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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Razing Russia's 4th Estate

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In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly designated May 3 as World Press Freedom Day in order "to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom." But in Russia, there is little to celebrate.  

Using a range of restrictive measures and methods, the authorities have continued to shrink the space for independent journalism. The repressive methods used by the Kremlin has made the country an exceptionally dangerous place for journalists to work.

Last week, an unknown assailant beat Yaroslav Taroshenko, editor-in-chief of Korruptsiya i Prestupnost based in Rostov-on-Don, into a state of unconsciousness. In April, Sergei Protazanov of Grazhdanskoye Soglasiye, was killed in Khimki, in what some believe may have been a pre-emptive strike to silence him from producing critical reporting on election misconduct earlier this year. In January, Anastasia Baburova of the weekly Novaya Gazeta was gunned down with human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov in broad daylight on a Moscow street. While we are only five months into 2009, it has already been a brutal and bloody year for journalists.

If recent history is any guide, it is unlikely that any of the perpetrators of these crimes will be brought to justice. Of a string of journalists' deaths, including notable cases such as Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes magazine in Russia, Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya Gazeta and Ivan Safronov of Kommersant, none has been solved.

The impunity with which these crimes have been committed is telling. This dysfunctional arrangement creates a chilling effect that extends to all corners of Russia's media landscape.

Beyond the violence and intimidation there are other examples in which the independent media are squeezed. Freedom House's 2009 Russia media freedom report said the government owns two of the 14 daily newspapers, more than 60 percent of the 45,000 registered newspapers and periodicals and holds partial or full control of all six national television stations and two national radio stations.

The power of the state exerts its most important influence through control of television. This dominance allows the government to shape the news and the perceptions of those who consume it. Most Russians rely on television as their prime source of information, and they don't hear the criticisms of Kremlin opponents because networks, with Kremlin prodding, have placed these opponents on their blacklist. At a time when critical analysis of government policies is sorely needed, it is worrisome that media oriented toward entertainment and propaganda has gained such a foothold.

True, the Internet has become an increasingly important alternative outlet for informing and engaging Russian audiences, but as Internet penetration has increased, so have the authorities' measures to interfere with users' rights. These were among the principal findings from Freedom House's recently released study, "Freedom on the Net."

The authorities have also sought to muzzle foreign media outlets, including the programming of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the BBC and Voice of America. The Kremlin has undertaken a systematic intimidation campaign in which RFE/RL's Russian partners have been subjected to harassment. In a span of eight years, a total of 26 RFE/RL affiliates have been knocked off the air. Today, only seven remain.

While the slide is unambiguous in our findings, one of the distinct features of Russia's modern authoritarian model is that, unlike the Soviet model, it does not attempt to control every medial outlet. Instead, the authorities have adapted their approach and now seek to prevent or disrupt only what its politically consequential, either through direct control or indirect interference. Where the state does not have direct control, proxies like government-controlled Gazprom Media -- which owns television networks, radio stations and newspapers -- perform a similar function, with the possible exception of Ekho Moskvy radio.

By using and abusing the law, the authorities have despoiled the environment for independent media. Today, independent reporting on sensitive issues occurs as an exception to the rule. When it does occur, it often comes at a great cost. The courageous journalists at Novaya Gazeta can attest to this harsh reality.

Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization and research institute.