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Russian Media Tests Boundaries Of State Censorship

Supporters of journalist Yury Shchekochikhin believe he was poisoned because of his work.
Supporters of journalist Yury Shchekochikhin believe he was poisoned because of his work.

It's not easy being a journalist in Russia, where attacks against reporters have made it one of the most dangerous places to work, and the government has sidelined much of the free press. Still, some media outlets remain highly critical of the authorities. Their journalists say their main difficulty isn't so much that they're not able to report about the country's problems, it's that no one's listening.

In 2003, a crusading reporter for one of Russia's leading independent newspapers, "Novava gazeta," was investigating criminal allegations involving the security service, the FSB, when he fell gravely ill.

Yury Shchekochikhin was dead within days from what his supporters believe was poisoning. Another iconic "Novaya gazeta," reporter, Anna Politkovskaya, was a leading critic of the Chechen war until she was shot dead in 2006. Before her death, Politkovskaya said she, too, had been poisoned to stop her from covering the Beslan school hostage siege in 2004.

Last year Reporters Without Borders cited the impunity with which such attacks have been carried out as one of its reasons for ranking Russia 140th out of 178 in its Press Freedom Index. It's stating the obvious to say it's not easy being a reporter in Russia: attacks against them have made Russia one of the most dangerous places in the world to work at a time the government has sidelined much of the free press.

Nevertheless, some media outlets remain highly critical of the authorities. Their journalists say their main difficulty isn't so much that they're not able to report about the country's problems. It's that no one's listening.

Chilling Effect

"Novaya gazeta" deputy editor Andrei Lipsky says the killings of the paper's reporters have had a chilling effect on the general atmosphere. "Of course we have to be careful," he says, although he maintains there are still no topics his paper refuses to cover.

If the threat of violence weren't enough, tight government control has ensured most other outlets remain compliant with unspoken rules forbidding -- above all -- the reporting of such topics as the personal business of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, members of his closest circle and their relatives. Lipsky says enforcement usually comes in outwardly legal form: lawsuits and investigations, many of them based on tough laws banning extremism.

"No one can just come and shut you down," he says. "There are other methods: tax police, libel accusations and others."

"Novaya gazeta" has been sued a number of times, including in 2002, when a prominent bank won a lawsuit demanding $500,000, an amount that threatened to shut down the paper. It later emerged that the customers the bank claimed it stood to lose because of the paper's allegations of fraud were the bank's own subsidiaries -- and the fine was withdrawn.

Lipsky credits international opinion -- including the many foreign prizes "Novaya gazeta" has won -- for helping keep the authorities at bay. More than that, he says the authorities tolerate his paper partly because they need at least some independent sources of information. "It's not a bloodthirsty regime, it's not totalitarianism," he says. "It's a regime of big interests with an authoritarian overtone."

Denis Volkov -- who studies the media for the Levada Center, the country's top independent polling agency -- says tolerating "Novaya gazeta" also helps the authorities keep a lid on public unrest. "The Internet and a handful of newspapers help stabilize society by allowing at least some steam to be let off," he says. "You can talk about whatever you want as long as it's only within your narrow circle."

It's A Business

But "Novaya gazeta" is an exception. Each publication explores its own boundaries of what's possible to report, Lipsky says, and it usually comes down to how much it wants to risk. It also comes down to ownership. Since Putin first came to power as president in 2000, most prominent outlets have changed hands from a small number of competing business oligarchs vying for political influence to a more homogenized group interested in maintaining favor with the Kremlin.

The business daily "Kommersant," one of the country's most respected publications, was seen as fully independent until its sale to steel tycoon Alisher Usmanov in 2006. He's seen as willing to ensure the paper stays with certain bounds. But "Kommersant" nevertheless publishes many critical reports on other topics glossed over elsewhere, from the billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov's recent accusation that the Kremlin's domestic strategy chief is a "puppetmaster," to interviews with human rights activists long banned in other outlets, and allegations of corruption over preparations for Russia's hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics. That's because despite Usmanov's need to toe the Kremlin's line, Lipsky says, he sees his paper "as a business."

"If you completely starve the paper of its 'information ammunition,'" he says, "what kind of business is that? Who's going to read it?"

No One's Listening

The situation is more dire for journalists in Russia's regions, where media are under pressure not only from the authorities in Moscow but also local officials. But even in the provinces, independent outlets brave officials' dissatisfaction by reporting on their abuses. Often their biggest impediment isn’t a ban on reporting as much as a lack of readers who care about it.

The veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov cites a well-known case of a prison in the Siberian region of Irkutsk, where he says some inmates are known to be authorized to enforce order by torturing and even killing others. "A local newspaper regularly writes about it, but it's had no effect," he says. "That's because the authorities have essentially signaled that 'you can write about it and we'll read it' -- but nothing will happen."

But it's not only the authorities who don’t appear to be interested in critical reporting. It's most Russians, too. Lipsky says most of his countrymen tend to be apolitical, and will remain so as long as they see their private lives as something to shield from the outside world. "Out there is corruption, people believe, and you can’t do anything to change it," he says. "'So let them all go to hell,' they say. 'My life is separate, I'm going to build it myself.'"

Still, the Internet has helped fuel a small but growing number of grassroots movements, including last year when locals in various regions organized themselves to battle record forest fires after official firefighting units proved poorly organized. But Lipsky says Internet sites are a long way from challenging the entrenched authorities. "The population must first develop into citizens in order to pressure the authorities to become more democratic," he says. "At this point most people don’t understand they need democracy to realize their own interests."

Internet Attacks

The Internet may offer the best channel for disseminating otherwise unobtainable information, but Lipskii says it's also been effectively used to manipulate facts by spin doctors working for the authorities on government-supported sites.

Free-press advocates are also worried about another recent development. Hackers have temporarily closed a number of popular blogging and social networking sites through denial-of-service attacks. Targeted sites have included "Novaya gazeta," the popular LiveJournal blogging site and, set up by the anti-corruption blogger Aleksei Navanly to document crooked government deals. But although many believe the actions were in some way condoned by the authorities, experts say they're not an effective way of censoring the Internet.

Aleksei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation press-freedom advocacy group, calls hacker attacks against sites such as Navalny's "state hooliganism," saying they're more important for providing indications about just how much officials are willing to tolerate. "The authorities have stopped carrying out a comprehensive policy toward the media," he says. "Instead they give limited, precise signals and the press understands how it must react."

With parliamentary elections approaching in December and a presidential vote next March -- when many believe Putin will return to his old office in the Kremlin -- observers expect there will be little change in the press climate for the foreseeable future. "The authorities fear a lack of control," Lipsky says. "Even if they were to admit to themselves that there's no alternative to democracy in the long run, they'd still fear a level paying field."