Freedom House: Russian Media Environment ‘Repressive and Dangerous’

The Washington-based non-governmental organization Freedom House released its annual report on global press freedom on Thursday, complete with a particularly scathing analysis of the situation in Russia. Out of 196 countries, Russia took 175th place on a ranking of global press freedom, just beating out Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and China, and trailing slightly behind Congo and Yemen. Out of the report’s three basic categories – free, partially free, and not free – Russia was declared to be decidedly “not free.”

The Freedom House report maintains that press freedom declined in 2009 all over the world, including in Western Europe. That said, “Russia remained among the world’s more repressive and most dangerous media environments,” and figures among countries where the political opposition, non-governmental organizations, and independent media outlets come under the greatest deal of censorship and pressure.

Experts at the organization label Russia as one of a number of governments with “an authoritative bent” that are expanding control over both traditional media and the relatively more free internet. “The space for independent media in Russia has been steadily reduced as legal protections are routinely ignored, the judicial system grows more subservient to the executive branch, reporters face severe repercussions for reporting on sensitive issues, most attacks on journalists go unpunished, and media ownership is brought firmly under the control of the state,” says the report. “Russian authorities are also moving to restrict internet freedom through manipulation of online content and legal actions against bloggers.”

More concretely, Russia was grouped together with Venezuela and China as countries in which “[s]ophisticated techniques are being used to censor and block access to particular types of information, to flood the internet with antidemocratic, nationalistic views, and to provide broad surveillance of citizen activity.”

The report also slammed Russia for one of its most notorious statistics: since 2000, nineteen journalists have been murdered in Russia in retaliation for their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Only one of those cases resulted in a murder conviction. Freedom House named Russia as one country where impunity for journalist murders “is encouraging new attacks, significantly hampering media freedom.” In addition to the direct effect on the murdered journalists, the report says that “these attacks have a chilling effect on the profession as a whole, adding to the existing problem of self-censorship.”

Except for in the Baltic states, analysis from the rest of the former Soviet Union was not much more encouraging. Only Ukraine and Georgia were deemed to be “partially free,” while the remaining countries were ranked as “not free.” Among those, the only countries that fared worse than Russia were Belarus (taking 189th place), Uzbekistan (tied for 189th), and Turkmenistan (194th). The report also calls Russia “a model and patron for a number of neighboring countries,” indirectly implying that its bad influence is partially to blame for the low rankings of fellow former Soviet states.

Summing up the state of press freedom in the country, Freedom House says that the media environment in Russia is “marked by the consistent inability of the pliant judiciary to protect journalists; increased self-censorship by journalists seeking to avoid harassment, closure of their media outlets, and even murder; and the frequent targeting of independent outlets by regulators.”

“Reporters suffer from a high level of personal insecurity, and impunity for past murders and other physical attacks is the norm,” the report goes on. “The state’s control or influence over almost all media outlets remains a serious concern, particularly as it affects the political landscape and Russians’ ability to make informed electoral choices.”