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"A civil society is being destroyed"

Naomi Conrad / reOctober 8, 2013

NGOs have decried the human rights situation in Russia ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Even press freedom is no longer guaranteed, as laws have been tightened during Vladimir Putin's third term as president.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin torches the Olympic cauldron in Red Square thus giving a start to the Olympic Torch Relay. (Photo ITAR-TASS / Alexei Nikolsky)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The world will see a "fascinating show" in Sochi, thinks Russian journalist Sergei Solovkin. But behind the scenes "a tragedy" has already happened.

In February, the Winter Olympic Games will take place in the Russian city on the shores of the Black Sea. But more four months ahead of the event, activists have already warned of environmental damages and the exploitation of migrant workers who have built the stadiums and the athletes'' housing. Solovkin, however, said his colleagues have remained silent out of fear of repression, and he himself fled Sochi, his hometown, in 2002 after an attempted assassination.

Ulrike Gruska, of Reporters Without Borders, has also cautioned against being blinded by the colorful pictures set to come out of Russia in February. The Russian government controls the country's three main TV channels, and aside from a few courageous exceptions, there is no free and independent reporting on Russian television.

Supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin are in control and impose self-censorship. Nearly all programs are previously recorded to be able to cut out critical material before broadcasting. Journalists have learned to remain silent, with overly critical reporters being laid off long ago, said Grunska. On Monday (07.10.2013), the seventh anniversary of the killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Grunska released a report entitled "The Kremlin on every channel: How the Russian state controls television" (link in German).

'People are getting scared'

Sergei Solovkin, Copyright: DW/Nikita Jolkver
Solovkin hopes the foreign media will not be blinded by the spectacle of the OlympicsImage: DW/N. Jolkver

The attacks on press freedom have come at the same time as a number of other "sinister laws" also adopted in Putin's third term, according to Svetlana Gannushkina of the Russian human rights organization Memorial.

Among them are laws tightening control on the right of assembly, Internet censorship, the anti-gay propaganda law and the foreign agent law, which forces non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Memorial to register themselves as foreign agents if they receive money from abroad. "Under Putin, we see how a civil society is being destroyed," said Gannushkina.

The foreign agent law serves "exclusively to discredit and to scare people," said Peter Franck, a Russia expert with the human rights organization Amnesty International. The law is vaguely designed and its implementation is arbitrary.

"It can happen to anyone, even an organization of crane conservationists," said Franck. Since its implementation at the beginning of the year, NGOs have done little more than defend themselves. Memorial hasn't been exempt: Gannushkina said the organization is waiting for its next court hearing and will fight using all means necessary in order to avoid being registered as "foreign agents."

"We are not willing to put on a yellow star," she said. "We all know what happens when you wear a yellow star."

'Lies and propaganda'

Gannushkina, however, does not want to see a boycott of the Winter Games. But she says politicians should think twice about visiting the Games "because they would legitimize what happens in Russia": the human rights violations, the oppressive laws und the decline of freedom of speech.

Svetlana Gannushkina Foto: Ulf Mauder dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Gannushkina says many 'sinister laws' have been passed in Putin's third termImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Solovkin has described it as "Russia's emergency," and he hopes that foreign media will not be blinded by the spectacle and the "lies and propaganda" coming from the Kremlin and that the media will take a closer look at these issues. His friends in Sochi, of course, must remain silent.