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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Russian Media Freedom on the Decline

From Bloomberg

Hat Tip La Russophobe

April 10 President Vladimir Putin has already brought Russian newspapers and television to heel. Now he's turning his attention to the Internet.

As the Kremlin gears up for the election of Putin's successor next March, Soviet-style controls are being extended to online news after a presidential decree last month set up a new agency to supervise both mass media and the Web.

``It's worrying that this happened ahead of the presidential campaign,'' Roman Bodanin, political editor of Gazeta.ru, Russia's most prominent online news site, said in a telephone interview. ``The Internet is the freest medium of communication today because TV is almost totally under government control, and print media largely so.''

All three national TV stations are state-controlled, and the state gas monopoly, OAO Gazprom, has been taking over major newspapers; self-censorship is routine. That has left the Internet as the main remaining platform for political debate, and Web sites that test the boundaries of free speech are already coming under pressure.

In December, a court in the Siberian region of Khakassia shut down the Internet news site Novy Fokus for not registering as a media outlet. The site, known for its critical reporting, reopened in late March after it agreed to register and accept stricter supervision.

Anticompromat.ru, which wrote about Putin's pre-presidential business interests, had to find a U.S. Web server after a Russian service provider pulled the plug March 28, saying it had been warned by officials to stop hosting the site.

Last year, the authorities shut down a Web site called Kursiv in the city of Ivanovo, northeast of Moscow, that lampooned Putin as a ``phallic symbol of Russia'' for his drive to boost the birthrate.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia isn't restricting media freedom and that the new agency isn't aimed at policing the Web.

``If you watch TV, even federal TV channels, you'll hear lots of criticism of the government,'' Peskov said in an interview. ``This new agency will be in charge of licensing. It's not about controlling the Internet.''

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