Russian government repressing journalists ahead of Sochi

In run-up to Olympics, Moscow has intimidated local media from publishing hard-hitting stories, alleges press watchdog

A protest organized by Reporters Without Borders in front of the Russian Embassy in Paris in March 2013. Human-rights groups say Olympic preparations include repressive tactics.
Michel Euler/AP

Obstruction by government authorities has led to fear and self-censorship among Russian journalists and severely limited coverage of the upcoming Sochi Olympics, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) charged in a report released on Tuesday.  

The group, which monitors press freedom worldwide, detailed a repressive climate for journalism in Sochi, where the Winter Games kick off in less than two weeks and where arrests, tapped phones and threats have led to a virtual media silence in Russia on many controversial Olympic-related issues.

The report detailed one case in which a correspondent for a major Russian news agency — who was not named — recently filed three stories from Sochi. One dealt with the arrest of journalist Nikolai Yarst, a case that many saw as politically motivated. A second story detailed malfunctions at a hastily built compound for residents displaced by Olympic construction. A third was about the bad weather headed for the city, where torrential rains have already flooded newly constructed roads.

Yet none of the stories made it to the wires.

“You may have a storm, a twister and even a 9-Richter-scale earthquake. Still, we have to write that all skies are clear over Sochi,” the unnamed correspondent told the CPJ.

Many free speech advocates see that episode as descriptive of hard times for journalism in the Olympic host city. While some reports on corruption, environmental damage, the exploitation of migrant workers and other abuses have emerged, this was largely through the independent documentation of activists, rights groups and foreign journalists. In many cases, both state-controlled and private media in Russia have ignored these issues and reported only on events and statements “officially cleared for coverage,” the CPJ said.

Journalists cited in the report described pro-government television networks staging interviews with people speaking scripted lines but passing them off as off-the-cuff remarks from ordinary Sochi residents. A national TV channel aired a program depicting residents evicted from their homes as “greedy, unscrupulous people trying to blackmail the state.” Human Rights Watch has documented uncompensated and poorly compensated evictions, but the issue has received relatively scarce media attention.

When fear alone doesn’t work, the local branch of Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor — the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media — interferes with media organizations, the CPJ said. Since 2012, the agency has started 45 administrative cases against Sochi media outlets, on trivial pretexts like the failure to leave a copy of the paper with local libraries.

While some reports on corruption, environmental damage, the exploitation of migrant workers and other abuses have emerged, this was largely through the independent documentation of activists, rights groups and foreign journalists.

Self-censorship is widespread in Sochi, particularly since media organizations depend on public subsidies and official permits to operate, the report detailed.

“Nobody calls me. Nobody says to me what I should or should not write about. But I know what the topics that anger the authorities are,” said Svetlana Sagradova, editor of a local magazine who said she practices self-censorship for fear of losing her license. “I don’t want any problems, and this is why I don’t publish much.”

The directive to “stop spoiling the country’s image,” may be unspoken but is clear, said another journalist who was removed from the Sochi beat after her critical stories. 

The CPJ report called on Russian authorities to let journalists do their jobs unhindered. It also called on Olympic sponsors and the International Olympic Committee to demand that press freedom is protected. “The International Olympic Committee as the Games’ organizers must engage with Russian authorities to ensure that freedom of the press and freedom of expression are unobstructed in Sochi both during and after the Games,” said the CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia coordinator, Nina Ognianova.

Critics denounced the IOC as largely passive and called for the establishment of human-rights benchmarks for the selection of Olympic hosts. “Those benchmarks must be monitored and evaluated as thoroughly and with the same vigor that the IOC applies to monitoring a country’s readiness with Olympic venues and material resources,” said Jane Buchanan, Human Rights Watch’s lead researcher on Sochi.

The CPJ also called on foreign reporters to investigate the stories their local colleagues have been unable to pursue. The report details harassment of foreign journalists but notes that Russian media will pick up critical stories that have already been covered internationally.

The Sochi Games are widely perceived in Russia as a project very dear to Vladimir Putin, and the Olympic-related media crackdown is seen as being in line with his repressive rule in recent years. In his third term as president, he has signed a number of restrictive laws, quickly and with little public debate.

Putin has criminalized defamation, expanded the definition of treason and blacklisted websites with loosely defined “unlawful content.” A controversial “foreign agents” law passed in 2012 effectively obstructs most nongovernmental organizations, and the much discussed “homosexual propaganda” law has chilled news coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, including recent waves of homophobic violence.

“If the media cover the LGBT rights in anything that resembles a sympathetic way, they could be blamed with producing gay propaganda and punished for it,” Konstantin Iablotckii, a Moscow-based LGBT activist, told the CPJ. “Better to play it safe.”

Violence against journalists is also on the rise in Russia, with 16 journalists murdered in the past decade and a deeply entrenched culture of impunity.

A representative for Putin declined to respond to the allegations, citing the president’s “tight schedule up to the start of the Olympics.”

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