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Olympic Games should not override right to free expression

Violations of free expression were recorded surrounding the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada, report Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). So as the world looks to the next Winter Olympics in 2014, in Sochi, Russia, Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) are examining the local media's lack of financial independence and powerlessness in the face of the Kremlin.

Canadian authorities interrogated and denied entry to two U.S. journalists. John Weston Osburn, a Salt Lake City freelance journalist associated with the news organisation IndyMedia was interrogated by Canadian border authorities near Vancouver on 10 February and turned away because of a past conviction for a misdemeanour. After being refused entry a second time, Osburn was detained and questioned by U.S. authorities.

On 6 February, journalist Martin Macias Jr., a contributor to Vocalo, an online news outlet and affiliate of Chicago Public Radio, was detained, interrogated and then put on a plane to Seattle by Canadian authorities. Macias intended to attend a press conference by the Olympic Resistance Network, a group critical of the games. "They wanted to know what I was going to do in Vancouver, who I was meeting with, who organised the conference, and what they looked like. They took all my contact information and business cards of journalists," said Macias. According to CJFE, Macias was told to leave Canada voluntarily or face detention until trial a week later.

"The Olympics should be a showcase for our belief in free speech, not an example of its repression," said CJFE Board member and journalist Kelly Toughill. CJFE launched an "Olympic Watch" in January in response to several incidents where free expression came under threat in relation to the Olympics.

Four years from now, Russia will be hosting the Winter Games in Sochi on the Black Sea. Political influence on the media is intense in the Krasnodar region, where the town of Sochi is located. Local media were already pressured during the bid for the Games to ignore environmental concerns and protests by residents facing eviction, reports RSF. And during previous elections, most media outlets ignored the opposition. Dissident journalists are often hit with libel fines for reporting on controversial stories.

Last summer, RSF carried out a detailed field investigation into the media environment in seven Russian regions, including Krasnodar. The province's media are controlled by its pro-Kremlin governor with a system set up to "regulate and subordinate" journalists and editors. In order to have advertising revenue and tax concessions, privately owned newspapers must publish content provided by authorities and permit editorial interference. The local edition of the independent "Novaya Gazeta" ("Kubani") fights a daily financial battle to survive.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned about possible rights violations at the Sochi Winter Games, with so many human rights defenders and journalists killed in 2009 in Russia. "These targeted attacks on outspoken critics of the Russian government all point to a disturbing climate of violence and impunity in the Caucasus region, where the Sochi Games will take place.... It is hard to imagine the Sochi 2014 Olympics taking place as a festive sporting event in a climate of the most brutal violence and fear for civil society actors, and journalists."

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