Two major elections in 2007 served as a run-up for the presidential vote in March 2008. Much pressure was exerted on the independent media, with journalists arrested on the edge of opposition demonstrations, independent newspapers shut down and some journalists were forcibly sent to psychiatric hospitals - all bad omens.
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The two parties backing President Vladimir Putin - United Russia and Just Russia - unsurprisingly won local elections in March 2007 and parliamentary ones in December. The elections increased the marginalisation of the opposition but the government and security forces still did all they could to stop the media reporting on Putin’s opponents.
Protests led by the opposition Other Russia coalition were attacked by police, who also targeted journalists, in St Petersburg and Nizhi Novgorod in March, and then in St Petersburg and Moscow a month later. The national Civil Court (which advises the President) condemned this behaviour and urged the interior ministry to “speedily investigate the dangerous trend towards using force against journalists.” Reporters from the daily Kommersant, the twice-weekly Novaya Gazeta and Vedomosti, which take a independent editorial line, were also attacked, along with journalists from German public TV stations ARD and ZDF and a Japanese photographer, who were beaten and/or arrested. All of them had official press cards.
Three reporters from Kommersant and the REN-TV station were arrested in May in Samara (900 kms southeast of Moscow) while interviewing an organiser of a protest march against the European Union / Russia summit due to be held in the city. The local offices of Novaya Gazeta and the Regnum news agency were searched twice on the excuse that the journalists might have unlicensed software. Two journalists (including the local bureau chief of Novaya Gazeta, Sergei Kurt-Adjiev, father of one of the protest organisers) and two demonstration leaders were then arrested and held for four hours. The Samara and Nizhni Novgorod editions of Novaya Gazeta have not appeared since. Staff said in November the Samara office was closing because it could not bring the paper out because its computer had been seized. The paper’s editor said the authorities clearly wanted to “strangle the paper in the run-up to the elections.”
Journalists were arrested in Moscow in the week before the December 2007 parliamentary elections during opposition protests even though they had told police they would be present to do their job. They included a reporter for the independent radio station Moscow Echo. The co-founder of the St Petersburg weekly Novy Petersburg, Nikolai Andrushenko, was given a two-month prison sentence after writing that he would march with the demonstrators and for printing the opposition’s manifesto. The paper stopped coming out because it could no longer find a printer.
A media obliged to support the regime’s election campaign
Security forces also exerted pressure on the editorial line of media outlets. Mikhail Baklanov, head of the country’s biggest independent radio network, RSN, was dismissed in mid-April after 12 years in a serious blow against press freedom. His replacements, Vsevolod Neroznak, news editor of the national TV station Pervyi Kanal, and Alexander Shkolnik, Pervyi Kanal’s head of children’s programmes, ordered staff to see that “good news” was at least half of all the news broadcast. The opposition was no longer heard on the station.
The BBC’s Russian-language service disappeared from the FM band in Moscow when its last partner, Bolshoi Radio, was forced by the authorities to end its retransmission contract.
The three main public TV stations - Pervyi Kanal, Rossiya and TV Tsentr - and the two main privately-owned ones - RenTV and NTV - heavily favoured the authorities during the parliamentary election campaign. A survey by the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES) showed that three-quarters of all their news programmes were about the ruling parties and that the opposition had been excluded (Pervyi Kanal even refused to broadcast a Yabloko Party campaign clip).
Internment in psychiatric hospitals and beatings
At least two journalists were forcibly sent to psychiatric hospitals in 2007, a frequent practice during Soviet days to discredit those with “undesirable” views and to discourage people from openly opposing the regime. They were opposition activist Larissa Arap (detained for six weeks) and an independent journalist and pro-democracy leader from late Soviet times, Andrei Novikov (held for 11 months). They had criticised local authorities in print and were arrested illegally and ill-treated. An international campaign led to their release.
Documentary filmmaker Natalia Petrova was badly beaten up by police in the republic of Tatarstan (720 kms southeast of Moscow) in September. Her two young daughters and 70-year-old mother were also attacked when they tried to protect her. She was beaten both at home and at a police station and later fled the country. Police have since hounded family members who stayed behind.
Three RenTV journalists and a member of the human rights organisation Memorial were kidnapped by security forces in the Caucasian republic of Ingushetia in late November. Their clothes and equipment were taken away and they were beaten up and made to undergo simulated execution before being released. Two of them had to be hospitalised.
Little progress in fight to punish killers of journalists
At the end of August 2007, prosecutor-general Yuri Chaika said a dozen suspects had been charged in the October 2006 murder of pro-opposition investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and said people “trying to destabilise Russia from abroad” were involved. A few days earlier, Alexander Bastrykin, a Kremlin aide heading the special enquiry into the killing, said the government had six theories about the crime. But the next few months saw a series of contradictory statements and denials.
Shamil Burayev, a losing candidate in the 2005 presidential elections in Chechnya and an opponent of Akhmad Kadyrov (father of the current Chechen president), was charged in September with involvement in the murder. Prosecutors said they thought she was killed by Chechen gangsters working with security forces and that the mastermind could be abroad. But no trial was announced and weeks of confusion among investigators threw doubt on official determination to proceed. It was feared that only the hitmen would be punished.
The trial of the accused killers of Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, who was shot dead in front of his office in July 2004, was adjourned several times in 2007. The prosecution could not get all the suspects together for the trial, which is to be held in secret.
The official investigation of the very suspicious death of Ivan Safronov, a military expert with the daily Kommersant, who fell from a fourth-floor window of his apartment building on 3 March, said it was suicide. Friends and colleagues maintained he had no reason to kill himself and that he was about to publish an article on the sensitive topic of Russian arms sales to the Middle East.