Baku, January 16 – Using some carrots and a lot of sticks, Russian officials over the last year have shut down the independent media outlets in Chita oblast, a campaign they may have assumed no one would notice because this occurred so far from Moscow but one that now has been exposed by a courageous media rights activist there.
In an article posted timed to coincide with last Sunday’s Day of the Russian Press, Vitaliy Cherkasov, a member of the Union of Journalists of Russia and head of the Transbaikal Human Rights Center, traces step by step what these officials have done to destroy the free press there (http://www.hro1.org/node/839).
Cherkasov says that during the campaign, Chita officials sometimes acting at Moscow’s urging and at others on their own but with the certainty that Moscow would back them up used “all” the administrative “levers’ at their disposal to subvert the Constitution’s guarantees of media freedom.
What triggered this “crusade” in Chita, he said, was Moscow’s campaign to win approval for its plan to merge the Agin-Buryat Autonomous District with Chita oblast. Local officials were told, he said, that the population had to demonstrate “unqualified support” for the Kremlin’s proposal
The region’s “loyal” media, of course, needed no convincing, he said. But officials arranged “conversations with the editors of publications less well disposed” to the authorities so that the journalists would know “what could be written and what it would be better not to write about.”
A signal event in this effort occurred on February 1. On that date, Russian Radio-Chita went off the air after 11 years of broadcasting. The “official” explanation was that this had to do with “brand” name issues, but employees of the station say that it was the result of the station’s critical coverage of the referendum on unification.
At the same time, officials in Chita tried to close down the last remaining independent rayon newspaper, Vsemu naperekor in Petrovsk-Zabaykalskiy. Its editor, Natalya Filinova, was forced “underground” for a time by threats, the seizure of print runs and other forms of harassment.
What is important to understand, Cherkasov continued, is that by acting so harshly against the few, the many generally got the message and fell in line, thus guaranteeing their incomes and possibly seeing them increase because of the declining number of competitors for sales and advertising.
In May, the local company that had been retranslating REN-TV stopped doing so apparently under pressure from local and regional authorities unhappy with its “Week” program which in Cherkasov’s words “permitted itself to evaluate the situation in Russia from a critical point of view.”
Having driven REN-TV off the air, the journalist said, Chita officials gave that channel to a Chita company which uses taxpayer funs to “propagandize ‘the achievements’ of the city and oblast administration from morning to night.”
Local law enforcement officers got into the act not only as enforcers for their political bosses but also on their own behalf. Apparently sensing that they enjoyed particular support in the Russian capital, they visited various media outlets to ensure that the latter would not feature “any criticism” of the militia or prosecutors.
Then, in advance of the Russian parliamentary elections on December 2, Chita closed down Regnovosti.ru because it had been critical of the Kremlin’s preferred candidates of the party of power. Its editors said the closure was only “temporary,” but Cherkasov suggested that their site won’t be allowed to return unless it changes its tune.
And at the same time, local prosecutors tried to get the regional IP provider Sibir’telekom to restrict the access of local Internet users to sites with content that “violates the integrity of the Russian Federation, undermines the security of the state, and stirs social, racial and religious hostility.”
Sibir’telekom responded that “the majority of the sites” of concern were not hosted by it or even by other Russian IPs. Consequently, the authorities could demand that it close down all Internet access if they wanted to suffer the loss in information, but they could not ask Sibir’telekom to shut some of them. It can’t, the company said.
But Chita officials clearly are not through with the Internet. Earlier this month, they forced the local city site, www.Chita.ru to drop its “Cactus Forum” because too many visitors to that page were leaving posts critical of the authorities. Now, the page which had included “Cactus” features the far more anodyne “Weather in Chita.”
(Russian officials at present seem particularly concerned about Internet forums, one of the freest and sometimes least responsible parts of the web. Recently, they succeeded in forcing Ingushetia.ru to shut its forums down, lest extremist statements on them become the basis for criminal charges against that site’s operators.)
There is little reason to “envy” journalists in Chita, Cherkasov said. “They are caught between a rock and a hard place: Either they can keep their salaries and support their families [by toeing the line] or they can land among their unemployed colleagues” who have tried to maintain journalistic standards.
If they choose to do the first, they will not serve society or live up to their commitments. But if they choose the second, which is in many ways morally preferable, many of them in today’s Russia quite often will not be able function as journalists because no outlet can afford to hire them
But like Cherkasov himself, some of them are bravely soldiering on by turning to the Internet where even from the most distant corners of the Russian Federation, men and women like themselves can report the kind of news that Moscow and its minions in the provinces would very much prefer that no one heard about.