October 16th, 2014

Creative Media Censorship

48791_2Although the Russian Constitution provides for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, Russian media do not consider themselves free, being very much pressured by the state authorities. Journalists are unable to cover the news freely, particularly on contentious topics such as human rights abuses, government corruption, oppositional protests, the situation in Ukraine and other sensitive political issues.
Although the Russian Constitution provides for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, Russian media do not consider themselves free, being very much pressured by the state authorities. Journalists are unable to cover the news freely, particularly on contentious topics such as human rights abuses, government corruption, oppositional protests, the situation in Ukraine and other sensitive political issues.

Russian authorities have the means of manipulating public opinion, primarily through the state ownership of media outlets. In the early 2000s various state agencies took financial or managerial control of 80 percent of the regional and 20 percent of the national press, and since then the percentage grows. Three out of five main TV channels are also controlled by the state and two other channels are owned by the companies close to Kremlin. The large number of state-controlled media allows the Russian authorities to effectively formulate media content, even though censorship is legally prohibited by the Constitution.

48791_2In fact, censorship is flourishing. Censors as such no longer exist, but there are still editors or so-called “research and information” departments whose opinion on a given article must be taken into account. If a media company is dependent on a state source of funding, there are a number of economic levers that can be used to make editors agree on a (spoken or unspoken) list of those subjects which are acceptable to cover and those which are taboo. Editors who publish critical articles or cover unacceptable subjects will suffer for their rashness financially: Their contracts can be withdrawn or not renewed for the following year. So in the interests of financial viability, newsrooms act as branches of the government’s press departments. From a legal point of view this probably does not fit the definition of censorship, but its influence on editorial policies is perhaps even more effective.

When journalists talk about self-censorship it is usually in a different context, most often in connection with threats and violence against them or their families. Sometimes journalists’ ardor is cooled by lawsuits they have lost, brought by influential “victims” of something journalists have written about, and the resulting fury of their editors, who have to pay the costs and compensation. Lost court battles lead to a vicious circle where journalists are afraid to write articles about anything controversial and their editors are afraid to print the articles in case they cause trouble.

State-run television is the main news source for most Russians and generally serves as a Kremlin propaganda tool, while the newspapers and radio stations with the largest audiences largely focus on entertainment. Meaningful political debate is mostly limited to weekly magazines, news websites, some radio programs, and a handful of still-independent newspapers, such as Novaya Gazeta or Vedomosti. Even though these independent outlets are tolerated to some extent, Novaya Gazeta on October 10, 2014 received a formal warning for comparing the government’s isolationist stance with the writings of Adolf Hitler. According to Russia’s media watchdog, a September article by Novaya Gazeta columnist Yulia Latynina violates anti-extremism laws. Sergei Sokolov, the editor of the award-winning newspaper and rumored to be a contender for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, said he worried that the move could come as a part of the coordinated state crackdown. “In principle, it all could have been funny, if not for that strange judicial system that Russia has,” Sokolov said. “Because, if it turns out to be some coordinated campaign, then it will be very difficult for us to defend.” The warning comes a few weeks after legislators approved a Kremlin-backed law that will sharply curtail foreign ownership in the media industry to protect “informational sovereignty.”

Control is now also being extended to the Internet. In May 2014 a new law was signed which now directs popular websites and blogs to register with the government, which will result in more stringent monitoring of online political comment and debate. This new ‘bloggers’ law’ means that any website or blog with more than three thousand visitors per day will be considered a media outlet akin to a newspaper and must be responsible for the accuracy of the information published. This law will inevitably reduce the number of critical and opposition voices on the Internet because bloggers will be more concerned about writing publicly.

Media freedom in Russia has been under threat for more than 10 years already, and the few independent outlets remaining have come under intensified pressure within the past months. With an ever smaller space for independent journalists in Russia, many are looking to leave the country or change professions.

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