Letters   |   Russia

Putin should reverse steps to restrict independent press

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March 20, 2014

His Excellency Vladimir Putin
President of the Russian Federation
The Kremlin
Moscow, Russia

Sent via facsimile: +7 (495) 606-03-76; +7 (495) 910-21-34

Dear President Putin,

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedom advocacy group, is gravely concerned about recent steps to restrict Russia's independent media. The measures taken over the past three months threaten to eradicate Russian news outlets' freedom to freely report and analyze news events.

The most recent deterioration of press freedom in Russia began in December 2013, when you unexpectedly announced the dismantling of RIA Novosti, the 72-year-old national news agency. On December 9, you ordered RIA Novosti to merge with the state radio Golor Rossii (Voice of Russia) to create a supra-agency, Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today). Your decree did not provide a reason for the changes.

Then, it was announced that Rossiya Segodnya would be headed by TV manager and anchor Dmitry Kiselyov, who is known for his inflammatory anti-West and anti-gay rhetoric. These actions took Russia's press corps by surprise, including RIA Novosti's top management, who had received no advance warning of the changes. In Kiselyov's first meeting with the staff of the now-defunct RIA Novosti, he made clear that Rossiya Segodnya would not focus on reporting news events. "The question is how to position oneself as a state news agency," he said. "Often, under the slogan of objectivity, we distort the picture and look at our own country as if it were foreign. I think that this period of distilled, estranged journalism is over."

Next to be taken off the air was the independent Internet and cable TV station Dozhd (Rain). Just as thousands of journalists prepared to descend on Sochi to cover the Winter Olympics, authorities apparently resorted to pushing a third party to help silence Dozhd. The broadcaster was known for its critical coverage and investigative reporting and, at the time of its closure, was transmitting live from Kiev, the scene of mass anti-government protests, in which opponents of the now-ousted, Russia-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych were demonstrating against his backing off from a treaty with the European Union.

On January 26, Dozhd ran an opinion poll that asked whether the Soviet Union should have surrendered the city of Leningrad to save lives that were lost in the World War II-era siege by Nazi Germany. The station quickly pulled the poll off its website and apologized. Public officials, including presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, spoke out against it anyway. On January 29, Peskov said Dozhd had "crossed a moral-ethical red line." In early February, cable and satellite operators dropped Dozhd from their service packages, shrinking the station's reach from 18 million to two million homes. Today, in a one-two punch, tax authorities descended on the Dozhd newsroom and demanded to see copies of the station's rent documents. At the same time, Myasnitskaya 35, the company that rents Dozhd its offices, told the station that the staff had to vacate the premises when the lease expired on June 20, Dozhd's main investor, Aleksandr Vinokurov said on Facebook. Dozhd is on the brink of closure.

In February, the management of Russia's iconic liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) was reshuffled without explanation. Gazprom Media, the state-controlled holding company and main shareholder in Ekho Moskvy, replaced top manager Yuri Fedutinov, who had directed the station since 1992, with state television employee Yekaterina Pavlova.

On March 12, the owner of Lenta, Russia's most widely read independent news website, suddenly fired Editor-in-Chief Galina Timchenko, and replaced her with Aleksei Goreslavsky, the former editor of the pro-Kremlin, openly nationalistic website Vzglyad. Lenta's owner, Aleksandr Mamut, did not explain the reasons for the reshuffle.

Earlier, the media regulator Roskomnadzor had admonished Lenta for publishing a link to a statement made by a Ukrainian rightist politician who Russia has deemed a criminal. The politician's statement contained the words, "sooner or later we are destined to fight the Moscow Empire," which, Roskomnadzor said, amounted to inciting ethnic discord.

Immediately following Timchenko's sacking, 39 Lenta staff members left the website. The same day, the website ran an open letter to Lenta's readers, signed by more than 80 staffers, which read, in part: "We consider [Goreslavsky's] appointment direct pressure on the newsroom. The sacking of an independent chief editor and the appointment of a controllable, including by the Kremlin's offices, person--this is a violation of the media law, which bans censorship."

The letter openly blamed the Kremlin for drastically shrinking the space for independent journalism in Russia over the past couple of years: "Some publications are directly controlled by the Kremlin, others--via curators; a third part--by editors, who are afraid to lose their jobs. ... The trouble is not that we have nowhere left to work. The trouble is that you, it seems, have nothing left to read."

As if to validate Lenta's apprehension, the next day authorities blocked access to several independent and pro-opposition news websites, including Ezhednevny Zhurnal, Grani, Kasparov, and the website of Ekho Moskvy. The popular blog of anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny and the personal blogging platform LiveJournal were also blocked. The move was in accordance with a restrictive law, signed by you on January 30 and implemented on February 1, which allows government agencies to block Internet publications for "containing calls for unsanctioned acts of protest" without court approval. The prosecutor general's office, which ordered the websites' blocking, did not specify which articles were illegal.

These moves come at a time of political crisis in Ukraine, to which Russia is party. The ability of Russia's independent media to function without fear of harassment and obstruction is crucial for both Russia's domestic audience and the international community. A free flow of information is vital to conflict resolution; censorship, filtering, and restricting independent media contribute to the deepening of crises and the closing of societies to the world. As a start, we urge you to reinstate the independent editors and media managers who were ousted in the past few months; call on cable and satellite providers to pick up Dozhd TV broadcasts; and return unfettered access to the independent websites blocked this month, including the popular anti-corruption blog of Aleksei Navalny.

President Putin, the steps to restrict Russian media outlined in this letter do not fit with an image of a modern Russia. Press freedom is a hard-earned right in your country, and Russia's independent press took decades to build after the dissolving of the Soviet Union. The media also played a crucial role in the thaw and eventual ending of the Cold War. Without a free press, old hostilities and manufactured fears of perceived enemies can be resurrected all too easily. We urge you to ensure that they are not.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director


Cc List:

Russia Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak

U.S. Embassy in Russia Deputy Chief of Mission Sheila Gwaltney

Russia Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy Catherine Ashton

President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy

Director of the Office of the Greek Presidency, Ambassador Dimitris Caramitsos-Tziras

EU Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis

Vice President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda for Europe Neelie Kroes

President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz

Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament Elmar Brok

Chair of the European Parliament Human Rights Subcommittee Barbara Lochbihler

Chair of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Guy Verhofstadt

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue

OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks

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