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Press Freedom in Russia - Putin as a Dog

Western media freedom ranking organizations keep telling us that Russian journalists are 'not free'. The facts suggest otherwise.

We talked to faculty members of the journalism department at Moscow State University, to get their take on the situation.

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The World Press Freedom Index. The average news consumer may never have heard of it. But every journalist in the West is familiar with its annual presentation. This year a print of the index was handed out on poster format, for journalists to hang up on the wall of their newsrooms.

On this poster a map of the world is depicted with each country marked in a different color, indicating the degree of freedom of press. The eye-catcher on this poster is Russia, which is painted in alarming red, and because of its huge landmass, presents most of the 'red' on the poster. 'Red' means 'bad', so the legend text on the map clarifies. There is only a handful of countries were things are even worse, among whom China, Saudi Arabia and Libya. These are marked 'black'.

Every year the Paris based Reporters Sans Frontières publishes its The World Press Freedom Index, which measures the level of freedom available throughout the world. In this years index Russia is ranked 148; far below any other Western country, even below Arab countries like Kuwait (104), United Arab Emirates (119) and Qatar (123).

Are things really that bad for journalists in Russia? In spite of all the stories about Russia being a scary place for journalists, at least it seems there must be some freedom of press. Apparently in Russia it's possible for a newspaper to depict president Vladimir Putin as a dog; to accuse the Russian army of having shot down MH17; to connect Putin to money laundering schemes; to call Russians 'red fascists'; to call the Russian minority in Eastern Ukraine 'genetic waste'; to applaud the death of Russian soldiers in Syria and to justify the violence of the Ukrainian military in Donbass. Without grave consequences.

The journalists, pundits and media from the above examples are still alive and kicking. They haven’t been closed down, killed or banned from national TV.

Nevertheless, Russia's low ranking is confirmed by the annual Freedom In The World Report, produced by the 'independent watchdog organization' Freedom House, which holds offices in both New York and Washington, and closely cooperates on this with a Dutch organization, Free Press Unlimited.

According to Freedom House the press in Russia is 'not free'. On a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free) Russia scores 20; again, far below all other Western countries, on the same  level as United Arab Emirates, Vietnam and Gambia, and even below Turkey, which had in 2016, 81 journalists imprisoned.

The majority of the public in the West will immediately believe things are as bad in Russia as indicated by these rankings. An overwhelming majority of all reports in the West about media under pressure, take place in Russia. It will be hard to find anything in leading newspapers like The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Figaro, or Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about the lack of freedom of press in countries like Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria and Ukraine. There's also a widespread belief that Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, kills journalists.

Are things really that bad in Russia? Does its president eliminate ’Kremlin critics’? Is the media in Russia 'not free', as Freedom House states in its report?

Killing of journalists

Even Russia's most outspoken opposition paper Novaya Gazeta *, which has lost six of its reporters to contract-style assassinations, thinks Putin or the Kremlin has nothing to do with the killing of journalists. The only thing they accuse their government of is for not taking adequate measures to secure their safety.

Contrary to popular belief that Putin's rise to power in 1999 somehow triggered the gulf of assassinations of journalists, these assassinations have sharply dropped since 2000. The numbers given by New York based Committee To Protect Journalists clearly indicate that under Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, things were much worse. In Russia's roaring 1990's two times more journalists got killed than in the years Putin ruled the country as a president and prime minister. Was there as much moral outrage in the Yeltsin years about the killing of reporters as there is now? Has Yeltsin ever been accused of killing journalists?

Last year not one journalist in Russia lost his or her life in a violent attack. Although not reported by Committee To Protect Journalists **, in the same year, 2016, two Dutch journalists were killed, one of them in Libya, and the other in The Netherlands. Still The Netherlands was ranked 2nd and 5th place.

So, if the murder of journalists is not considered a determining factor for measuring the level of freedom of press in a country, why is it year after year the two leading ranking organizations put Russia almost at the bottom of their indexes?

Black box

Both Reporters Sans Frontières and Freedom House compile their indexes based on questionnaires ((here and here). These questionnaires are filled in by 'media professionals, lawyers and sociologists' (Reporters Sans Frontières) or 'analysts, primarily external consultants' (Freedom House). In addition Reporters Sans Frontières combines its 'qualitative analysis' (the completed questionnaires) with 'quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists.'

The questions in the questionnaires deal with different 'freedom indicators', such as (self-) censorship, concentration of ownership of media-companies, diversity of the news (pluralism), editorial independence, reprisals against journalists and penalties for libel and defamation.

