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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Annals of the Media Crackdown in Russia

Reuters reports on yet another shocking development in Vladimir Putin's ongoing war on Russia's media:

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has decreed the creation of a new super-agency to regulate media and the internet, sparking fears among Russian journalists of a bid to extend tight publishing controls to the relatively free web. Putin signed a decree this week merging two existing agencies into one entity that will license broadcasters, newspapers and websites and oversee their editorial content.

The move, which comes before national elections next year, unites Rosokhrankultura, the organisation supervising media and culture, with Rossvyaznadzor, the federal body controlling telecommunications and information technology. Officials said this would improve efficiency by putting a single entity in charge of media content and technology but some of Russia's top journalists expressed concern. Under Putin's rule, independent publishers have been mostly taken over by Kremlin-friendly businessmen. Domestic media are under heavy pressure not to criticise the government, making journalists suspicious of any new official initiative.

Raf Shakirov, who was dismissed as editor of the Izvestiya daily after critical coverage of the 2004 Beslan school siege, said Putin's decree could extend Soviet-style controls to Russia's online media, which have been relatively free to date.

Media control

"This is an attempt to put everything under control, not only electronic media, but also personal data about people such as bloggers," he said.

Tired of stifling official control over mainstream television and newspapers, Russians have increasingly turned to the internet to find independent sources of information. Russians are the second largest group represented on the big US-based blog www.livejournal.com. Their blogs often feature political debates and advertise protests by opposition leaders. But authorities have already fired a warning shot across the bows of one leading news website, www.gazeta.ru, which got an official warning last year for "extremism" after writing about cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohammad.

Super agency might put the squeeze on media

Roman Bodanin, gazeta.ru's political editor, said the new super-regulator could make it easier for the government to track and pressurise independent media because the same agency would control the granting of licences and the supervision of content. Andrei Vasilyev, editor of Russian daily Kommersant, saw the move as part of a Kremlin drive to consolidate power before parliamentary and presidential elections in the next 12 months.

"It is very dangerous (for the Kremlin) to scatter the ownership of broadcasting frequencies and licences between different institutions," he said, saying he was speaking in a personal capacity. "There might be a loophole for some alternative information channel," he said.

Government officials said Russia's media would benefit from the new body, due to start work within three months. "The question of regulation will now be easier," said Yevgeny Strelchik, a spokesman for Rosokhrankultura. He dismissed worries about more control over the media as "journalists' fantasies". No official announcement on who will head the media super-regulator has yet been made.

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