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Media freedoms

May 3, 2010

Unsolved murders of critical journalists, reports of reprisals and attacks and a growing tendency to self-censor: the state of the media in Russia has press freedom advocates worried.

Russian newsstand
Russians don't lack for magazines, but most of them are of the entertainment varietyImage: AP

On the press freedom country list compiled by the group "Reporters without Borders," Russia doesn't do so well, ranking number 153. But that placement is not all that surprising to media observers, who for some times now have noted a continual deterioration of the Russian media landscape when it comes to independence and the safety of journalists who report critically.

According to Fritz Pleitgen, a former Moscow correspondent with Germany's ARD public television, the conception of the media as the "Fourth Estate" and a watchdog over the powerful have no tradition whatsoever in Russia.

He made his comments at a symposium held by the Deutsche Welle Media Academy which brought together online journalists, German correspondents in Russia as well as media experts to exchange opinions about the difficulties of reporting freely, and safely, in Russia.

The conclusions of the participants were sobering.

Media Dialog conference, organized by the Deutsche Welle Media Academy
Media Dialog conference, brought journalists and experts togetherImage: DW

They agreed that press limitations had increased in recent years, although they are still light years away from the suppression of freedom of expression in place during the Soviet period.

Today in many parts of the country, as opposed to the era under communism, journalists have relative freedom to report on many issues. But there are restrictions, particularly when it comes to investigative journalism, and above all in crisis regions like Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan.

Life threatening

"Telling the truth there means putting your life on the line," said Pleitgen, pointing to the large number of unsolved murders of Russian journalists over the years, such as Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova, or the human rights campaigner Natalia Estemirova to just name a few. Reporters without Borders counts more than 20 such murders since 2006.

The seriousness of the journalistic situation in Russia depends largely on the type of media. Russian television journalism, in particular, is strongly controlled by the government. The national Channel 1 and RTR, another national broadcaster, are clearly operating under the Kremlin's control.

"Regularly on Fridays, television managers are called to the Kremlin and afterwards, they know exactly what is demanded of them," said Pleitgen. "It works its way down the chain and in the end, everyone engages in self-censorship."

Galina Timchenko, the editor-in-chief of the online news agency lenta.ru, agreed, saying that many young journalists have been trained to self-censor, especially those who went to state-accredited journalism schools.

A critical, but unread, press

The reporting found in the print medium is somewhat freer, although it is plagued by its own problem - dramatically falling circulation rates. The Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper published by the Gorbachev Foundation which regularly runs articles about corruption, organized crime and its connection to high-ranking officials, has a print run of only 270,000.

German correspondent Boris Reitschuster
German correspondent Boris Reitschuster is often harassed by Russian officialsImage: DW

On the radio, the independent station Echo Moscovy is one of the last bastions of press freedom in Russia, since the airwaves have also suffered under presidents Putin and Medvedev.

But, the government has made it more difficult to hear outside voices. Radio content produced abroad, such as the Russian-language programs at Deutsche Welle, can only be broadcast in Russia after obtaining a special license, which makes it all the more difficult for partner stations to accept outside content.


Foreign correspondents working in Russia tell stories time and time again about government harassment. The Moscow correspondent of the German news magazine Focus, Boris Reitschuster, related how he was under near constant surveillance and how his apartment was bugged. Prime Minister Putin himself once submitted a personal complaint to his publisher.

There were also less subtle ways of intimidation, Reitschuster said.

"Once a very high-ranking official said to me in a private conversation: 'you deserve to be shot,'" he said.

His story is not unique. Arrests and other forms of harassment are, for critical journalists in Russia, a part of everyday life.

Online disappointment

Those who once believed that the Internet would unleash a long-yearned-for period of press freedom in Russia have been disappointed.

Russian editor Galina Timchenko
Russian editor Galina Timchenko worries about apathy of Russian youth regarding political issuesImage: DW

Timchenko, who founded her online news agency in 1999 after the terror attacks on Moscow apartment buildings, points out the lack of a good technical infrastructure in the country. While Internet user rates are climbing, having Internet access outside of the Moscow region is more the exception than the rule, she said.

In addition, those most active on the Web these days are the so-called "Putin kids," who are much less interested in political reporting than they are in lifestyle topics, pornography and celebrity gossip.

"I look at consumer behavior and I see a threat to freedom of expression," she said. "We are dealing with the results of 10 years of public brainwashing. The children of the Putin era are not at all interested in civil rights."

That view coincides with research carried out by Anika Sehl of the Technical University of Dortmund. According to her, Russia has become the sixth-largest advertising market in Europe, which has encouraged many foreign publishers to create Russian versions of their magazines.

However, Russian newsstands today are dominated by entertainment and gossip publications, which far outweigh those dedicated to serious political reporting.

The financing of independent reporting is also becoming more and more difficult, not least because while in Germany some 50 percent of people read a daily newspaper, in Russia, that number is only 7 percent.

Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz (jam)
Editor: Rob Mudge