January 01, 2011

The Problem is Not Censorship

In November, two Russian journalists and an environmental activist were beaten up within the span of a week. It’s easy to blame it all on the Russian government, but the problem runs deeper.

Contrary to what Western coverage suggests, the Russian internet remains a relatively censorship-free zone. Yes, NGOs and opposition papers and websites have had their servers and computers confiscated, mostly under charges of copyright infringement on behalf of Microsoft – a tactic being used so often that Microsoft issued a statement condemning the practice and granted all advocacy groups absolution from piracy. But to portray Russia as a bloodthirsty dictatorship where journalists are little more than target practice is just not fair. Reporters Without Borders, whose rating puts Russia only eight places above the human rights nightmare that is the Democratic Republic of Congo, isn’t without controversies of its own, and its methodology is far from perfect. Moreover, you’ll have to dig deep to find a story in the Russian press (TV is different) that’s not in one way or another critical of the government, local authorities or big business.

Oleg Kashin – now an internationally known Russian reporter who suffered brutal beating for something that he’d written – was the only journalist to interview Anatoly Barkov, vice-president of oil giant Lukoil, who is alleged to be responsible for the death of two women whose Citroen happened to be in front of Barkov’s black Mercedes. The interview failed to convince anyone of Barkov’s innocence, but Kashin’s was the sole attempt at objectivity, which is supposed to be a core journalistic value.

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