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Russian media under pressure ahead of Putin presidency

After stepping up election coverage, many independent news sites are facing tighter scrutiny by Russian government officials.

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Putin said one prominent independent radio station was “pouring diarrhea” all over him “from morning to night.” (AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW, Russia — After more than 20 years of smooth operation, Pulse, a public television and radio station in Azov, a small city in south Russia, is suddenly facing serious problems.

Inspired by the anti-government protests and what he saw as a more democratic Russia, chief editor Alexei Sklyarov made his programming more critical of the authorities in January. Sklyarov also created and headed a local league of voters to monitor the presidential election.

Officials didn’t complain about the news coverage.

But about a week later, an army of local government organizations descended on the channel to conduct inspections and request documents.

The regional communication agency, the consumer rights agency, the fire safety agency and the regional prosecutor, began looking into alleged violations at the Pulse offices. Licensing offenses of an internet provider, part of the Pulse media holding, which funds the broadcaster, are also under investigation.

“They’re getting us from the side,” Sklyarov said.

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While Russian media is not as repressed as the Chinese press, it is far from the Western sense of liberal. Russia placed at 142 out of 179 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ latest Press Freedom Index.

"The media freedom panorama continues to be gloomy…The unprecedented demonstrations in December 2011 augur a period of uncertainty — while some newsrooms seem to be becoming more outspoken, the state's repressive apparatus has so far been able to cope with the unrest," the Index said.

After a brief period of freedom in the 1990s, president-elect Vladimir Putin has largely cracked down, and kept up pressure, on independent media during his first two terms as president in 2000 and 2004. The last 12 years saw a decline of independent press and critical journalism in Russia. Today the main television channels and many news outlets are either majority owned by the state or Kremlin insiders.

Press freedom grew under President Dmitry Medvedev. Last year’s reforms included demoting libel to a less serious crime and increasing jail terms for assault on journalists. But, as after each major event in Russia since 2000, a crackdown on independent media followed the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, which sparked mass rallies all over Russia over alleged fraud.

The government maintains that Russia's press is free.

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“Freedom of the press is guaranteed and provided in this country,” Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said. The policy toward the media will continue after Putin officially becomes president — again — on May 7, Peskov said.

However, Pulse’s recent troubles underscore the costs of criticizing the government.

Pulse may be evicted from the building it has occupied for the last two decades because of violations in radio frequency technologies, Sklyarov said. If the regional court of arbitration finds his internet company guilty of licensing violations later this month, Pulse will lose a major source of its funding.

Sklyarov admits to infractions, but said that they are minor and long-standing. He connects the inspections with his decision to change programming and monitor the election.

To draw attention to the pressure, Sklyarov has spoken at an anti-government rally in Moscow and has been in touch with Medvedev’s administration. Despite a phone conversation with an unnamed official from the Kremlin and a request from Mikhail Fedotov, the head of the Presidential Council for Civic Society and Human Rights, to look into the sudden rash of inspections, local government continues to pursue its investigation of Pulse.

While independent outlets and journalists in Russia’s regions face more pressure than their counterparts in Moscow, the capital's news outlets are also coming under scrutiny.

A planned June reshuffling of the board of directors has been moved up three months at the prominent independent radio station Echo of Moscow. Echo’s parent company, state-run gas company Gazprom division Gazprom Media, replaced two long-time independent members with company-appointed candidates.

At the station, the move, which gives a majority to Gazprom appointees, is seen as a “crooked” attempt to control editorial policy, deputy chief editor Sergei Buntman said.

The announcement came after Putin criticized the station for “pouring diarrhea” all over him “from morning to night.” Echo of Moscow, which is often critical of the government, featured extensive coverage of opposition leaders and anti-government protests after Dec. 4.

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