Although both ranking organisations offer some transparency about their methodology, a picture of a black box comes to mind. The organisations keep most of their raw data away from the public. They for example do not provide information about how their questions have been answered by the respondents. Requests by yours truly to disclose the answers (the average score to each question) were denied. By request Reporters Sans Frontières shared some data from their quantitative analysis. In 2016 they counted 65 ‘aggressions’ against journalists, 67 cases in which journalists got arrested and 4 journalists who are being kept in custody. Freedom House mentions The Glasnost Defense Foundation in its report for having counted 54 cases of ‘attacks on journalists and bloggers.’

Aggressions, arrests and custody

According to Freedom House 'violence against journalists' in Russia is 'common'. At first sight, when looking at the above-mentioned numbers (‘65 aggressions’ or ‘54 reports of attacks’ in 2016) it looks like Freedom House is right. In a high ranked country like The Netherlands Reporters Sans Frontières counted only 5 cases of aggression against journalists. But since there are 13 times more working journalists in Russia (200.000) than in The Netherlands (15.000) it might be expected in Russia there is more violence.

This doesn't refute Freedom House's statement that 'violence against journalists is common' in Russia, but in their report they present no controllable evidence for their claim. Providing numbers is one thing; drawing conclusion from these numbers is quite another. ***

Compared again with top-ranked Holland the amount of arrests of journalists in Russia (67 cases) seems significant. In The Netherlands only two journalists were arrested in 2016: one of them from France, the other of Turkish-Dutch origin. In The Netherlands the above-mentioned French journalist, who was arrested, was imprisoned for four days. In the same year Reporters Sans Frontières counted four journalists in Russian captivity: former RBC-journalist Alexander Sokolov, who is convicted for ‘organizing a terrorist group; Chechen journalist Zhalaudi Geriyev who serves a three years jail sentence on a charge of drugs possession; Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko who was put in preliminary detention on charge of espionage; and former chief editor Aleksandr Tolmachev of Upolnomochen Zayavit and Pro Rostov who spends nine years in a penal colony on charge of extortion of a businessman.

Censorship, restrictions, propaganda

Judging from the Freedom House and Reporters Sans Frontières ‘jury reports’ Russia’s media environment must be in a terrible shape. Apart from the violence against journalists, the arrests and imprisonments, the Russian state 'inundates’ its citizens with ‘propaganda’ through its state controlled tv stations. "Leading independent news outlets have either been brought under control or throttled out of existence". Websites are being blocked and ‘more and more bloggers are receiving prison sentences’. “The leading human rights NGOs have been declared “foreign agents”. “The legal framework gives the government broad, discretionary powers to regulate media content.” And so on and so on.

Again: Are things really that bad in Russia?

One size fits all?

"Actually I believe that the situation is much better than presented in the indexes", professor Andrei Vyrkovsky of the Lomonosov Moscow State University says.

"The vast majority of Russians have got free access to news and other information from all possible sources due to the comparatively high level of Internet penetration.

Different points of view are being discussed on diverse public online platforms. Russia in this respect is completely different from for example China, despite the laws and acts that have been adopted recently in order to restrict some online activities."

Vyrkovsky prefers not to comment on the methodology of the ranking organisations "as it deserves very profound and sophisticated analysis". Nevertheless he wouldn't be surprised if the whole set-up would be "very distorted in favor of western countries." Vyrkovsky stresses 'press freedom' shouldn't be overvalued. It's important, but not more important than "the capability of lobby groups to use the media in their own interest and obtain the audience."

The significance of the control of lobby groups over the media became visible during the presidential elections in the United States.

"The Democratic campaign against Trump sometimes violated all the journalistic principles", Vyrkovsky points out. "Due to the good access they had to the mass media their point of view was absolutely dominant in the public discourse.

I am not sure there is a possibility to completely eliminate these distortions while creating rankings, but I believe these phenomena need to be properly addressed in order to evaluate the state of the media in different countries."

Professor Elena Vartanova, Dean of the Faculty of Journalism of the Lomonosov Moscow State University, says she accepts

"the difficulties of the present Russian media, including various informal forms of pressure on journalism and sometimes even violence against professional journalists." But these difficulties cannot be evaluated without a proper context. "Russia is a multicultural and multi-ethnic society," she explains. "This requires some regulation."

"Russia is very young as a democracy", Vartanova adds. "In 1991 we started with a zero media policy. This led to all kinds of problems. Restrictions are necessary everywhere. In some countries this is done through self-regulatory measures, by journalists themselves, the news industry and the public. Russia just wasn't ready for this.

Civil society is still very immature. We are at this unique point in history where legislators are doing the job that should have been done by society as a whole. Many in Russia are still holding on to the old philosophy of the Soviet days: 'We take no responsibility. We show no commitment. But we would like to have something like Europa, and we will wait for the state to make it happen.'

