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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cowering of Your Own Free Will

The Public Chamber is going to stand up for freedom of the press. Pavel Gusev, editor of the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper and head of the chamber's media commission, made this announcement at a news conference late last week. He was joined by committee members Eduard Sagalayev, president of the National Association of Television and Radio Broadcasters, and Nikolai Svanidze, a news anchor on state-owned Rossia television. The three said that the chamber had already begun to receive a steady stream of complaints from journalists in the regions upset about the excesses of local authorities. The enthusiasm of my regional colleagues, who seem to believe once again that a new public body in Moscow is going to solve all their problems, leaves me feeling either desperate or furious.

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There are already plenty of organizations defending freedom of the press in this country, from State Duma committees and professional associations to nongovernmental organizations such as the Glasnost Defense Foundation and the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. Generally speaking, the media have primarily themselves to blame for their continued dependence on and oppression by the state. They are not financially transparent or professionally run, nor are they legally literate.

Earlier this month, the GDF released its annual report on freedom of speech in Russia. At first glance, the report seems to indicate that the situation has worsened. The GDF reported 1,322 press-related incidents in 2005, ranging from the arrest of journalists to the cancellation of television programs. This number was up from 1,236 cases in 2004 and just 1,119 in 2003.

When you examine the report more closely, however, you're likely to agree with the headline of a story covering the report: "Fewer journalists are killed but more are taken to court." According to the GDF, the number of journalists murdered or attacked has been declining each year. Direct censorship and the physical takeover of editorial offices are also becoming less frequent. The number of lawsuits filed against the media has increased, however, along with cases where the government has refused to release information. To my mind this is progress. Lawsuits and closing-off access to information are far more "civilized" ways to put pressure on the media than sending reporters to sleep with the fishes.

The part of the GDF's report that really rankles, however, is the rise of self-imposed censorship.

Censorship involves a direct ban on making information public, and the media have legal grounds for contesting it. Self-imposed censorship occurs when the head of a media outlet decides to suppress material in order not to incur the wrath of someone higher up the chain of command. This fear of retribution, whether founded or not, is far more damaging to the media than any form of external pressure.

Late last year, the popular news anchor Olga Romanova left Ren-TV. She had refused the station manager's order to cut two reports from her newscast, and in response she was physically prevented from entering the studio. The coverage of Romanova's departure hinted that the long arm of the Kremlin was behind it. Romanova insistently denied such speculation. "A specific manager proved to be incompetent and a coward," she said. "What's the Kremlin got to do with it?" I know what she meant. More and more cowards and incompetents are running the media these days. They act out of fear even before any threats have been made.

This is a sign of the times, a sad one for the press, of course, but also for the regime. If the Kremlin is putting these people in charge of the media, it's shooting itself in the foot, because managers like these drag down the reputation of the press and decrease its value to the regime. Even if the media execs are cowering on their own initiative, everyone's going to suspect the Kremlin.

And the Public Chamber can't help the regime or the press to overcome cowardice.

Alexei Pankin is a freelance journalist based in Moscow.