Russian Winter Olympics: Freedom of Press Severely Lacking

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Russia has had a long list of concerns as it prepares for the 2014 Winter Olympics, not least among them the security concerns surrounding terrorist groups targeting the games. Specifically being searched for by Russian authorities are three female suicide bombers being known as “black widows.” On top of the violent outbreaks and extremist actions, Russian surveillance has also cropped up as an international concern, with privacy notices issued by the United States alerting visitors for the games of the SORM monitoring system. Russia’s stance on LGBTQ rights has also been a serious topic for international visitors and competitors, as well as equal rights group worldwide.

Now, the Committee to Protect Journalists has released a special report on journalism censorship concerns surrounding Olympic coverage. CPJ is a non-profit that works at advocating freedom of the press across the world and protecting rights of journalists. It reports that Russia presently is preventing the coverage of certain relevant news items as the days leading up to the Olympics pass; migrant worker exploitation, forced evictions, and environmental destruction are listed as being blocked by Russian government, either via “self censorship” or “official repression.”

“The majority of news outlets, particularly those controlled directly by the state, prefer to cover Sochi the way they would cover a deceased man: in a positive light or not at all,” reads the CPJ’s article, noting that Vladimir Putin’s presidency has only worsened the situation with passage of a number of laws that have had a limiting affect on the press’ powers. CPJ spoke with Olga Beskova, the editor-in-chief of Sochinskie Novosti — Sochi News — which is the only private online newspaper available for the area. “Local media largely ignore issues crucial to Sochi residents directly affected by the arrival of the Olympics on their doorsteps,” she said.

Issues include “multiple, long-lasting power and water outages, most inconvenient in wintertime; the colossal traffic jams caused by Olympic construction; the eviction of residents from homes that had the misfortune of standing in the path of planned Games venues; the faulty construction of homes offered by the state to evicted residents; multiple violations of Labor Law,” and a number of corrupt construction practices that led to unrelated development of homes and shopping centers.

Beskova was not the only journalist CPJ spoke with that voiced frustration, though. Anna Gritsevich, previously a correspondent with he government owned All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, told CPJ that when she worked as a reporter the content was entirely biased. “This is either commissioned and paid content, or advertisement passed for news,” said Gritsevich.

She noted that the public no longer trusts Russian news organizations to report anything accurately. After she changed publications, she found that residents of Sochi were reluctant to speak with her because they believed their interviews would be misrepresented. After a year of work, though, “they stopped being afraid of talking to me. Now, on the contrary, they call me when something happens and ask me to go to the scene and cover it,” said Gritsevich.

When China hosted the Olympic games in 2008, there were similar concerns voiced regarding the nations openness with reporters and the press, as well as allegations that the government was working to dampen negative political and human rights related reporting.

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