attachment order against the newspaperís property. The order was the result of excessive damages in a libel suit against the newspaper.
In May, the Appeals Board of the Supreme Court reinstated a Defence Ministry decree used to convict and jail Russian journalist Grigory Pasko who exposed nuclear waste dumping by the Russian Pacific fleet. On 25 June 2002, the Supreme Court's military division in Moscow upheld the verdict of treason against Pasko. During September, there were reports that the environmental journalist had been moved to a labour camp.
Political pressure on journalists is also rife in the country. On 7 July, legal action was initiated against Olga Cherubina, editor-in-chief of the local government newspaper Nyaryana Vinder, in the far north autonomous region of Nenets, for "abusing her position". Cherubina was sacked a week earlier when one of her reporters asked President Vladimir Putin a question about corruption at a 24 June Kremlin press conference.
An IPI letter in August also highlighted the lack of progress in the cases of several journalists murdered since the start of 2002. The letter stated, "the police investigating the above cases have so far failed to arrest any suspects, even where there has been direct witness testimony. For this reason, IPI fears that the perpetrators of the murders are being allowed to escape with impunity".
June 2001 Update
The Cruel Cudgel of the State
"The state has a cudgel in its hands that it uses to hit just once, but on the head. We have not used this cudgel yet ... but if we get angry, we will not hesitate to use the cudgel. It is inadmissible to blackmail the state."
This statement was the response of Russian President Vladimir Putin when asked in December last year about the relationship between the state and the Oligarchs - Russia's elite clique of wealthy businessmen. It would seem that the cudgel has now been used against those Oligarchs bold enough to criticise the government.
Russia's two most powerful media owners, Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, have fled abroad after criminal charges were brought against them. Both claim the charges are political - a direct response by the Kremlin to their criticism of President Putin.
Earlier this year, Gusinsky, the tycoon who founded Russia's largest independent media holding company, Media-Most, was forced to watch the dismantling of his business empire from Spain where he is hiding from fraud charges launched by Russian public prosecutors. Now, there is not much left to return to, should he decide to defy the threat of arrest and return to Moscow.
In an April board meeting, natural gas company Gazprom effectively gained control over Gusinsky's independent national television channel NTV, replacing the channel's management and appointing several of its own staff to key positions in the company. A few days later, Gazprom, together with an individual shareholder in the Media-Most owned publishing house Sem Dnei, announced that it would no longer finance the daily Sevodnya, a decision that effectively closed down the newspaper. The following day, Sem Dnei said that it had fired the editorial staff of the weekly magazine Itogi.
The mysterious ways of the taxman
According to Gazprom, the main creditor of Media-Most, these steps were taken due to financial mismanagement, lack of profits and Gusinsky's default on loans owed to the gas giant. Considering that the state has a 38 per cent interest in Gazprom and that all these outlets have provided critical coverage of the government, this explanation has been hard to digest for many Russian journalists and civil rights groups. Many see it as merely the latest effort by the Kremlin to silence its critics. One telling example is that Itogi was making a profit when Gazprom sacked its journalists.
A case could be made for the claim that Media-Most has put more energy into its reporting than into proper financial management, however, the company has not been helped by the pressure exerted by the state: in the past year there have been more than two dozen tax raids against Media-Most and Gusinsky himself spent three days in jail before fleeing the country. Moreover, so far, similar action against other businessmen, with equally murky pasts but with less political business interests, remains conspicuous by its absence.
According to a report by the Moscow Times, two investigations carried out by the Audit Chamber showed similar examples of financial misconduct at the two other main televisions channels, both controlled by the state, ORT and RTR; however, these cases were not pursued by tax investigators.
Even though Gusinsky cannot be considered a stalwart of objective journalism - he brazenly used his media outlets to secure the re-election of the then unpopular president Boris Yeltsin in 1996 - his newspapers and TV channels have provided their readers and viewers with critical coverage of the new administration, creating ripples in the otherwise placid pond of obsequious reporting.
The point for many is not whether Gusinsky has used NTV to further his own political causes but rather the fact that, before the takeover, it was the only national-wide alternative voice to state-controlled ORT and RTR. The NTV debacle follows other dubious measures initiated by the new administration, all of which have created the impression that Russia's new rulers have little tolerance of the media; especially when it criticises government policy including Russia's military entanglement in Chechnya.
The conflict in the breakaway republic rages on with little or no possibility for the media to investigate alleged atrocities by the Russian army due to the severe censorship restrictions. Those who have filed critical reports or ventured into the battlefield without their military minders have been arrested and beaten. Chechnya is an extreme example, but it provides an insight into the federal government's strategy of asserting its power over the regions, including the regional press.
The Restrictive Rules of the Regions
A bill introduced last year gives the federal Media Ministry control over government subsidies to regional newspapers, shifting the control over this important instrument - on which many newspapers rely for their survival - from local politicians to central government.
The president has also approved an Information Security Doctrine that argues for greater control over the media and outlines a number of "threats" to the Russian sphere of information without providing a clear definition of these threats, sparking fears that it could be used to introduce arbitrary legislation aimed at the independent and foreign media. To many journalists these steps appear to be part of a deliberate campaign by the government to gain greater control over what is reported. The developments at Media-Most were seen as an attempt to rein in the relatively free Moscow-based media and make them subject to the same harsh reality that has faced the regional outlets ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In the regions, the media have long practised their profession at the whim of local leaders. Copies of newspapers have been confiscated, television stations have been taken off the air and journalists have been threatened. Moreover, the dire economic situation for the Russian regional media has left many dependent on government subsidies; hand-outs often granted on the basis of the amount of favourable news coverage given to the authorities. Physical violence and other forms of harassment are other disadvantages that come with working in the regions.
On the night of 11 January, an unidentified individual fired several bullets through the window of Fyodor Penkin's apartment in the town of Timry, located on the Volga River. Penkin, editor-in-chief of the local newspaper Volzhskoye Vremya, managed to hide behind a bookshelf and escaped unharmed, but he has no doubt that it was an attempt to scare him into silence. Prior to the attack he had filed a series of articles on alleged police involvement in the city's drug trade. Penkin has also had troubles getting his newspapers to his readers; several retail traders have refused to sell Volzhskoye Vremya. No explanation was provided for this decision. Similar patters have emerged in many other parts of the country.
In the Republic of Tatarstan police seized 50,000 copies of independent daily Kazanskoye Vremya without providing an explanation for their action. The issue contained a number of articles critical of the republican administration. The newspaper's editorial board links the incident with the ongoing preparations for presidential elections in the republic. However, violence remains the most effective form of censorship. Last year, according to the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, 54 journalists were attacked in Russia in response to their reporting. Six were killed, making Russia the most dangerous country for journalists in Europe. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of these attacks is that the perpetrators often, if not always, escape with impunity.
Whether it is subtle censorship by means of tax raids and litigation or more callous forms such as murder, journalism has the dubious distinction of being one of the most dangerous professions in Russia. It is also one of the most important professions. A free and independent media provide society with an indispensable check on corruption and mismanagement, be it in business or government. This, unfortunately, works as a further incentive for some elements within Russia to silence those that bring this kind of news to the publicís attention.
However, it does not change the facts: the economy, much reliant on high oil prices, leaves a great deal to be desired. The war in Chechnya seems to be increasingly futile and many of Russia's official institutions continue to harbour corrupt and inefficient officials. It is not surprising that some believe this to be a reality best left unreported, however, this attitude is hardly going to improve matters in Russia.
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