Claims of increasing media censorship in Russia have focused on the impromptu closing of a newspaper that often lampooned political leadership, the June 2008 “extremism” conviction of two journalists, and accusations of a television talk show “blacklist” – all of which were said to be politically motivated.
English-language Paper Closes after Government Scrutiny
An “unplanned audit” of the Moscow office of the bi-weekly English-language alternative newspaper The eXile by government media regulators on June 5, 2008 led the paper’s investors to withdraw their financial support, forcing it to shut down, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the paper’s editor.
According to a June 22 column by eXile editor-in-chief Mark Ames in London’s Mail on Sunday, four officials from the Federal Service for Mass Media, Telecommunications, and the Protection of Cultural Heritage met Ames and other members of the staff at the eXile office at a prearranged time and questioned them for three hours before leaving with several issues of the paper to translate and analyze for violations of Russian laws that prohibit inciting ethnic hatred, pornography, promoting drug use, and “extremism.”
Ames wrote that many of the officials’ questions focused on radical writer-politician Edward Limonov, who along with chess champion Garry Kasparov leads a political opposition movement called Other Russia and who writes a regular column for the eXile. Topics of Limonov’s columns have ranged from intense criticism of former Russian President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, to one advising foreigners on how to survive a Stalinist takeover, Ames wrote.
According to a June 18 story in The Wall Street Journal, Evgeny Strelnik, an official at the media regulator that investigated the paper, called the audit a “routine check.”
“There were a few violations, and we’ve issued a warning,” Strelnik said, stressing that the government had not shut down the paper, which would have required a court case.
However, Ames called the audit “highly unusual.”
“Not only has no Western journalist, to my knowledge, been subject to a government audit of his articles to check for violations but, as one nongovernmental organization (NGO), the Glasnost Defense Fund told me, in their experience working with the Russian media, there has never been a single Moscow-based newspaper subjected to an ‘unplanned audit,’” Ames wrote in his June 22 column.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Ames founded eXile in 1997, amid the tumult of the post-Soviet Yeltsin era. Although the paper has never had a particularly broad circulation, it sparked lively political debate among Russia experts in the West, thanks in part to Limonov’s regular columns. The paper criticized Western academics and journalists, accusing them of understating the misery caused by free-market reforms of the 1990s. Meanwhile, its entertainment section, aimed at foreign businessmen, included club reviews advising which bars were frequented by violent thugs and which were popular with adventurous Russian women, The Wall Street Journal reported. Ames and other eXile writers also gained notoriety for pranks played on government officials and foreign correspondents.
“[EXile] combined vicious satire, investigative journalism, no-holds-barred media criticism and an irreverent, frequently sexist take on the seamy nature of expatriot [sic] life in Moscow, where foreigners often embrace a lifestyle of extreme hedonism,” Ames wrote in his June 22 column.
CPJ condemned the Russian government’s actions. “Russian authorities are using politicized inspections and broadly worded extremism legislation to silence critical journalists and media outlets,” said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova, in a CPJ “News Alert” available online at http://www.cpj.org/news/2008/europe/russ19jun08na.html. “In the case of The eXile, the state’s targeted harassment has had a chilling effect on the investors. We call on Russian authorities to withdraw all claims against the paper and to allow its staffers to continue their work.”
According to an editorial message posted July 14 on the paper’s web site at http://www.exile.ru/articles/detail.php?ARTICLE_ID=19294&IBLOCK_ID=35, The eXile does not have plans to continue publishing in print, but will continue to publish online, “safely stored on new servers in an undisclosed Putin-proof location” at www.exiledonline.com.
Two Journalists Convicted of ‘Extremism,’ Banned from Working as Journalists
Two journalists in the Bashkortostan Republic were also charged with “extremism.” In addition to having their newspaper shut down, they were given two-year suspended prison sentences, and banned from practicing journalism for one year after their June 25, 2008 conviction in a regional district court, CPJ reported.
According to the July 2 CPJ report, Viktor Shmakov, editor-in-chief, and Airat Dilmukhametov, a contributing writer for the independent newspaper Provintsialnye Vesti (Provincial News), were convicted in the Kirov District Court in the regional capital of Ufa for violating the Constitution of the Russian Federation, violating media regulations, and breaking laws against printing extremist material, following a criminal investigation which began in 2006 after a special edition of Provintsialnye Vesti included two articles by Dilmukhametov that accused regional authorities of corruption and called for the resignation of the president of Bashkortostan.
CPJ reported that a June 25 press release from Bashkortostan prosecutors said that a “complex psychological-linguistic analysis of the texts determined that they contained public appeals for extremist activity and calls for civil disobedience to legal authorities, which incited citizens to violently change the constitutional regime, breach the Russian Federation’s integrity, and violently acquire powers of the president of Bashkortostan.”
Shmakov told CPJ that local prosecutors also asked the Kirov District Court to close Provintsialnye Vesti in early June 2008, claiming the newspaper violated media rules by allegedly committing technical violations, such as failing to send free copies to state agencies and not publishing on a regular basis and violated anti-extremism legislation by publishing extremist materials.
CPJ Program Coordinator Ognianova said the organization was “disturbed” by the ruling, calling it “part of a trend among Russian authorities to use sweeping ‘extremism’ legislation to chill critical coverage.”
CPJ said the verdict should be overturned. Shmakov said he plans to appeal.
New York Times Story Focuses on Claims that Dissent is Stifled on Television
The New York Times reported June 11, 2008 that an informal “stop list,” initially born during the campaign that placed Vladimir Putin protege Dmitri A. Medvedev in the presidency and Putin’s party in a parliament majority by a landslide margin, has all but expunged political dissent from Russian television.
According to the The New York Times, senior government officials deny the existence of any stop list. Journalists said that although they do not believe the Kremlin keeps an official master stop list, networks keep their own list of government critics who they do not invite on air or whose critical political opinions they limit or suppress, based on an understanding of the Kremlin’s likes and dislikes for particular people and sentiments.
Vladimir V. Pozner, host of political talk show “Times” on top national network Channel One and president of the Russian Academy of Television, told The New York Times the pressure to conform to Kremlin tastes had intensified, not easing even after the campaign.
“The elections have led to almost a paranoia on the part of the Kremlin administration about who is on television,” Pozner said.
The New York Times story pointed to a number of specific incidences in 2007 and 2008, such as when political analyst and Putin critic Mikhail G. Delyagin was digitally erased from a talk show in fall 2007 after criticizing the administration, and when rock band Televizor had its booking on a St. Petersburg television station canceled in April 2008 after its members publicly took part in an demonstration supporting the Other Russia political opposition.
The story said that former political allies of Putin as well as those opposed to him, such as Kasparov, leader of the Other Russia coalition, and members of the nation’s liberal parties, have all “disappeared from view.”
Kasparov, who made an unsuccessful run for president in 2008, encouraged world news industry leaders at the World Newspaper Congress in Göteborg, Sweden to challenge the Kremlin on press freedom, the Associated Press (AP) reported on June 4.
Government officials and others, however, have countered that people hostile to the Kremlin do not appear on TV simply because their views are not newsworthy, The New York Times reported.
The story said that when Vladimir R. Solovyov, a political talk show host whose show had more recently stopped featuring members of opposition parties, was asked why they no longer appeared on the show, Solovyov responded, “No one supports them. They have nothing to say.”
Valery Y. Komissarov, a former host on a state channel who is now a governing party leader in parliament, said “These are people who are not interesting for society, who are not interesting for journalists. But they want publicity and perhaps they want to explain away their lack of creative and political success by the fact that they are persecuted, that they are included on the so-called stop list.”
– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor