Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with journalists KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

The World Cup of Press Freedom

Russia today has more reporters behind bars than at any time since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. With Russia under the spotlight as the host of soccer’s quadrennial global tournament, the international community has a rare opportunity to push President Vladimir Putin to end his attacks on the media.

PARIS – President Vladimir Putin worked hard to bring the 2018 FIFA World Cup to Russia, but now that the spectacle is underway, his influence has waned. He cannot control the referees or the performance of Russia’s national team, the Sbornaya, which is ranked 70th in the world – the lowest-seeded team in the tournament. But he has far more control over how the tournament is covered, at least by Russian media.

In the World Press Freedom Index, compiled each year by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries. Rather than accepting the competition that comes with pluralism, the Kremlin is intent on rigging the rules of politics and to fix media “matches” in his favor.

From criminalizing defamation to barring news that offends the “religious feelings of believers,” Putin’s media laws are becoming increasingly restrictive. Their vague wording allows them to be applied in a selective and arbitrary manner, and press-freedom advocates that seek to challenge the status quo are coming under increased scrutiny.

Like a rigged player transfer system, the leading Russian media are under the Kremlin’s thumb. The government has managed television broadcasters – Russians’ main source of news – since the early 2000s, when ORT and NTV were seized from the moguls Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, respectively. Following the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, these and other national broadcasters increased their output of pro-Kremlin propaganda.

For example, in 2015, a documentary that aired on state-owned Rossiya 1 accused human-rights activist Nadezhda Kutepova of “industrial espionage,” lies that eventually forced her into exile. The following year, the same channel used forged documents to accuse leading Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny of being an agent for Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency. Putin’s grip on state media has been tightening since December 2013, when channels were regrouped in the Rossiya Segodnya consortium to improve the presentation of Russia’s “story.”

Television is not the only Kremlin-controlled medium; the Internet is being muzzled as well. Websites are blocked, bloggers are monitored, search engines and news aggregators are censored, and VPNs are banned. In April of this year, Russia cut off access to the encrypted messaging network Telegram, joining countries like China and Iran. Most worrying of all, more and more Internet users are being jailed for their comments on social media, or for simply endorsing content with a “like.”

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The Nobel laureate Albert Camus said that the little he had learned about life had been “on the football field,” and that, like adversity, a kicked ball “never arrives from the direction you expected it.” Something similar could be said of the media playing field in Russia. Since 1999, when Putin first became prime minister, 34 journalists have been killed while reporting in the country, including investigative reporter Nikolai Andrushchenko, who was beaten to death last year in St. Petersburg. In the vast majority of these cases, the investigations stalled and the perpetrators have never been identified.

With the stakes so high, many media owners have chosen to leave the game entirely, selling their outlets to pro-Kremlin oligarchs, many of whom were, fittingly, previously asked by Putin to buy soccer clubs. Some media organizations continue to provide high-quality journalism, but they have nowhere near as many readers or viewers as the leading state-controlled media.

The only independent national broadcaster, Dozhd, was dropped by satellite and cable services in 2014. Galina Timchenko, the editor of Russia’s most widely read news website, Lenta.ru, was fired the same year, along with most of her staff. The editorial team of the RBC media group suffered a similar fate in 2016. Nor have the closures spared leading regional outlets like Siberian broadcasterTV-2 or Kaliningrad’s top independent weekly newspaper, Novye Kolesa. Each of these outlets was distinguished by its coverage of sensitive stories – from conflict in Ukraine to high-level corruption.

Russia today has less press freedom and more journalists, media workers, and bloggers behind bars than at any time since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. In Crimea and Chechnya, even the most basic media protections are non-existent. With the Kremlin’s blessing, these regions have been turned into news and information “black holes,” where the authorities are free to act without fear of consequences.

In its World Cup group-stage matches, Russia competed against other low-ranked countries like Egypt (45th in soccer and 161st on RSF’s press freedom index) and Saudi Arabia (ranked 67th by FIFA and 169th by RSF). On paper, only Uruguay (14th in soccer and 20th in media freedom) was a well-rounded opponent. And yet, while Russia has made it through to the tournament’s knockout round, the excitement of the games, and the unlikeliness of Russia’s success, amount to a fleeting distraction.

This may not be the Press Freedom World Cup, but with Russia under the global spotlight, the international community can push for the release of jailed journalists and human-rights defenders; the repeal of draconian laws; the relaxation of government control over the media; and an end to impunity. This opportunity is unlikely to come again anytime soon. The world must not miss its chance to capitalize.

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