Quick Facts According to the Freedom House on Russia in 2016:
- Russia is NOT FREE in terms of press freedom
- They have an 83/100 on their press freedom score (100 being the worst)
- Russia is scored at a 34/40 in having a bad political environment
- They got a 25/30 on their current legal environment (30 being the worst)
- On their economic environment, Russia got a bad score of 24/30
First Amendment-Like Laws?
Under the Russian Federation’s constitution, Russians have freedom of speech and expression. Also, the mass media has complete freedom and censorship is forbidden under Article 29 in Section 1 Chapter 2 of the constitution.
Let that sink in.
After the statistics above of how NOT FREE Russia is, you can see that their constitution outlines the exact opposite. So, why is Russia really not free? That has everything to do with the current president in power, Vladimir Putin.
Russian media does practice a high level of censorship. Most of what the media portrays is based on official statements by Vladimir Putin. Putin has the power to hire and fire specific positions within large media organizations. According to the HuffPost, Putin appoints editors and directors either officially or unofficially. Also, the editor-in-chief of Russia’s major independent radio station, Echo Moskvy, can only be fired by Putin himself.
The HuffPost goes on to report that top Russian media outlets have weekly meetings with the presidential administration to go over what news should be covered and how they want to cover it (well the news they can control such as politics and government business.)
But, most reporters were not fighting for the freedom of speech they once had at the end of the Soviet era. Reporters used to be able to write and say things critically about the Kremlin before Putin came to power. It became something of the “new normal.” Not all reporters have the same values, but the majority of reporters go along with the censorship because they were bought by big companies or take the risk of losing their job by not obeying the general “censorship laws.”
So, with so many media outlets obeying Putin’s press standards, it is no wonder that Russian citizens believe everything they see or hear from the media. No, not all organizations have the people’s trust, but they are still subject to what is reported because that is the only “truth” they hear.
Pressures for Journalists
Most Russian journalists face political pressure when reporting. A lot of restrictions are imposed on journalists which hinders their ability to be transparent.
A new law introduced in 2015 outlawed media outlets from reporting or reproducing material from “undesired” foreign organizations that pose a threat to national security or engage in various forms of activism according to The Moscow Times.
This law did not specify the repercussions for violating its terms nor did it outline or give an example of what an “undesirable” foreign organization is. This puts all Russian journalists at risk. With no indication of the perimeters of the law, they have to self-censor all of the materials they cover. This stands for journalists who work independently, for a state-owned organization, or for a business/independent-owned organization.
However, if individuals breech this law, the first penalty is around a $300 fine while the second penalty is up to six years in prison. So, media outlets are allowed to say that these organizations exist, but they cannot provide any content or material surrounding the organization. This puts up each journalist for their own censorship to evade the vague repercussions of this law.
Another form of government and political restriction was introduced in 2014 where bloggers are now held to the same standards as the mass media outlets. Before 2014, bloggers could say what they wanted with no limitations or censorship. When Putin got reelected in 2012, he reformed the internet laws so that bloggers are now condemned to the same rules as professional journalists according to the International Business Times.
The crackdown on the internet has only progressed since the introduction of the law in 2014. Putin has no problem penalizing those who break the law, blacklisting them from the internet, or taking down an internet organization all together.
How Do Journalists Still Operate Despite the Restrictions?
Most journalists operate very discretely due to the nature of their government and the restrictions on their practices. Those Russian Journalists who are more liberal and want the ability to criticize the government or other media practices, go on to independent news outlets or become freelance journalists.
However, even though those Russian journalists want to be fully transparent, they are at higher risks of personal danger when doing so. Because of fear of repercussions and straying from societal norms, most journalists have turned to taking the censorship with a grain of salt.
Russian journalists see censorship as a damaging media practice, but they do not want to lose their jobs or risk harming their reputation over a statement or an article. A lot of what journalists focus on is what they can control such as local news stories, business facts, or human interest pieces. In regards to the government, they do not criticize the Kremlin, but just present facts which is the main way that they get around to informing the public without impairing their reputation or facing repercussions.
Conclusions on Press Freedom
There will be no way around the restrictions that are condemned on Russian journalists while Putin is in power. There may be a slight chance for change in media if there was another president in power, in which they would have the option to relinquish freedom of the press as it once was at the end of the Soviet era before Putin’s reign.
Journalists in Russia either deal with the censorship laws and the risk of criminal charges, or they turn to go report elsewhere. Most journalists that do report elsewhere mainly go to Ukraine from the research I have done. But, there is no way that media organizations can be transparent or even trusted when the government has control over almost every media entity.
May 13th, 2016: According to The Moscow Times, three top managers leave Russia’s leading independent news organization, RBC. Some believe that the reason for the top managers leaving was due to pressures from the authorities and the pushing of censorship from the company’s owner. After the editor-in-chief of the paper was fired by the owner of the company, and then RBC’s other top executives resigned. This came about after a series of raids at the paper due to the governments dislike of reports on the Panama Papers. This brought out numerous investigations by the government and led to 13 more employees to hand in their resignation at the paper.
I believe that The Moscow Times did an adequate job of explaining the issue and the facts behind the problem. They did not criticize any entity in doing so, and they also informed readers with the most relevant information. This applies directly to freedom of press because it shows real repercussions of the governments dislike of newspapers and reports that are not favorable. This allows for people’s jobs and lives to come into question.
May 15th, 2016: The Eurovision singing competition that is taken very seriously in Europe has led central Moscow to express anger and dismissal according to The Guardian. This famous singing competition was just won by a Crimean Tatar native that is living in Ukraine. The singer Jamala was representing Ukraine and sang “1944” that had lyrics regarding the deportation of Ukrainians and focused on the new issues of Crimea from 2014 between Ukraine and Russia. The Russian contestant was placed third in the competition. Russia has threatened to boycott next years competition.
The coverage by The Guardian of this topic was fair in revealing both sides of the issue, (meaning the Ukrainian and Russian side.) Moscow was angered because of the political stance that Jamala’s song carried and how it portrayed Russia as “evil.” I think that they did a good job of explaining the contest and the political turmoil behind it. The most interesting part of this story was that it was not heavily covered by Russian media. Although many Russians are aware of the song and the outcome of the contest, Russian media outlets failed to report that much or anything on it. This further demonstrates how Russian media is censored because the government will not allow its own media to put the country in an unfavorable light.