Putin Strikes Again

Russian journalists have suffered crippling attacks in recent years, as Vladimir Putin pursues his policy of strengthening the “vertical” dimension of his administration’s “power pyramid.” The Kremlin’s geometrical terminology means enforcing, from the top down, an ideology intended to align all sectors of Russia’s “managed democracy” (another key phrase of the Putin era) into tidy, clearly demarcated, easily controlled zones of activity and influence. No strong minority views, no awkward revelations in the press are to mar the sleek façades of the state. The messy disarray normally associated with functioning democracy—the irritating criticism, noisy opposition, and inconvenient news uncovered by investigative reporters (what Russians proudly called glasnost a mere seventeen years ago)—has been summarily and sometimes harshly dealt with.

The techniques range from mild bureaucratic harassment of news organizations to physical attacks on individual journalists. The body count among Russian reporters is now thirteen murders in the line of duty since Putin has been in power. In each case the reporter was investigating or had published stories critical of government or business officials. No one has been convicted of these killings, even in the rare instances when the police have apprehended suspects. The murder last October of the brave, rash Anna Politkovskaya, about whom Robert Cottrell wrote eloquently in these pages recently,

Murdering journalists is simply the most visible manifestation of the constant campaign against the press. Far more effective are the economic, judicial, and administrative measures being used systematically to quash human rights and information-gathering organizations and other genuinely independent members of civil society. Frequent tax audits and expensive, time-consuming re-registration procedures have been among the weapons of choice. In recent months there have been raids on news organizations to confiscate “illegal software”; shuffles of top-level management between government-controlled and “private” national television stations that provide most Russians with their news; managerial directives to present 50 percent “positive” news; “stop lists” of politicians and activists not to be mentioned on the air; and an end to live, on-the-scene reporting and live talk shows. Local television and radio stations are especially vulnerable to ad hoc attacks—e.g., the regional governor or big-city mayor who tells companies not to advertise on “disloyal” TV stations, the municipal authorities who suddenly discover problems with a lease, or violations of fire or sanitation codes.

One of the most recent victims of the Putin bureaucracy has been an NGO called the Educated Media Foundation (EMF), formerly known as Internews Russia. Over the past decade, this nonprofit organization has trained more than 15,000 Russian broadcast journalists, mostly from the provinces, in the best practices of journalism. It has, for example, conducted seminars, workshops, and classes for news writers, editors, managers, advertising directors, and program producers that have helped them to establish independent television and radio stations …

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