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Media Repression Hits New Low in Russia

July 19, 2013

Alexei Navalny (37), a prominent dissident and an important figure in the opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin was sentenced on July 17 to five years in prison  for embezzlement, but released soon after on bail pending appeal.
Navalny, whose conviction in a court in Kirov follows years of persecution for his grassroots activism against corruption and abuse of power by Putin’s United Russia party, first rose to prominence as a blogger.
“This whole case reeks of political vindictiveness for Navalny’s corruption revelations and political challenge to Putin and United Russia,” said David J. Kramer, president of the New York-based rights organisation Freedom House.
Another victim of Russia’s suppression of the media is Ilya Barabanov, deputy editor of Novoye Vremya, who was awarded the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism in 2010. Speaking of the brutal censorship in his country, Barabanov said in his acceptance speech in October 2010, “Over the past 10 years an unhelpful notion has developed that any media outlet in Russia which allows itself to write about politics without adjusting its position to that of the Kremlin, is, by definition, in opposition.”
Although Navalny’s bail application was accepted hours after his conviction there are two competing theories for the reason, and neither of them have anything to do with the law. Some are of the opinion that public protests against the sentence, some which turned violent, had persuaded the authorities to agree to bail. Others attribute a more sinister motive. Navalny is contesting municipal elections in Moscow scheduled September 8.  The proponents of this theory believe that he was freed to contest elections and lose, hoping the loss would undermine his legitimacy as a credible opponent of Putin.
Analysing trends in Russia’s media freedom in 2012, Freedom House said on May 3, “Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has emerged as a laboratory for the development of methods to suppress media freedom in the post-totalitarian era. Outright censorship has been eliminated, and outlets are left relatively free to pursue commercial success with entertainment programming, sports coverage, and news content on non-sensitive subjects. While their reach is limited, a few niche publications with more critical material have been allowed to survive.” Freedom House observes that influential media platforms such as television stations were brought under direct state control to serve as propaganda instruments of the Kremlin and journalists like Navalny are “depicted … as extremists, criminals, and traitors, paid by shadowy foreign interests to undermine Russia.”
Other instruments pursued Russian leaders are much harsher. One of them is murdering journalists. To commemorate the death of Natalia Estemirova, a Russian journalist from the North Caucuses killed exactly four years ago, and six others, a meeting was organised in Paris by Reporters without Borders (RSF) on July 17. RSF says 30 journalists have been killed in Russia from 2000.
“This (North Caucus) region’s population lives in fear of reporting the violence and abuses it has to endure, and those whose job is to report the violence no longer succeed in breaking the silence. The situation in this region is alarming, and journalists and human rights defenders can barely operate there,” RSF’s secretary general Chritophe Deloire said.
The most recent victim was Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev of the Dagastan-based Noveo Delo newspaper who was gunned down on July 9. “We have no doubt that Akmednabi’s murder was linked to his work. He was the paper’s political editor and wrote widely about the rights of Muslims and extra-judicial shootings. His latest story, published on 5 July, was critical of the region’s governor,” the deputy editor of Noveo Delo told RSF. RSF places Russia 148 of 179 countries in its 2013 press freedom index.
Meanwhile there is thinking that with the conviction of Navalny for embezzlement, a line has been crossed in the persecution of dissidents and whistleblowers in Russia. Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution and author of ‘Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin’ told PBS News Hour on July 17, that Navalny “[w]as dispensed with from the Kremlin point of view in a very public and humiliating fashion… What they have done is to turn around on Navalny the accusations he has been throwing at the system of corruption…”
Hill said there was a lot of “cynicism across the board of the political game being played out in Moscow.” She went on to quote a survey by the Lavada Centre showing 20% of Russians interviewed seemed to believe that the whole system was full of corruption and the opposition people too were in the game of enriching themselves.”  She said the conviction would have a chilling effect on the opposition
Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.