Russia’s press freedom score back down after crackdown

January 31, 2013

Russia has had a busy year clamping down on dissent, and now the Kremlin’s got something to show for it. The international non-profit organization Reporters Without Borders released its annual press freedom index on Wednesday, knocking six points from Russia’s 2012 score and ranking the country 148th out of 179 in the world for respecting media freedom.

According to the report, an “unprecedented” number of protests following Vladimir Putin’s return to a third term as president prompted Russia to respond by introducing more repressive measures. Let’s take a quick look at where Russia lost points. The report first provides context for the government’s response:

“Opposition protests on an unprecedented scale showed civil society to be more vocal than ever.”

Last winter, anti-Putin protests attracted large turnouts, with the biggest demonstrations drawing up to 100,000 people.  Protesters donned white ribbons, a symbol of the protests, and often braved below-freezing temperatures to voice their anger over Putin’s now 13-year rule.

In February 2012, a feminist punk band called Pussy Riot garnered international attention when three women clad in balaclavas stormed Moscow’s main cathedral, shouting anti-Putin slogans. This, among other government protests, was unacceptable to the Kremlin, and a Russian court sentenced members of Pussy Riot to years in harsh prison camps on charges of “hooliganism.”

Over the next year, according to the report, the government tightened control over the press using several new methods:

“The state responded [to opposition protests] with a wholesale crackdown: re-criminalization of defamation, tighter control of the Internet, making foreign funding of human rights organizations a crime.”

The first of these tactics — criminalizing defamation — is billed as a way to hold individuals, including journalists, accountable for potentially reputation-damaging claims. Yet in practice, critics say, it is used to muzzle the opposition and limit freedom of expression. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based non-profit, says high fines imposed by the new Russian law could be used to “financially destroy the independent press,” putting all but state-owned media outlets out of business.

New laws on Internet access, passed under the guise of shielding children from pornography and other unsuitable sites, also led the opposition to cry foul. Russia’s “blacklist” of blocked sites impeded on one of the last free outlets for dissent in the media.

The third prong of the crackdown targets nonprofit organizations, forcing those that receive international funding to call themselves “foreign agents.” This label reeks of “spying,” and threatens to hamper non-government organizations’ work in the country. To the government, it’s an easier way to discredit any “political” activities by the organizations that could “influence public opinion” and minimize foreign influence.

The Reporters Without Borders report placed Russia on its list of “bad models” for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Indeed, a couple of Russia’s neighbors are hot on its heels, with Azerbaijan and Belarus — which boasts Europe’s last dictatorship — edging up the press freedom ranking. If this year’s ranking changes continue as a trend, Russia won’t be ahead of them for long.

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