In Russia, media regulator uses warnings to restrict the press

In January, Russia’s state media regulator Roskomnadzor issued warnings to six news outlets that published cartoons from French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. Roskomnadzor said the cartoons were “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims and inciting religious hatred,” and that the outlets had broken laws on media and extremism, Russian news agency Tass reported.

The warnings, sent to the newspapers RBK and Vek, news agency VK Press, and websites InterNovosti, Lenizdat, and Kurier-Media, are part of a trend of media repression. In recent months, Roskomnadzor has taken an active role in censoring media for alleged violations of laws, including the broadly formulated legislation on combating extremism. If a news outlet receives two official warnings in a year, it can be closed.

Since the media regulator was given power in February 2014 to block content without a court order, warnings have been issued to several critical online news sites that were later blocked. Websites including Grani, Yezhednevny Zhurnal, and Kasparov lost their appeals after being blocked in March. Access to them in Russia continues to be blocked.

Last summer, Roskomnadzor demanded that 14 media outlets delete coverage of a “March for Federalization of Siberia” protest. It said publishing information about the movement constituted an appeal to stir mass unrest, according to news website Newsru. Only the Russian service of the BBC rejected the regulator’s demand. Roskomnadzor did not block the site but it warned the broadcaster that it could.

Roskomnadzor’s attitude toward Russian media is different from that toward international media, Sergey Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, told CPJ. The independent Moscow-based newspaper has been appealing a warning over a September 10 article by Yuliya Latynina on links between Russian and western European culture. The article is still online, but parts of it that allegedly contained calls to extremism have been blacked out and labeled: “Censorship: Hidden on Roskomnadzor’s demand.”

“When we went to court to appeal the Roskomnadzor warning it became clear to us that appealing is practically impossible,” Sokolov told CPJ. “Roskomnadzor has never lost a case in court because all courts do is look at the presence of an official warning; they don’t look at whether the warning is fair or not.”

The iconic Ekho Moskvy radio station has also been targeted by the regulator over a live talk show, which was transcribed and published on the station’s website. The October 29 program included eyewitness accounts from two journalists of fighting in the pro-Russian rebel stronghold of Donetsk. Two days later, Roskomnadzor issued a warning saying Ekho Moskvy had broadcast information that “justified the practice of war crimes,” the station said. The warning did not cite examples of how the station had allegedly done this.

When the station tried to appeal the warning in court on January 26, Roskomnadzor said Ekho Moskvy had “staged” the program. Aleksei Venediktov, the station’s editor-in-chief, denied the accusations and argued media were not responsible for what studio guests said on air, according to press reports. The court sided with Roskomnadzor and Ekho Moskvy was forced to remove the transcript from its website, according to Russian daily RBK.

In a separate case, blogger and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg last month after exhausting all avenues to appeal in Russia over his site being blocked. The anti-corruption activist argued that blocking access to his blog was illegal and an attempt by authorities to deprive the public access to his investigations, business newspaper Vedomosti reported.

Damir Gainudtinov, Navalny’s lawyer, told CPJ that Roskomnadzor is intentionally targeting independent media outlets, bloggers, and online news platforms. “I am not aware of a single case where Roskomnadzor has issued a warning against a state media outlet for any law violation,” Gainudtinov said. “When Grani received a warning last year because of publishing a picture of a T-shirt carrying a logo of [dissident punk band] Pussy Riot, our appeal in court was futile.” While preparing for the hearing, Gainudtinov found an identical photograph in the state newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta. “I sent an inquiry to Roskomnadzor asking whether Rossiiskaya Gazeta, too, was penalized for its action.” There was no answer, Gainudtinov told CPJ. A week later, the image had been removed from the Rossiiskaya Gazeta website.

Roskomnadzor has not yet responded to a CPJ request for comment about claims that it is targeting the independent press and bloggers.

Media regulator warnings are not the only way Russia’s independent media are being suppressed. On January 1, a ban on advertisements on paid satellite and cable TV channels came into effect. The move was partially overturned by President Vladimir Putin in February, but it will still affect stations that carry less than 75 percent of Russian-generated content, according to state-run news agency Tass.

The ban was proposed at a time of dwindling viewer figures for state-run channels. Research by Russian agency TNS showed audiences for Channel One, VGTRK and NTV fell from 58 percent to 40 percent in an 11-year period ending 2013, while those for cable TV channels grew to 12 percent. The pool of paying subscribers increased in 2013 to 33.5 million households, according to research published on independent news website Slon.

The day before the advertising ban came into force, at least 40 TV channels connected to state-controlled stations Channel One, VGTRK, and Gazprom-Media received licenses from Roskomnadzor, allowing them to broadcast on a non-commercial frequency, according to RBK. The licenses exempted the channels from the ban.

Independent broadcasters have struggled to get licences. At the end of last year, Tomsk broadcaster TV2 had to close after the state-owned TV tower refused to extend its license. No reason for the refusal was given. Before it closed, the newsroom came under pressure from local authorities to change its editorial policy, Viktor Muchnik, TV2’s editor-in-chief, told The Guardian.

“I’ve never seen the media regulated as toughly as they have been in the past two years,” Galina Arapova, media lawyer and director of the Voronezh-based Mass Media Defence Center said at a forum in December. “I have practiced media law for 18 years but such tightening of the screws we have seen neither in the 1990s nor in the 2000s.”

Between 2012 and 2014, a record number of restrictive laws to regulate Russia’s media and non-governmental sectors were enacted. Last year, seven bills were passed, which introduced restrictions or toughened existing ones on the media, according to CPJ research.

[Reporting from Moscow. Translated from Russian by Nina Ognianova]