Vienna, August 25 – The past ten days featured three disturbing developments on the Russian media scene: the incautious use by mainstream outlets of reports by xenophobic groups, the destruction of blogs written by those the Kremlin doesn’t like, and official threats to close papers that quote “extremist” materials in order to criticize them.
The first of these developments is far and away the most frightening. The SOVA Center which tracks the treatment of religious and ethnic groups inside the Russian Federation reports that “part of the Russian mass media is simply repeating the information of the DPNI [the Movement Against Illegal Immigration]” without bothering to check its accuracy.
The watchdog site gives as examples reporting by Rosbalt-Povolzh’ye a week ago in which that news outlet reproduced stories from DPNI without pointing out that DPNI activists have a vested interest in exacerbating tension and have issued reports later shown to be exaggerated or even largely invented (xeno.sova-center.ru/213716E/213988B/B93DEDC).
By disseminating such materials, SOVA noted, such “a respectable agency” is not only lending credibility to what that xenophobic group is saying but is contributing to the further deterioration of inter-ethnic relations in the Russian Federation, relations that have become significantly worse since the start of the Russian-Georgian war.
Tragically, in reporting the numerous instances in which Rosbalt-Povolzh’ye has done this, SOVA said that other agencies, including the widely cited “Novyy Region” are doing it as well (http://www.nr2.ru/moskow/192092.html), a development that does not promise anything good for inter-ethnic accord inside the Russian Federation.
The second disturbing development this week was the destruction by hackers of the blog and website of Oleg Panfilov, the director of the Moscow Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. His blog was taken down, apparently with Moscow’s support, because he has been reporting from Tbilisi during the last two weeks (www.agentura.ru/?id=1219606860).
Russian hackers, often at the urging of Russian officials have frequently attacked the websites of those the Kremlin does not like. The case of Russian hacker attacks on Estonia attracted international attention. But now Moscow is moving into the blogosphere as well, an indication that it plans to tighten the screws on one of the last free spaces in the Russian media.
And the third disturbing development involves the creation of a Catch-22 situation for Russian journalists who want to report on and criticize extremist materials. An article in “Novyye izvestiya” a week ago reported that “Novaya gazeta v Sankt-Petersburg” had been told it might be shut down for quoting extremists in the course of criticizing them.
That leaves journalists with few good choices in discussing and countering the increasingly numerous and noxious extremist ideas circulating in Russia. Under this new official arrangement, the media have to criticize without quoting or their livelihood and the continued operation of their papers may be at risk (www.newizv.ru/news/2008-08-18/96180/).
Undoubtedly, Russian officials will claim that what they are doing will prevent newspapers and other media outlets from spreading such noxious ideas, but in fact, this approach, combined with Moscow’s willingness to allow agencies like Rosbalt-Povolzh’ye to carry DPNI materials, beyond any doubt will make it easier for extremists to spread their venom.
The cure for bad information is good information, not the suppression of the bad; and the cure for evil ideas is active criticism of them and the even more active presentation of good ones. Unfortunately, the Russian government under Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin show no sign of being willing to distance themselves from some of the worst forces in Russian life.