13 February the regular annual report was presented by Reporters Without Borders saying about press freedom situation in the world in the year 2007.
The report says “The authoritarian regimes in the former USSR countries make every effort to crush press freedom. Elections in Russia and Uzbekistan in 2007 confirmed governments in power and gave no short or medium-term hope of more press freedom. Editorial independence exists but only for media outlets with little public impact. Building civil society to loosen the monolithic grip of the authorities is a hard job.”
However, the indexes of press freedom, also presented by the organization, differ significantly. According to it, out of 169 states Russia is in the 144th place, Georgia 66th, Armenia 77th, Moldova 81st, Ukraine 92nd, Kirgizia 110th Kazakhstan 125th, Azerbaijan 139th. Lower than Russia in the rating are Belarus (151), Uzbekistan (160) and Turkmenistan (167).
Elsa Vidal, the head of the European department of the Reporters Without Borders (also former USSR states are included in the department), agreed to answer some questions by Novaya Gazeta about RWB activities.
Q: The reports by many international organizations are either criticized or ignored by Russian officials. Whom does your organization intend its reports for? What is the purpose of the reports? Do you expect any reaction from governments? Or do you address your reports to the citizens from different countries? If yes, what kind of reaction do you expect from them?
A: Every year we issue an annual report about freedom of press in the world and also we publish the index of freedom of press. Those documents are intended for attention of mass media employees, representatives of the authorities, international organizations, civil rights advocates, and ordinary people. Our goal is attracting interest, informing and convincing that freedom of speech plays important role in all societies. Generally, governments respond and pass to us their notes. It’s seldom that governments do not respond. However, Russian official representatives have never contacted us. As for common citizens, we just expect them to get interested in the issue of freedom of press in Russia and to discuss it.
Q: Some Russian officials – for example Alexander Brod, Director of Moscow Bureau for Human Rights – have presented in the Russian press their criticism about objectivity of the report. What’s your method of working, how do you assess the situation about media in this or that country? How many people do you interrogate in each country to get your data? And who are those people?
A: We noticed that index of freedom of press often causes misunderstanding. As for our methods, I’d like to stress the main thing. The index is made on the basis of answers to questions. The questionnaire consists of 50 points related to various aspects of press freedom. For example, the first part deals with attacks, arrests and threats made to journalists. The second part is about indirect threatenig and access to information. The third part is dedicated to the legislation about media, also unlawful persecution and so forth. The contents of the questionnaire are equal and it is not adapted to any particular country. This way we are enabled to compare the situation in different countries. We send the questionnaire to academicians, media experts, journalists, civil rights advocates, members of journalist unions. It’s usually 5-10 people.
Q: What is the difference of your method from that by Freedom House that also assesses the situation about press freedom in different countries?
A: We do not consider it possible to describe the methods by other organization. I’d like to specify that Reporters Without Border is an international organization specializing exactly on the issues of violation of freedom of press and freedom of speech. We have been considering only these issues since 1985.
Q: Many of those who do not admit that freedom of press is in jeopardy in Russia plead to the fact there are still a few newspapers, radio stations and one TV station that are very critical about the actions by Russian government and authorities on the whole. Don’t you think it’s enough to make Russia’s rating a bit “higher”?
A: In our opinion, the place taken by Russia in the rating just corresponds to the real situation about freedom of press in the country. Yes, that’s true that there are still several independent or criticizing the government media. Unfortunately, their number is not sufficient, contrasted to the population of Russia (144 millions). Besides, it’s television that is the source of information for most Russian citizens. And you know that there is lack of pluralism in the audiovisual sector.
Q: It seems it would be interesting for Russians to compare their situations with that of our neighbors: Armenia (77), Moldova (81), and Kirgizia (110), of Tajikistan (115). Why the situation in those countries turns out to be better according to your index where Russia is holding only 144th place?
A: Such a comparison makes sense only if you remember that a place in the rating is telling about conclusions for a particular year. We understand that some people do not want to admit that the neighboring countries have better situation about freedom of speech. To such people we can say that the situation is changing.
Q: What main trends in the issue of freedom of press in Russia make you mostly concerned?
A: We are especially concerned about three trends: lack of pluralism on television, lack of progress in regards of impunity (for the crimes committed against journalists – N.R) and besides during the election campaign to the State Duma it turned out that three state TV stations – Pervy Kanal, Rossiya and TV Tsentr – also private-owned NTV contributed to victory by President’s majority . The research by Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations has proved that TV media dedicated 75% of their news broadcast to the members of the standing authority and excluded opposition members from their programs.
Q: What must happen in Russia so that its rating with Reporters Without Borders get higher?
A: If the rights of journalists are protected better, if the number of attacks and threats against media employees decreases, then the rating by Russia is sure to be higher. But that is not what matters most of all. What really matters is that your citizens must have access to quality information and that your journalists must be able to work freely. Even when their working is unpleasant for the authority.
Annual report for 2008 by Reporters Without Borders about press freedom in Russia (full version is available at www.rsf.org )
The two parties backing President Vladimir Putin – United Russia and Just Russia – unsurprisingly won local elections in March 2007 and parliamentary ones in December. The elections increased the marginalization of the opposition but the government and security forces still did all they could to stop the media reporting on Putin’s opponents.
