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March 16, 2018 - Updated on March 19, 2018

Russia: Vladimir Putin’s damning record on press freedom

Credit: Alexey Nikolsky / AFP
On the eve of the 18 March presidential election in Russia, in which Vladimir Putin is running for another term, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has written an open letter to him summarizing the disastrous effects of his 18 years in power on the freedom to inform and urging him to lift all the curbs he has placed on this freedom.

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Dear President Putin,


You started gagging your media critics when you were first elected president 18 years ago but your efforts have intensified considerably during your latest term. Your country is now ranked 148th out of 180 countries in our World Press Freedom Index and the situation has not been as bad as it is now since the Soviet Union’s fall.


You have had a tight hold on national TV broadcasting since 2001, when the ORT and NTV channels were brought under control. The television channels with the most viewers are now majority-owned by the state or by the state-owned company Gazprom. As harassment of media critics is stepped up, these channels pump out propaganda that fuels a climate of hate and paranoia towards civil society and drags down journalistic standards.


Independent media outlets are confined to an ever-smaller niche and the pressure on them is stepped up whenever they manage to acquire a significant number of readers or viewers. The only independent national TV broadcaster, Dozhd TV, was dropped by the satellite and cable services in 2014. The editor of Russia’s most widely-read news website, Lenta.ru, was fired the same year, along with most of her staff. The editorial staff of the RBC media group suffered the same fate in 2016.


All of these media outlets distinguished themselves by their coverage of the most sensitive stories, from the Ukrainian conflict to high-level corruption. The purge has not spared leading regional outlets such as the Siberian TV broadcaster TV2.


The Internet continued until recently to be space for freedom of expression but it too has been reined in over the past few years. The criteria used as grounds for blocking access to a website without reference to the courts have grown steadily since the first blacklist was drawn up in 2012. The opposition information websites Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, EJ.ru and more recently OpenRussia have been among the victims. What with monitoring bloggers, censoring search engines and news aggregators, regulating VPNs and forcing social networks and messaging services to cooperate with the FSB, legislation has become steadily more draconian. More and more Internet users are being jailed for the comments they post on social networks and even for their “likes.”


Laws promulgated by you since 2012 have curtailed media freedom in general, not just on the Internet. They have re-penalized defamation, penalized “offending the feelings of religious believers,” penalized “inciting separatism,” expanded the definition of “high treason” and toughened “anti-extremism” legislation, which has long been used against critics. The broad and vague wording of these laws allows them to be used selectively and arbitrarily.


Other reforms such as the drastic restriction on foreign investment in the media have accentuated the vulnerability of independent media outlets. The criminalization of civil society has not spared NGOs that support the media and defend press freedom, and now even threatens foreign media.


Misuse of legislation to persecute critics has helped to fill prisons. We calculate that at least five journalists (Alexander Sokolov, Igor Rudnikov, Zhalaudi Geriyev, Alexei Nazimov and Alexander Tolmachev) and two bloggers (Alexander Valov and Alexei Kungurov) are currently detained in connection with their reporting. The total is greater than it has been at any time since 2000.


The impunity enjoyed by those who physically attack and murder journalist is unchanging. At least 34 media professionals have been killed in connection with their work in Russia since 2000. In the overwhelming majority of these cases, the investigations have gone nowhere and the masterminds have not been identified. With five journalists killed, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta has paid a particularly high price and continues to receive threats.


You have allowed no-go zones to develop in which no pluralism survives. Chechnya and Crimea, which was annexed in 2014, are the leading “news black holes.” The effects of this situation are not just local. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov no longer hesitates to target media beyond his borders. Do you plan to turn these regional dictatorships into the laboratories of tomorrow’s Russia? Are they the model you offer for your fourth term?


To avoid going down in history as gravedigger of the freedoms guaranteed in Russia’s young constitution, you must change course. We ask you to ensure the repeal of all the draconian laws adopted during your latest term, to release the national TV channels from state control, to allow independent media outlets to operate without being harassed, and to end the climate of hatred and impunity to which government critics are exposed. And we ask you to promote judicial independence so that the courts stop acting arbitrarily and instead free all the journalists and bloggers who have been wrongfully imprisoned.


We thank you in advance for the attention you give to this letter.


Sincerely,

Christophe Deloire

RSF secretary-general