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Moscow’s New Rules for Newspapers

Adam Federman has an excellent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review on the state of the Russian press, and the informal set of rules journalists must navigate to avoid the wrath of the Kremlin and their wealthy friends. As the Times recently noted, the atmosphere for political dissent on Russian TV has been so bad for so long that Russian political TV stars have had to flee to neighboring Ukraine to find work, leaving radio stations like Echo Moskvyi, newspapers and Internet publications to pick up the slack.

While it is difficult to underestimate the chilling effects of the assasination of journalists on political reporting (four from Novoya Gazeta alone have been killed), Federman found a number of Russians willing to navigate the maze of political and financial red lines that if crossed can lead to the end of their careers, or even their lives, in pursuit of hard hitting stories on corruption and critical analysis of the government. As one western reporter who covers Russia told Federman: “For every journalist who gets killed there must be twenty who decide that they’re not going to write the story that they might have written.” But, as Federman writes, there is some room left for optimism:

[L]ately the faint outlines of a new paradigm seem to be emerging. Several independent magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek, Forbes, The New Times, Vedomosti, and Novaya Gazeta, have survived longer than might have been expected given the circumstances. And they usually publish what they want, free of interference from the state. At the same time, Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, has made a point of reaching out to critics, even granting Novaya Gazeta the first full-length interview of his presidency, an unimaginable gesture under Putin.

“We live on islands in Russia,” Maxim Trudolyubov, the opinion-page editor of Vedomostitells me in a quiet café not far from the subway entrance where Markelov and Baburova were shot last January. He’s referring to the large body of state-controlled media—what he calls a continent—and the small handful of independent newspapers and magazines that publish freely. Last June, Vedomosti launched an investigative desk, headed by Irina Reznik, a leading expert on Gazprom, who writes frequently about Putin’s circle of friends. “If you do it the right way, usually you can do it and get away with it,” Trudolyubov says.

And even though it’s reach is still quite limited, the Internet has provided another inexpensive route for quality journalism (and, as we’ve noted here before, Internet penetration is expanding rapidly).

[S]everal Russian Web sites have become increasingly important as both sources of information and public forums. and are the pet projects of Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky, respectively, exiled oligarchs and media moguls who were early casualties of the Putin era. According to a 2008 Reuters Institute report on the Web in Russia, both sites “carry generally reliable and often critical information and comment.” Meanwhile, other large news sites—including and the liberal-leaning—have expanded their presence.

For now the Web is a largely unregulated and open space. In 2007, when the FSB unofficially tried to force Moscow Internet providers to block access to a host of Web sites, including, a political news site founded by Garry Kasparov, the chess legend, only a handful acquiesced. Oleg Panfilov, director of Moscow’s Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, who is working on a study of the Internet and freedom of speech in Russia, says that even though the authorities are starting to use legal measures, such as a relatively new law against extremism, to intimidate and even silence bloggers, it is too late for them to turn the Web into a kind of state-run media monopoly. “It is technically impossible to control the Internet in Russia,” he told me. Unlike China, Panfilov says, Internet service providers in Russia are privately owned, and have largely resisted efforts on the part of the state to manipulate content.

I think our different research platforms here at Berkman will be able to tell us a great deal about just how different the stories in these ‘islands of freedom,’ especially those online, are from media outlets controlled by those close to the Kremlin, but in the mean time this piece is well worth the read for its qualitative take on the state of newspapers and independent journalism in Russia.

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