When Vladimir Putin came to power at the dawn of the 21st century Russia had a thriving, pluralistic media and a progressive media law. Now it is one of the world’s most dangerous places to ply the trade. As Putin celebrated his 70th birthday this weekend, to the backdrop of military failure and the destruction of the lifeline bridge to Crimea, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) published a factfile on the crushing of a nation’s vocal chords over the past 22 years. It is a harrowing list of murder, torture and imprisonment.
Read in Russian/читать на русском – courtesy of Reporters Sans Frontières
“Vladimir Putin is celebrating his 70th birthday but there is nothing to celebrate for the independent press, which is literally on the verge of extinction,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Journalists are forced to hide or flee to practice their profession, or to censor themselves to avoid being arrested for refusing to cooperate with authorities.”
- 37 journalists killed because of their work
Impunity for crimes of violence against journalists has worsened since Putin’s election as president in March 2000. Nearly 40 of them have lost their lives in connection with their work. The most prominent victims include Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in her apartment building exactly 16 years ago, on 7 October 2006. She was well-known for her coverage of the wars in Chechnya for Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow investigative newspaper that was co-founded by 2021 Nobel peace laureate Dmitri Muratov and was recently closed by court order. It has become the symbol of the fight for press freedom in Russia. No fewer than five of its collaborators have been murdered in the past two decades.
- 43 war crimes against media outlets
The Kremlin’s war in Ukraine is also an information war in which the media are on the front line. RSF has already documented 43 war crimes by Russian forces on Ukrainian territory – targeting more than 100 journalists and 11 television towers – since the invasion was launched on 24 February. Eight journalists have been killed and 17 injured (see our map of the violations). RSF has filed seven complaints with the International Criminal Court and Ukraine’s prosecutor general.
- At least 19 journalists in prison
Hundreds of journalists have been arrested since Putin took over, especially in recent years. The goal is to intimidate and deter critics. At least 19 journalists are currently held in Russian prisons on trumped-up charges including publishing false information, drug possession and funding terrorism. Considered one of Russia’s best investigative journalists, Ivan Safronov, for example, was sentenced to 22 years in prison on 5 September for revealing supposed “state secrets” that were openly available online.
Of these 19 imprisoned journalists, six were arrested in Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed by Russia in 2014, and are being held in Crimea or in Russia for political reasons. Many of them have been tortured, such as Vladislav Yesipenko, a reporter for Krym.realii, the local branch of the US broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
- 183 media labelled “foreign agents”
The justice ministry’s “foreign agents” media register now lists 183 names – persons or entities – compared with just a dozen before December 2020. Those on the register must declare that they are “foreign agents” at the top of everything they publish. “Foreign agent” status not only aims to discredit media and journalists in the eyes of their readers but also imposes a heavy administrative burden. Failure to comply with these obligations is punishable by fines or imprisonment for up to five years.
- More than 50 laws restricting press freedom
Censorship has developed massively under Putin, especially by means of legislation. Draconian laws have been produced at such a frenetic pace in recent years that parliament has been dubbed the “mad printing press.” Loosely worded and interpretable almost at will, these laws are permanent threats hanging over bloggers and journalists. As a result of intense legislative or economic pressures, many media have been forced to shut down over the years. At least five news sites, including the investigative website Proekt, had to close in the months preceding the parliamentary elections in September 2021.
Putin signed around 100 pieces of legislation on 30 December 2020 alone, many of them restricting online media freedom and free speech and contravening the Russian constitution and international standards. In a November 2019 report on online censorship in Russia, RSF identified 27 laws adopted from 2012 to 2019 that directly affected the media. Another 19 were listed in an updated version of the report in July 2021. At least seven Orwellian laws have also been adopted since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Under a law passed on 4 March. journalists can be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison if they publish information about the Russian armed forces that the authorities deem to be “false” or to have “discredited” them.
- More than 300 journalists have fled
The intensified persecution of the past seven months has driven entire news organisations to leave Russia in order to be able to continue working abroad. This journalistic brain drain had already begun before February 2022, and included the launch of Meduza in Latvia in 2014, but it has accelerated since , with such independent media as Novaya Gazeta and Dozhd TV (TV Rain) now operating partly from abroad.
- 1.2 million websites blocked
Roskomsvoboda, a Russian NGO that combats online censorship, reports that more than 1,243,000 sites have been blocked in Russia since it began monitoring in November 2012, and that 517,000 are still censored, including nearly 7,000 since the start of the war in Ukraine last February. They include dozens of media outlets, such as Russia’s most popular news site, Meduza, for which RSF has created an alternative “mirror” site to restore access. They also include Mediazona, Deutsche Welle, The New Times and Novaya Gazeta. Europe. Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, was included in RSF’s list of digital press freedom predators in 2020.