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Russia Puts the Muzzle on Independent Media

By Marguerite Ward

As the aftermath of Putin’s annexation of Crimea unfolds, Russians may have to reconsider where they read their news. After a quick move by the Russian government to silence dissenting media outlets, press freedom in the country has come under fierce attack.

Last Thursday, Russia blocked, either temporarily or permanently, independent and pro-opposition news websites in Russia, including Ezhednevny Zhurnal, Grani, Kasparov, and the website of the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy.

The popular blog of anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny, in addition to the general personal blogging platform LiveJournal, was also disabled. In newly annexed Crimea, several journalists have reported being attacked or detained.

“Russian authorities are unabashedly cleansing the media landscape of independent voices that have the power to shape minds,” said Nina Ognianova of the Committee to Project Journalists in a statement online.

Russia's moves put growing pressure on journalists to tiptoe around the Kremlin's new laws. Consider the case of Lenta.ru, a popular news website in Russia. Known for its strong and independent reporting, the site peaked at around 2.8 million views per day during some of the most violent times of the Ukraninan crisis. It was the most visited news website in the country.

But as mounting pressure grew to support Putin, Alexander Mamut (the millionaire managing-shareholder behind Lenta.ru) fired the website's editor for unknown reasons. The editor, Galina Timchenko, was replaced by another editor who formerly worked at a state-backed news website.

An image of Dohz, a news outlet targeted by Russia's new media laws.

The Kremlin's actions against the press are perfectly legal. On January 30, Putin signed a restrictive law signed allowing government agencies to block, without court order, websites carrying what they deem to be illegal or harmful content.

Maxim Kashulinsky, CEO of popular Russian news website Slon.ru, explains the current situation to World Policy Journal. While he hesitates to use the term "censorship," he explains the negative impacts government pressure has on domestic media.

"What's happening in Russian media, is not censorship per se. But, yes, the new laws....created an environment in which the state can easily block any website without a court decision. It creates pressure on journalists, publishers, and owners of media companies."

A recent Pew Study found that an incredible 80 percent of young Russian adults want the freedom to access information and uncensored content on the Internet. The study also found a huge chasm between old and young Russians on the question of censorship, with older generations in Russia not as supportive of a  free world wide web.

On the 2014 "Press Freedom Index," Russia came in 148th place, just below Burma, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. Just last year, Reporters Without Borders, author of the Press Freedom Index, noted that Russia’s place continued to fall since Putin’s return to power. An egregious detail includes that Russia consistently fails to punish those who have attacked or murdered journalists.

Protesters carry an anti-censorship banner.

“We condemn this ban on alternative sources of news and opinion, and call on Moscow to cease this Soviet-style crackdown.” The shutdown of various media sites this past week follows a number of other anti-press freedom actions, including the shut down of independent television channel Dozhd (or “Rain”).

Russia’s major news outlet, RT News (formerly Russia Today), is state-owned and subsequently of questionable legitimacy. It has come under fire recently for its biased coverage of the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea. One news anchor publicly criticized RT’s coverage of the situation, and another quit the media station on air.

Weeks later, a TV anchor went on an inflammatory rant reminding the West that Russia could turn the United States into “radioactive ash.” Without independent news sources, coverage of Crimea, the West’s response, and other international affairs could prove grave in the political realm.

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Marguerite Ward is the online news editor of World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of Kuba Bozanowski, News.net, and Russian Revolution]

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