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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 May 2007, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
Kremlin accused on media freedoms
By Steven Eke
BBC Russia analyst

Putin reacts to a speech at the World Association of Newspapers Congress 2006
Any form of satire aimed at the president is forbidden
Journalists will mark World Press Freedom Day on 3 May amid growing concern about what campaigners say is a continuing global decline in media freedoms.

Russia is again singled out, as a country whose government is allegedly taking aggressive measures to curb media freedom.

In its recently published annual study, the US-based Freedom House suggests that Vladimir Putin's policies have been a "template" for repressive governments the world over.

It asserts that Russia's once "lively and probing" press, has been turned into "a toothless sounding board" for official opinion.

The Russian government counters such accusations by pointing to the thousands of non-state publications.

Generally, Russian officials react extremely badly to suggestions that their country ranks alongside Burma, Cuba and North Korea, for media freedom. They insist that there is a genuine pluralism of opinion - in the printed media, at least.

However, television remains the predominant source of information for the majority of Russians. And it does not allow opposition voices to be heard.

Many Russia-watchers have followed the change of tone and content of state television over recent years.

Shift to 'positive' news

Increasingly, hard-hitting investigative journalism has been replaced by Soviet-style "razoblacheniya" - or exposes. They often look crude and carry unsubstantiated allegations.

PRESS FREEDOM 2007
Best: Finland, Iceland Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden.
Worst: Burma, Cuba, Libya, Turkmenistan, North Korea (Russia 164/195)
(Source: Freedom House)

Read the findings

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In addition, any form of satire aimed at the president or his closest associates seems to be totally forbidden.

Equally, there is an obvious shift in favour of "positive" news, presenting an optimistic picture of Russian life, especially when compared to events in the neighbouring countries, which are often portrayed as unstable.

The governments of some of those countries - especially Ukraine, Georgia, and, most recently, Estonia - complain that Russian state television sometimes broadcasts allegations that are simply untrue, and which exacerbate xenophobic sentiments.

Two weeks ago, Russian police and the FSB (internal security service) raided the offices of Educated Media Foundation (EMF), the main partner of the California-based InterNews Network.

Investigators have brought criminal charges against the organisation's director, Manana Aslamazyan, who had failed to declare 9,500 euros on a customs form.

Lawyers say she acknowledges her error, but insist that it should in no way serve as a justification for the raid on, and subsequent closure of, EMF.

Foreign cash

In an unprecedented response, nearly 2,000 Russian journalists, including many household names, have signed an open letter deploring the authorities' action as "another step infringing on the civil rights enshrined in the Russian Constitution".

Anna Politkovskaya
Anna Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of the Kremlin, was murdered

The letter called on President Putin to intervene personally, to prevent the "destruction" of an organisation it described as producing "the pride of Russian television".

There seems to be little realistic chance of that happening. In his recent - and probably final - address to parliament, the Russian leader warned of "ever-increasing flows of cash from abroad", allegedly being used to finance opposition groups.

Media freedom groups warn that the Russian government may soon take measures to regulate the internet. Access is growing very quickly in Russia, there are thousands of ISPs, and content is not, so far, controlled by the government.

... In the current atmosphere, critical journalists are increasingly likely to be targeted for physical retribution

Last month, President Putin signed a decree establishing a new body to supervise the mass media and internet content. Officials insist it will be in charge of licensing, rather than regulating, what's available.

But Russia's parliament - which critics say rubber-stamps President Putin's proposals - is considering ways of clamping down on "extremism" on the internet.

And in Russia, the concept of "extremism" has been widened significantly, beyond the initial intention of tackling violent racists and neo-Nazis. Increasingly, the mainstream opposition finds itself branded "extremist".

Contract-style murders

Some of Russia's leading online journalists say the government will not succeed in controlling the internet, if that is its intention. They point to the failure of similar measures abroad, especially in China and Turkey.

To be fair, there are newspapers in Russia - Novaya Gazeta, and Kommersant, among others - that carry considered, informed, balanced writing. Their readerships are not large - perhaps in the tens of thousands.

But they do put Russia in a different league than North Korea or Turkmenistan.

This said, Russian liberals warn that, in the current atmosphere, critical journalists are increasingly likely to be targeted for physical retribution.

Russia is acknowledged to be a dangerous place to be a journalist, with very few of the contract-style murders of journalists in recent years resulting in a conviction.



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