Freedom of the Press
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Media freedom continued to decline in 2007 as the Kremlin further restricted independent news reporting and public dissent while preparing for a stage-managed parliamentary election that was held in December. President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian style of rule appeared set to continue at the end of his second term. A week after the flawed December parliamentary election, Putin endorsed First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his successor for an orchestrated presidential election to be held in 2008; Medvedev reciprocated, naming Putin as his future prime minister.
Although the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the Kremlin used the country’s politicized and corrupt criminal justice system to harass and prosecute independent journalists. Throughout the year, journalists faced dozens of criminal cases and hundreds of civil cases, particularly in retaliation for reporting on the Other Russia opposition group. Police officers in Samara and Nizhny Novgorod raided the regional bureaus of the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta and confiscated their computers, while prosecutors opened politicized criminal cases relating to alleged software piracy. In July, the rubber-stamp parliament approved a series of amendments to the criminal code expanding the country’s vague antiextremism laws, which are used to suppress critics of the Kremlin and encourage self-censorship. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy subsequently received over a dozen official warnings from prosecutors, media regulators, and the Federal Security Service for broadcasting allegedly “extremist” statements. In May, immigration officials at a Moscow airport denied entry to Natalya Morar, a Moldovan journalist working for the Moscow weekly magazine Novoye Vremya, after she published articles about high-level government officials involved in money laundering and illegal campaign funding.
Russia remained one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the media. In 2007, two journalists’ deaths were deemed suicides by authorities: Ivan Safronov, a correspondent with the business daily Kommersant, who “fell” out of the window of his Moscow apartment building in March just as he was planning to report on politically sensitive Russian weapons sales to Iran and Syria; and Vyacheslav Ifanov, a television cameraman for the independent station Novoye Televideniye Aleiska in Siberia, who was said to have died from a carbon monoxide overdose in April despite having wounds on his body and having previously received death threats from military officials. Although later investigations by local watchdog groups indicated that Ifanov probably did commit suicide, Safronov’s death remains unsolved. The trial of two suspects in the July 2004 murder of Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov was delayed throughout 2007 because one of the suspects went into hiding. Over a dozen other murders remained uninvestigated, but in a rare example of accountability, five gang members in the city of Kazan were convicted of the 2000 murder of Novaya Gazeta journalist Igor Domnikov. Also encouraging was the August arrest of 10 suspects in the high-profile murder of Domnikov’s colleague at Novaya Gazeta, Anna Politkovskaya.
Journalists remained unable to cover the news freely, particularly with regard to contentious topics—like human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, government corruption, organized crime, the December election, and police torture—and were subject to a variety of abuses. In March, police in Nizhny Novgorod detained nine local journalists and foreign correspondents—and physically assaulted three of them—trying to cover an opposition rally. According to the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, during a crackdown on opposition demonstrations in April in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Samara, over 70 journalists were detained or beaten. In May, police detained three foreign correspondents in a Moscow airport to prevent them from flying to Samara to cover another opposition rally. And on the eve of the parliamentary election, authorities in the northern city of Arkhangelsk seized the entire print run of a local newspaper containing articles critical of the central government and local authorities. Journalists who criticized federal and regional authorities also faced a risk of imprisonment, with three remaining behind bars at the end of 2007: Boris Stomakhin, editor of the monthly Moscow newspaper Radikalnaya Politika; Anatoly Sardayev, editor of the weekly Saransk newspaper Mordoviya Segodnya; and Nikolai Andrushchenko, editor of the Saint Petersburg weekly Novy Peterburg. Authorities also revived the Soviet-era tradition of temporary psychiatric detentions in order to silence a regional journalist and an activist who criticized local authorities—Vladimir Chugunov from the town of Solnechnogorsk and Larisa Arap from the city of Murmansk. Some journalists were forced to flee the country as a result of aggressive harassment by the Federal Security Service and other government agencies. Two journalists who worked for the Associated Press and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in the North Caucasus—Fatima Tlisova and Yuri Bagrov—received political asylum in the United States, while a third journalist—Yelena Tregubova, a reporter for the Moscow business daily Kommersant—fled to the United Kingdom after publicly criticizing the Kremlin’s media restrictions.
Authorities continued to exert significant influence on media outlets and news content through a vast state media empire—the leading television networks Channel One, Rossiya, and NTV; the news agencies ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti; the national radio stations Radio Mayak and Radio Rossiya; the international English-language broadcaster Russia Today; and hundreds of regional newspapers, radio stations, and television channels—that filled the airwaves with pro-Kremlin propaganda, particularly ahead of the flawed December parliamentary elections. International radio and television channels are generally restricted, and in August, the government terminated the British Broadcasting Corporation’s FM Russian-language program on Bolshoye Radio, though the program is still available on short- and medium-wave frequencies. Diversity continued to decline as private companies loyal to the Kremlin and regional authorities purchased influential private newspapers and most media outlets remained dependent on state subsidies as well as government printing, distribution, and transmission facilities. Lively but cautious political debate was increasingly limited to glossy weekly magazines and news websites available only to urban, educated, and affluent audiences. However, television was the primary source of news for most Russians. With online media developing rapidly and an estimated 20 percent of the population now online, there were no reports that the government overtly restricted internet access. However, the Federal Security Service did continue widespread monitoring of e-mails and web posting, while government officials harassed some news websites and federal authorities debated introducing new legal restrictions on the internet. In June, a wide range of opposition websites reported being hacked or receiving “denial of service” attacks, though it was difficult to prove the source. Additionally, Kremlin allies have purchased several independent online newspapers or have created their own progovernment online news websites, as well as reportedly cultivating a network of bloggers who are paid to produce pro-Kremlin propaganda.