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Russian media: True, we’re ‘not free’ — but we’re not Zimbabwe

Russian media experts and journalists say that Freedom House makes some good points, but it failed to note sweeping changes that are broadening out Russia’s media spectrum.

The New York-based human rights watchdog Freedom House released its annual survey of press freedom in almost 200 countries today. At first blush it may not seem surprising that Russia, which will inaugurate Vladimir Putin for his third presidential term on May 7, remains firmly in the “Not Free” category of nations, holding down a dismal 172nd place, together with Zimbabwe and Azerbaijan, just one slot higher than last year’s rating.

But this year, at least, many Russian media experts and journalists say that Freedom House makes some good points, but its judgement is too monochromatic and has failed to note sweeping changes — often happening below the West’s radar screen — that are broadening out Russia’s media spectrum, creating new and independent sources of information that the public can access.

The analytical reports issued by Freedom House, which is 80 percent funded by the US government, are typically received by Russian officialdom with an angry scoff and an occasional diatribe on Western double-standards. In his final interview as Russian president last week, Dmitry Medvedev flatly denied there is any state censorship of the media in Russia.

“There’s a better mood among journalists today, and a new fighting spirit,” says Yassen Zassoursky, who was dean of Moscow State University‘s journalism faculty from 1965 to 2007. “I talk to a lot of my former students, and keep close track. Things are changing in our society, and today’s journalists are pushing harder, making incremental improvements, but they are trying to do their jobs. Yes, there’s still self-censorship, and an attitude of caution, but I feel very optimistic about how things are going.”

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While major TV networks, which reach the bulk of the population, remain closely state-guided, there is a wide spectrum of newspapers and a growing number of independent radio stations that have consistently pushed the limits of what they can report. For example, a two-year-old cable and Internet TV station, Dozhd TV, successfully weathered official threats of shutdown early this year after it gave coverage to the wave of street protests against alleged electoral fraud in last December’s Duma elections.

Russia’s unfettered Internet has become host to thousands of critical blogs, uncensored online newspapers, and an expanding social media that proved the main organizational force behind the protest rallies of recent months.

Russia is one of the world’s fastest-growing Internet markets, with penetration now estimated at 44 percent, and Europe‘s biggest, with over 60 million users.

One of the reforms proposed by outgoing President Medvedev was a pledge — still far from being realized — to establish a public TV channel that would be independent of state control. If that should happen, it might change Russia’s media landscape fundamentally, experts say.

Freedom House defended its finding that Russia’s media remains unfree, citing “the use of a pliant judiciary to prosecute independent journalists, impunity for the physical harassment and murder of journalists, and continued state control or influence over almost all traditional media outlets.”

But, despite threats, there have been no shutdowns or takeovers of independent Russian media this year. While there is a list of almost 20 unsolved murders of journalists since Mr. Putin came to power, there have been fewer violent incidents recorded over the past year.

Some of Freedom House’s arguments are valid points, says Yelena Zelinskaya, vice president of Media Soyuz, the more pro-Kremlin of Russia’s two major associations of media workers.

“But the situation of our media is more complicated and problematic than Freedom House pictures it. What Freedom House describes seems to be a picture from a completely different life,” she says. “I agree that the authorities do pressure the mass media, but the pressure comes in different forms and is not direct, while authorities themselves feel pressure from the mass media. Even inside the media itself there are lots of pressures and problems. The situation is more complicated but totally different” from Freedom House’s portrayal, she says.

But critics argue that only inhabitants of big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg have access to relatively independent radio stations, newspapers, and niche TV stations like Dozhd.

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“There are really serious problems with press freedom in Russia,” says Nadezhda Prusenkova, spokesperson for Novaya Gazeta, the combative opposition weekly that’s seen several of its own journalists, including Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in the past decade.

“Big TV channels are all in the hands of structures that are close to the Kremlin, and even if journalists are not subject to direct censorship they are hemmed-in by self-censoring fears. I don’t find Freedom House’s ranking of Russia at 172nd place the least bit surprising,” she says.

But Ms. Prusenkova adds that “as long as we have islands of freedom, like Novaya Gazeta, radio station Ekho Moskvi and TV Dozhd, and as long as there’s freedom of speech on the Internet, there is hope. We need to work harder. I would hate to see Russia still holding down 172nd place in 12 years time.”