Protests led by the opposition Other Russia coalition were attacked by the police, who also targeted journalists, in St Petersburg and Nizhniy Novgorod in March, and then in St Petersburg and Moscow a month later. The National Civil Court (which advises the President) condemned this behaviour and urged the interior ministry to “speedily investigate the dangerous trend towards using force against journalists”. Reporters from the daily Kommersant, the twice weekly Novaya Gazeta and Vedomosti, which take a independent editorial line, were also attacked, along with journalists from German public TV stations ARD and ZDF and a Japanese photographer, who were beaten and/or arrested. All of them had official press cards.
Three reporters from Kommersant and the REN-TV station were arrested in May in Samara (900 kms southeast of Moscow) while interviewing an organizer of a protest march against the European Union / Russia summit due to be held in the city The local offices of Novaya Gazeta and the Regnum news agency were searched twice on the excuse that the journalists might have unlicensed software. Two journalists (including the local bureau chief of Novaya Gazeta, Sergei Kurt-Adjiev, father of one of the protest organizers) and two demonstration leaders were then arrested and held for four hours. The Samara and Nizhniy Novgorod editions of Novaya Gazeta have not appeared since. Staff said in November the Samara office was closing because it could not bring the paper out because its computer had been seized. The paper’s editor said that the authorities clearly wanted to “strangle the paper in the run-up to the elections”.
Journalists were arrested in Moscow in the week before the December 2007 parliamentary elections during opposition protests even though they had told police they would be present to do their job. They included a reporter for the independent radio station Moscow Echo. The co-founder of the St Petersburg weekly Novy Petersburg, Nikolai Andrushenko, was given a two-month prison sentence after writing that he would march with the demonstrators and for printing the opposition’s manifesto. The paper stopped coming out because it could no longer find a printer.
A media obliged to support the regime’s election campaign
Security forces also exerted pressure on the editorial line of media outlets. Mikhail Baklanov, head of the country’s biggest independent radio network, RSN, was dismissed in mid-April after 12 years in a serious blow against press freedom. His replacements, Vsevolod Neroznak, news editor of the national TV station Pervy Kanal, and Alexander Shkolnik, Pervy Kanal’s head of children’s programmes, ordered staff to see that “good news” was at least half of all the news broadcast. The opposition was no longer heard on the station.
The BBC’s Russian-language service disappeared from the FM band in Moscow when its last partner, Bolshoi Radio, was forced by the authorities to end its retransmission contract.
The three main public TV station – Pervy Kanal, Rossiya and TV Tsentr – and the two main privately-owned ones – Ren TV* and NTV – heavily favoured the authorities during the parliamentary election campaign. A survey by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES) showed that three-quarters of all their news programmes were about the ruling parties and that the opposition had been excluded (Pervy Kanal even refused to broadcast a Yabloko party campaign clip).
Internment in psychiatric hospitals and beatings
At least two journalists were forcibly sent to psychiatric hospitals in 2007, a frequent practice during Soviet days to discredit those with “undesirable” views and to discourage people from openly opposing the regime. They were opposition activists Larissa Arap (detained for six weeks) and an independent journalist and pro-democracy leader from late Soviet times, Andrei Novikov (held for 11 months). They had criticized local authorities in print and were arrested illegally and ill-treated. An international campaign led to their release.
Documentary filmmaker Natalia Petrova was badly beaten up by police in the republic of Tatarstan (720 kms southeast of Moscow) in September. Her two young daughters and 70-year-old mother were also attacked when they tried to protect her. She was beaten both at home and at a police station and later fled the country. Police have since hounded family members who stayed behind.
Three RenTV journalists and a member of the human rights organization Memorial were kidnapped by security services in the Caucasian republic of Ingushetia in late November. Their clothes and equipment were taken away and they were beaten up and made to undergo simulated execution before being released. Two of them had to be hospitalized.
Little progress in fight to punish killers of journalists
At the end of August 2007, prosecutor-general Yuri Chaika said a dozen suspects had been charged in the October 2006 murder of pro-opposition investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and said people “trying to destabilize Russia from abroad” were involved. A few days earlier, Alexander Bastrykin, a Kremlin aide heading the special enquiry into the killing, said the government had six theories about the crime. But the next few months saw a series of contradictory statements and denials.
Shamil Buraev, a losing candidate in the 2005 presidential elections in Chechnya and an opponent of Akhmad Kadyrov (father of the current Chechen president), was charged in September with involvement in the murder. Prosecutors said they thought she was killed by Chechen gangsters working with security forces and that the mastermind could be abroad. But no trial was announced and weeks of confusion among investigators threw doubt on official determination to proceed. It was feared that only the hitmen would be punished.
The trial of the accused killers of Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, who was shot dead in front of his office in July 2004, was adjourned several times in 2007. The prosecution could not get all the suspects together for the trial, which is to be held in secret.
The official investigation of the very suspicious death of Ivan Safronov, a military expert with the daily Kommersant, who fell from a fourth-floor window of his apartment building on 3 March, said it was suicide. Friends and colleagues maintained he had no reason to kill himself and that he was about to publish an article on the sensitive topic of Russian arms sales to the Middle East.
*Note by Novaya Gazeta editorial board: Probably, Ren TV station was listed by mistake with other TV stations. The Center for Journalism in Extreme situations separates its coverage of the election campaign from the other stations.