Therefore, it’s not only the state oppressing, it’s also the absence of real initiatives at the grass-roots level, from the profession, the industry and the public."

Nevertheless Vartanova thinks in Russia things have changed for the better.

"There have been so many achievements in the past few decades which would be unfair to deny. The positive changes actually have transformed the Russian media system for a better one, compared with the previous Soviet period, in many respects, including the freedom of the press."

There's no such thing as a 'one size fits all' media system, Vartanova stresses. Still it seems the West seeks to recreate non-western media systems in its own image. "Western, more precisely Anglo-Saxon indicators are used to evaluate the state of the Russian media."

Managing public opinion

Vartanova thinks one has to be careful to trust rankings at all. There might be a hidden agenda behind them.

“I’m from the field of university and science”, Vartanova says. "The ranking of academia clearly is a marketing tool for big universities to attract money from abroad. The higher one gets in the ranking the more financing one gets from students.”

What could be the hidden agenda behind the ranking of press freedom?


“These rankings could be a tool for managing public opinion. I feel that the attitude towards the freedom of press in Russia somehow correlates with the changes of the West’s foreign policy during the last decades. In the Soviet days we were regarded as the enemy, and the West criticized our media system.

Then in the nineties we became friends, and our zero media policy was applauded. Now that the West sees us as the enemy again, we see this reflected in the low rankings.”

The image of Russian media being 'not free' seems to be very much influenced by the assassinations of journalists. How does Vartanova see this?

“Many of the journalists that got killed were crime reporters”, she says. “So there might be a stronger relation between these killings with the level of criminality in the country than with the level of press freedom.

Especially in the 1990’s this seemed to have been the case. In those days the influence of the state was weaker.”

Although the state has gained influence since 1999, there are still journalists that get killed or are being brutally attacked. It doesn’t change image of the ‘unfree’ Russian media.

“The killings of journalists in Russia might even reflect a certain level of press freedom”, Vartanova replies. “The killings haven’t stopped journalists from publishing explosive material.”

Maybe Russia's opposition media, like Novaya Gazeta *, are unlike any other news outlets in the West?

Their reporters seem to have an unusual courage. They use the freedom they have to the max, and go to any length to challenge The Powers That Be. Vartanova:

“Maybe. At least they published before they got killed. They were killed because somebody didn’t like what they had written, and not to prevent them from publishing.”

How is it possible that, contrary to the facts, there’s such strong belief the killing of journalists started with the rise to power of Vladimir Putin? He has even been accused of murders committed during the presidency of Yeltsin. Vartanova:

"The image of Putin as a killer really took off after the killing of Anna Politikovska in 2006. It happened on Putin’s birthday. And this might not have been a coincidence. Her killing became a sinister birthday gift to him.

Every year when Putin celebrates his birthday, a worldwide audience is reminded of Politikovska's violent death.”

* Requests from the author of this article to interview editors of Novaya Gazeta were left unanswered. A request addressed to Free Press Unlimited, which is in close contact to Novaya Gazeta, to put the author of this article in contact with reporter Pavel Kanygin, was denied without clarification.

** Committee To Protect Journalists didn't respond to questions why the two killings of Dutch journalists were missing on their website. At the moment of publishing this article this information still had not been added.

*** Freedom House didn't respond to questions from the author of this article about controllable evidence for their claim in Russia violence against journalists is 'common'.

Further reading:

Freedom is downgraded from 'bad' by The Moscow Times

Freedom By The Numbers by Ilya Lozovsky

A Balanced Assessment of Russian Civil Society by Debra Javeline and Sarah Lindemann-Komarova The securitization of democracy: Freedom House ratings of Russia by Andrei P. Tsygankov

Is Freedom House's continued alarmist stance over Russia Justified? by Vlad Sobell

The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index: Independent Assessment or EU Propaganda? by John Rosenthal

Reporters Without Borders seems to have a geopolitical agenda by William Engdahl

How Free press Unlimited silenced its own journalists by Maite Vermeulen

Political and ideological aspects in the measurement of democracy: the Freedom House case by Diego Giannone

Measuring Media Freedom: Approaches Of International Comparison by Markus Behmer

An Evaluation Of Press Freedom Indicators by Lee B. Becker, Tudor Vlad and Nancy Nusser

Methodological Issues In Measuring Media Freedom In A Global Context by Lee B. Becker and Tudor Vlad

Testing for a Political Bias in Freedom House Democracy Scores: Are U.S. Friendly States Judged to Be More Democratic? by Johannes Gutenberg

Evaluating The Evaluators by Center For International Media Assistance

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