Russia's continued military involvement in Crimea and Ukraine led to a tightening chokehold on much of the country's independent media throughout 2015, with propaganda flourishing at state-run media outlets, Freedom House reported. While the Russian constitution guarantees freedom of the press, corruption within the country's court system has allowed government officials to harass journalists who try to expose abuses within the political system.
A number of harsh laws also made media matters difficult in Russia last year. Federal Law No. 398, which went into effect in 2014, allows the prosecutor general’s office to block websites that contain "calls for unauthorized protest actions or extremist activities" without a court order. The law has been used to block independent and opposition sites on a number of occasions. Additionally, Federal Law No. 97 mandates that all blogs and websites with at least 3,000 daily viewers must register with the government. Independent blogs are thus subject to the same rules and regulations as formal news sites.
Vsevolod Pulya, editor-in-chief of Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH), offered his perspective on Russia's media landscape and offered recommendations for what Russian journalists can do in the present:
IJNet: In what areas do you see conditions improving for Russian journalists?
Pulya: For Russian journalists, I see improving conditions in terms of access to technology. More and more Russian journalists are getting access to the new digital tools at their disposal, which makes their storytelling more engaging and effective in terms of getting people’s attention. A lot of cool Russian services to enhance reporting and storytelling have been launched during recent years. For instance, Tilda.cc and Readymag.com for making long multimedia stories, Thinglink for making interactive pictures, etc.
How can reporters avoid the pressure to self-censor?
I think the only way to avoid the pressure to self-censor is to work in the news outlet where views concur with yours and you don't come across any resistance towards your reporting from your own management.
Are there any new laws being passed that alleviate government control over the media? If not, have any lawmakers shown support for such laws?
I think quite the opposite: during recent years, we've seen a number of laws which actually tighten government control over the media in Russia. For instance, a law passed last year limits the ownership of Russian media by foreign companies. Russian lawmakers said that they were following the common world practice in this case, but the law was widely criticized by the professional community.
Does RBTH do anything to safeguard its reporters from government pressure, or to make working conditions better for reporters in general?
Though we are part of Rossiyskaya Gazeta (an official government paper), which receives compensation from the state budget for publishing laws and decrees, our editorial team is independent. We make it very clear to our writers and reporters that they should operate according to the highest standards of profession, without making any glances over their shoulder. In our stories, we do try to explain the official Russian point of view, but we also make sure that our stories provide the readers with the opposite points of view (both in Russia and abroad). We don't mix opinions and facts, and we verify any suspicious information.
RBTH is aimed at an international audience. Do you think bringing international attention to Russian journalism will make it easier for journalists to work within Russia?
I would like to hope so.
What do you hope will happen to journalism in Russia in 2016 and beyond? What type of media climate would you eventually like to see there?
I'm not expecting major positive changes in Russian journalism in 2016. But I hope that eventually, journalism in Russia can thrive and become a real tool of civic control, with serious journalistic investigations, transparent financing and a lack of any bias.
This interview has been edited and condensed.