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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MEDIA WATCH: Study: Free Press Still Myth




"There is no freedom of speech in Russia" - readers of this column will not be surprised to read these words, but they may be interested to learn that this conclusion has now been endorsed by the Russian Union of Journalists and other media-rights organizations working here. At the Pressa-2000 exhibition in Moscow last month, the Union issued the preliminary results of its Herculean effort to quantify the level of freedom of speech in all of the territories of the Russian Federation. This study, although far from perfect and complete, is a much-needed and belated effort to shine light into the darkness that covers most of this vast country.


The study - which was conducted by the Glasnost Defense Foundation, the Moscow Media Law and Policy Institute and the non-commercial organization Internews, under the direction of the Union of Journalists - analyzed local media-related legislation, conditions for access to official information and restrictions on the distribution of information (both printed and electronic) in 81 of Russia's subject territories. As for the other eight, either the information received was too fragmented to be useful (which, I guess, already says something about the state of free speech there) or conditions were deemed too dangerous to even attempt to gather the needed data (as in Chechnya, for instance).


The authors intended to produce results that would separate out the regions where a free press exists from those where it is absent. Instead, they were "surprised" to learn that they were merely measuring degrees of non-freedom. Every region, including the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, was characterized by arbitrary rule that constantly threatens to stamp out whatever foothold a free press manages to attain.


As an illustration, consider the Western Siberian region of Omsk, which ranks near the middle on Russia's scale of non-freedom - occupying 41st place. The Union sent 10 official requests for information to various local officials there using procedures outlined in Russia's national law on access to information. Four requests were ignored, one received a non-responsive reply, one received a formal denial and just four were answered completely and promptly.


However, as is the case in many regions, the matter of who responded, or didn't, tells more than just the raw numbers. The regional governor, the speaker of the regional legislature, the chair of the finance committee and the regional prosecutor all responded with silence. Among those who did answer were some municipal officials in the city of Omsk, the head of the regional Health Department and the chair of a regional committee on the environment.


If you want to open a newspaper kiosk in Omsk, incidentally, you need permission from no less than 34 local offices and agencies. Good luck.


Important as it is, the Union's study adopts a crucial assumption that may limit its usefulness. The investigators believe - as do many Russians who study the media - that state-controlled and non-state media can peacefully coexist if the right legislative environment can be maintained. I think that this is an extremely questionable assumption that, at the very least, deserves serious analysis and explanation. I would argue that the mere presence of state-subsidized media undermines public confidence in journalism generally, consumes a significant portion of the country's minimal stock of qualified journalists, encourages the natural tendency of many politicians to see the media in terms of "us" and "them," etc.


Furthermore, the study's scope (and it should be noted that the material released so far is just the beginning of what will hopefully be a permanent project) will need to be widened in order to really give an accurate picture. It should analyze the degree of government interference in advertising markets, since this is one of the primary ways that local officials keep independent newspapers from achieving financial independence. Also, the study should include data on libel suits and other legal actions taken by local officials and their private-sector surrogates against the mass media.


Nonetheless, the Union's study is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the press in Russia today. We can only hope that they will be able to repeat the study regularly in order to highlight the emerging trends. Anyone interested in obtaining the study - and every one who cares about human rights in Russia should be -- can contact the Union at 201-4466.


Robert Coalson is a program director for the National Press Institute. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of NPI.