Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Media freedom continued to decline in 2008, with the Kremlin relying on Soviet-style media management to facilitate a sensitive political transition and deflect responsibility for widespread corruption and political violence. Although the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, the Kremlin used the country’s politicized and corrupt court system—including dozens of criminal cases and hundreds of civil cases—to harass and prosecute the few remaining independent journalists who dared to criticize widespread abuses committed by authorities. In June, two journalists from the central Russian region of Bashkortostan—editor Viktor Shmakov and freelancer Airat Dilmukhametov—who had accused local authorities of corruption were convicted under a vague anti-extremism law, given two-year suspended prison sentences, and banned from working as journalists for one year. Their independent newspaper, Provintsialnye Vesti, was closed. Also that month, the Moscow-based English-language biweekly eXile shut down after a state media regulatory agency looking into allegations of extremism—reportedly because of a regular column written by opposition politician Eduard Limonov—scared away the newspaper’s local investors. Toward the end of the year, the Kremlin attempted to suppress news reporting of the country’s economic crisis. In November, prosecutors warned the media against producing “damaging” news reports, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly told journalists not to report anything “unpatriotic,” and outlets were instructed not to use the word “crisis” in their coverage. In December, the parliament passed a law preventing jury trials in terrorism, extremism, and treason-related cases, knowing that judges were more reliable in convicting criminal defendants, while Putin’s government proposed expanding the treason law to make communication with international nongovernmental organizations punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The measure was awaiting President Dmitri Medvedev’s signature at year’s end. Authorities have used extremism charges against a number of government critics, including journalists.
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, and police torture. They were subject to a variety of abuses that encouraged widespread self-censorship. In January, police in the southern region of Ingushetia briefly detained and physically assaulted nine journalists and two human rights activists trying to report on the violent suppression of 200 protesters. In November, Mikhail Beketov, the editor of Khimkinskaya Pravda, an independent newspaper outside Moscow, was brutally beaten and left unconscious with multiple bone fractures after strongly criticizing local authorities for plans to build a freeway through a local forest. In December, police in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok assaulted and destroyed the equipment of television crews from Primorskoye TV, TV Center, and the Japanese broadcaster NHK, as well as journalists from the Moskovskiy Komsomolets daily and the ITAR-TASS news agency, during a protest against increases in car import tariffs. In addition, several international journalists were denied entry into the country during the year. Authorities worked aggressively to restrict coverage of human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, and in April police in Chechnya arrested and expelled Jane Armstrong, a foreign correspondent for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, from the region despite the fact that she had obtained special accreditation required by the Interior Ministry.
Russia remained one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the media due to widespread lawlessness that allows politicians, security agents, and criminals to silence journalists by any means. In 2008, two journalists were murdered in retaliation for their reporting, both in Russia’s politically unstable North Caucasus region. In August, Magomed Yevloyev, director of an opposition website, Ingushetiya.ru, that reported aggressively on local human rights abuses and corruption, was “accidentally” shot in the head while in police custody in Ingushetia. In September, Tamerlan Alishayev, a reporter and host of an Islamic education program on the television station Chirkei who had criticized conservative religious leaders, was shot and killed by two unidentified assailants in the southern region of Dagestan. At least 16 journalists have been murdered in work-related slayings since 2000, and authorities have encouraged an atmosphere of impunity by rarely investigating those cases; all but one remain unsolved. The trial of two suspects in the 2004 murder of Forbes Russia editor Paul Klebnikov was delayed throughout 2008, while the trial of three suspects in the 2006 slaying of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya started at the end of 2008 without the alleged triggerman or any information about who may have ordered the murder. Some journalists were forced into exile as a result of aggressive harassment by the Federal Security Service (FSB) and other government agencies. Roza Malsagova, editor in chief of Ingushetiya.ru, was forced to flee the country and seek asylum in France after enduring an intense campaign of threats, legal harassment, and violence, including the August murder of Yevloyev, the site’s owner.
Authorities continued to exert significant influence on media outlets and news content through a vast state media empire. The government owns two of the 14 national newspapers, more than 60 percent of the more than 45,000 registered local newspapers and periodicals, and, in whole or in part, all six national television stations and two national radio stations. This allowed the government to ensure that the press was filled with pro-Kremlin propaganda, particularly ahead of the flawed March presidential election and during Russia’s military invasion of neighboring Georgia in August. International radio and television broadcasting remains generally restricted; most private FM radio stations have been pressured to stop rebroadcasting news programs by the British Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Voice of America, relegating those services to less accessible 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. Government-controlled television was the primary source of news for most Russians, while lively but cautious political debate was increasingly limited to glossy weekly magazines and news websites that were available only to urban, educated, and affluent audiences.
Internet freedom has corroded in recent years. With online media developing rapidly and an estimated 27 percent of the population now online, the authorities have increasingly engaged in intentional content removal. The FSB continued widespread monitoring of e-mail and web posts, while government officials harassed some news websites and bloggers. In July, a court in the northern region of Komi convicted the blogger Savva Terentyev of extremism and gave him a one-year suspended prison sentence for criticizing corruption in the local police on the popular blogging site LiveJournal. Kremlin allies have purchased several independent online newspapers or created their own progovernment news websites, and are reportedly cultivating a network of bloggers who are paid to produce pro-Kremlin propaganda.