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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Democracy's Facade

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One could have hoped that Anna Politkovskaya's brutal murder and the international condemnation that followed would have set Russia's besieged press environment on a different course. With hindsight, however, her death represented a harbinger of more repression to come. Since she was killed Oct. 7, the crackdown on Russian news media has proceeded unabated and, if anything, with even greater ferocity.

The assault on the media has gained momentum in the lead up to the December parliamentary and March presidential elections, which will define the country's leadership succession. These elections are tightly controlled enterprises, and the Kremlin is not leaving anything to chance. Democracy in Russia is more a facade than a reality, and a premium is placed on "managed transfer" of power. In this system of governance, media are a pivotal instrument of control and this explains, at least in part, why the Kremlin continues to tighten its grip.

In the time since Politkovskaya was killed, the authorities have applied a full range of methods -- regulatory, economic, judicial, as well as harassment and intimidation -- to strengthen their media dominance.

On the legislative front, the Kremlin has pushed through amendments to broaden the law on extremism. This month, provisions will take force expanding the definition of extremism to include public discussion of such activity, and they will give law enforcement officials broad authority to suspend media outlets that do not comply with the new restrictions. These amendments come on the heels of a law President Vladimir Putin signed in July 2006 that expanded the definition of extremist activity to grant the authorities virtually unchecked power against critics.

The authorities shut down the Educated Media Foundation, the Russian affiliate of Internews, a respected, global media nongovernmental organization that provides training and support to journalists and news organizations. The Educated Media Foundation suspended its work following a raid in April on its Moscow headquarters. Police seized financial documents and computer servers as part of a supposed criminal investigation of the organization's president, Manana Aslamazian, in connection with her failure to declare cash she brought into the country.

Physical intimidation and murder remain constants feature of Russia's media landscape. In March, just five months after Politkovskaya's murder, Ivan Safronov, a defense correspondent for Kommersant, plunged to his death from his apartment building in Moscow and became the latest journalist to die under unclear circumstances. He reported last year on the failed test launches of Russia's latest submarine-based nuclear missile, which reportedly infuriated defense officials. Safronov was apparently also investigating sales of missiles and advanced fighter jets to Iran and Syria via Belarus, and authorities had threatened him with criminal investigation in connection with his plans to write on this sensitive subject.

As part of the broader pattern, the state is paying more attention to international media, especially international broadcasting. The authorities have focused on the broadcasts of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, whose radio programming provides an alternative news voice to listeners across the country. The Kremlin has undertaken an intimidation campaign against RFE/RL's partners -- Russian radio stations that rebroadcast Radio Liberty programs -- subjecting them to debilitating harassment. In August, Bolshoye Radio, a Moscow radio station, announced that it would no longer carry the BBC's Russian-language broadcasts. Although technical violations were cited as the official reason for the station's decision to pull the BBC off the air, many condemned the act as censorship.

The campaign of repression comes on top of a systematic effort since Putin came to power to cleanse the country's media landscape of independent voices of political consequence. All of the major national television channels, from which most people get their news, have come under state control during the Putin era. State-managed media now function as a propaganda machine slavishly touting the Kremlin's achievements, bringing to mind Brezhnev-era news standards.

The official inquiry into Politkovskaya's murder could have represented an important step forward, but it has seemingly fallen apart. Almost a year into the investigation, Prosecutor General Yury Chaika removed the inquiry's key investigator, an official who had won the respect of Politkovskaya's colleagues.

In a system of rule by law rather than rule of law, it is not surprising that the Politkovskaya case has become a window into the larger problems confronting the country, the very issues on which she so courageously reported: political violence, corruption and lawlessness.

Meanwhile, the grim state of affairs for press freedom in Russia cannot be viewed in a vacuum. The ability of journalists and editors to freely and independently ply their trade tends to be a barometer for other fundamental freedoms. The crackdown on the press has wider implications for the country's capacity to normalize its politics, address rampant graft and develop effective, institutions based on the rule of law.

As Russia girds itself for a critical change of leadership, the news media's downward trajectory bodes poorly for its democratic prospects.

Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House. Robert Orttung is a senior fellow at the Jefferson Institute.