Freedom of the Press
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Media freedom in Russia continued to be curtailed in 2006 as President Vladimir Putin’s government passed legislation restricting news reporting and journalists were subjected to physical violence and intimidation. Although the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, authorities are able to use the legislative and judicial systems to harass and prosecute independent journalists. In January, Putin signed into law new regulations that required stricter registration and reporting for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), thus asserting greater government control over civil society and potentially hindering journalists from obtaining news from NGOs. Despite public objections, Russia’s Parliament also passed amendments to the Law on Fighting Extremist Activity, which Putin signed in July. The measure expanded the definition of extremism to include media criticism of public officials and authorized up to three years’ imprisonment for journalists as well as the suspension or closure of their publications if they were convicted.
Throughout 2006, journalists continued to face criminal libel charges for printing and broadcasting statements that were unfavorable to public officials. Criminal courts also sentenced several journalists on charges of “inciting racial hatred” for publicizing controversial events in Chechnya. Stanislav Dmitriyevsky, head of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, was convicted of such an offense in February after publishing statements by leading Chechen separatists. He received a suspended prison sentence and probation, but his conviction allowed the government to shutter his organization in October under a provision of the new NGO law. However, the office remained open, with appeals pending, at year’s end. Separately, Boris Stomakhin of the monthly Radikalnaya Politika, who has written various critical articles on Russia’s actions in Chechnya, was sentenced in November to five years in prison.
The international community expressed its shock at the October murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was renowned for her independent reporting of abuses committed in Chechnya. Other journalists who were killed in 2006—likely for reasons tied to their work—included Ilya Zimin, a correspondent for the national television station NTV; Vagif Kochetkov, a correspondent for the Moscow daily Trud and columnist for the Tula paper Tulskii Molodoi Kommunar; Yevgeny Gerasimenko, a correspondent for the Saratov independent weekly Saratovksy Rasklad; and Anatoly Voronin, deputy director of the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS. The freelance journalist Elina Ersenoyeva and her mother, Margarita, were both abducted in Chechnya amid rumors that Elina had been married to the infamous Chechen separatist fighter Shamil Basayev. She had recently reported on prison conditions in the republic. In the case of the 2004 murder of Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov, two ethnic Chechen suspects, Kazbek Dukuzov and Musa Vakhayev, were acquitted in May after a trial that was closed to the public to protect classified evidence. However, the Klebnikov family appealed and Russia’s Supreme Court overturned the acquittal in November, ordering a retrial. Journalists remained unable to cover the news freely, particularly with regard to contentious topics like Chechnya or the environment, and were subject to physical attacks, arrests, detentions, random searches, threats, and self-censorship. While Russia assumed the presidency of the Group of 8 in 2006 and hosted the international club’s summit in St. Petersburg in July, the authorities used police violence and detentions to bar foreign journalists from covering civic protests that took place.
Authorities continued to exert influence on media outlets and determine news content. The state owns or controls significant stakes in the country’s three main national television networks: Channel One, Rossiya, and NTV. Some diversity of perspective exists with national-level print media, which are privately owned. Ownership of regional print media is less diverse and often concentrated in the hands of local authorities. Private owners of media outlets are generally billionaire business magnates or large companies like the state-controlled energy conglomerate Gazprom, which holds majority stakes in the newspaper Izvestia and radio station Ekho Moskvy. However, the law requires little transparency in media ownership, and media watchdogs expressed concern in 2006 that companies like Gazprom would purchase additional newspapers, such as Komsomolskaya Pravda, and tighten the establishment’s grip on the media ahead of the 2008 presidential election. The government continued to disadvantage private media by allocating subsidies to state-controlled outlets and controlling the means of production and distribution. With online media developing and 16 percent of the population now online, the government also harassed some of Russia’s leading news websites. For example, officials accused Pravda.ru, Bankfax.ru, and Gazeta.ru of spreading extremist ideas and fined the editor of the internet publication Kursiv for publishing an “offensive” article about Putin.