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Russia: Press Freedom Under Threat

Russia's three main television channels are controlled by the Kremlin (ITAR-TASS) MOSCOW, May 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is among the top three nations where press freedom has deteriorated the most over the last five years.

A new report, compiled by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists to mark World Press Freedom Day today, found that almost a dozen journalists in Russia have been murdered since 2002.

The report focuses on the 10 countries where press freedom has most deteriorated. Russia stands in third place, below Ethiopia and Gambia.

Andrei Lipsky, the deputy editor of the "Novaya gazeta" newspaper, says three of his journalists have been killed in the last seven years.

"In the oval room, where we traditionally hold our planning meetings, there hang the portraits of three journalists [who lost their lives]. In principle, the price we pay for freedom of speech is rather high," Lipsky says.

For Lipsky, the report comes as no surprise. Being a journalist in Russia today, he says, is a dangerous job.

"Of course it is very difficult for us to get over all these incidents. We still haven't got over the stress of losing our colleague, Anna Politkovskaya," Lipsky says.

"But the question is one of professional choice. If you want to be involved in honest journalism, you know what you are getting yourself into. And in terms of fear and of pressure, there's simply nothing you can do about it."

Politkovskaya Death

Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who wrote for "Novaya gazeta," was gunned down outside her home in Moscow in October 2006. Her death is widely believed to have been a contract killing -- the result perhaps of her critical reports on the Russian government and the behavior of the Russian security forces in Chechnya.

Politkovskaya is the most high-profile journalist to lose her life in Russia in recent years. But the Committee to Protect Journalists lists 11 journalists murdered in Russia over the last five years. None of the cases have so far been solved.

Mikhail Melnikov, an analyst at the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations in Moscow, says lack of freedom in the Russian press is a result of the strong influence that government bodies and municipal authorities exert.

"This pressure can be both open and concealed. And this pressure directly reflects on the work of journalists and editors, and prevents them from carrying out their jobs properly," Melnikov says.

Clamping Down

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power, the state has tightened its grip on the media. Television -- the primary source of information for most Russians -- is almost entirely under the thumb of the government: the three main television channels are all now state-owned.

Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down last year

In the run-up to election season to parliamentary elections in December and a presidential election in March 2008, radio stations have been asked not to run interviews with members of the opposition.

Melnikov says newspaper journalists regularly face harassment and attacks for delving into links between state organs and organized crime.

"We put out a bulletin every week called 'Journalism -- A Dangerous Profession.' And in practically every edition we have new incidents of direct or indirect pressure on newspapers and on specific journalists.... There are very many, hundreds of incidents every year. Journalists no longer take any notice of threats, of severely critical remarks about their work. They've got used to them," Melnikov says.

But at "Novaya gazeta," Andrei Lipsky says he still has hope for press freedom in Russia:

"The flow of young people who want to be involved in quality, honest journalism has not been stopped," he says.

"And that just shows that they aren't afraid, they know what happens at our newspaper. And even though people say: 'Oh look, here's the new generation, they're so pragmatic, they're so restrained, so cautious,' nevertheless they come here to work, regardless of the low wages."

Two other reports have criticized press freedom in Russia this week. The U.S. based NGO Freedom House puts Russia near the bottom of a list of 195 countries, falling six places from last year to the 165th position. It has the status of "not free."

And on April 30, the U.S. State Department issued a report that identified Russia as one of the worst violators of media freedom, together with Afghanistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Venezuela.

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