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Monday, February 04, 2008

Annals of the Neo-Soviet Crackdown on Journalism: The Final Countdown

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss paint a demoralizing picture of Vladimir Putin's relentless attack on democracy and the toll it has taken on Russian society ("Notable & Quotable," Jan. 18). In the longer essay for Foreign Affairs from which the excerpt is taken ("The Myth of the Authoritarian Model," Jan./Feb. 2008), the writers also emphasize how, instead of building "an orderly and highly capable state," the Kremlin has focused on neutralizing independent media within -- and outside of -- Russia.

The Kremlin clearly has a comprehensive strategy to neutralize foreign broadcasters. Congressionally funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and BBC World's Russia service have seen a dramatic reduction in their broadcasting power. Though the trend has accelerated sharply in the past few years, the strategy to deploy these tactics was born as early as 2002 when Mr. Putin officially revoked the 1991 Yeltsin era decree that established RFE/RL's presence in Moscow.

Foreign broadcasters rely on Russian partners to air their programming. From 27 partners in 2005 to only six today, the pressure on RFE/RL has been so intense that the "radios" are now revamping their Russia broadcasting strategy, turning to high-impact media that are less vulnerable to pressure. The Kremlin's strategy is both nuanced -- pressuring Russian affiliates -- and reminiscent of Soviet-era tactics. Rather than inflicting one loud blow, affiliates are visited individually by the tax man, the health inspector or the local FSB media watchdog. Sometimes, journalists are beaten up and families are intimidated. One manager of a provincial affiliate that carried RFE/RL programming was called into the office of the local licensing authority and told that carrying RFE/RL programming could be considered an "unpatriotic act."

In a significant blow to its broadcasting reach, BBC World's Russia service lost its FM presence in Moscow earlier this year. German broadcaster Deutsche Welle has also had problems with its German and Russian-language medium-wave radio programs.

The pressure on domestic media has certainly paid off for the Kremlin. Russian media's coverage of recent parliamentary elections practically neglected the opposition. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders expressed its "outrage" at the one-sided coverage. The OSCE concluded that "Russia had failed to meet press freedom commitments during the recent parliamentary election campaign."

Even under these difficult circumstances, RFE/RL continued to air interviews with banned opposition figures and international observers. On election day, RFE/RL was unique in providing more than 50 reports on possible election fraud as it occurred around the country while Russian television provided almost no regional reporting until the end of the day.

Little can be done, apparently, to convince the Kremlin to allow a free and fair domestic media, which makes the mission of international, independent Russian language media all the more critical.

Diane Zeleny
Director of Communications
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

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