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Kremlin silenced critics before and during elections, say IFEX members

St. Petersburg, 5 March 2012: Riot police face off with protesters during a demonstration against Vladimir Putin's election victory
St. Petersburg, 5 March 2012: Riot police face off with protesters during a demonstration against Vladimir Putin's election victory

Mike Kireev/DEMOTIX

Journalists were among more than 500 arrested during Moscow protests after Vladimir Putin declared victory in Russia's presidential elections on Sunday, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other IFEX members. Since the parliamentary elections in December, the authorities have used a range of tactics to harass and discredit their critics, say CPJ and Human Rights Watch.

CPJ issued a statement expressing alarm that three journalists and one blogger covering the Moscow protests were being held without charge in a Moscow police station.

Pavel Nikulin, reporter with the daily "Moskovskiye Novosti"; Maria Klimova, reporter with the news website Ridus; Andrei Stenin, photojournalist with RIA Novosti news agency; and popular blogger Arkady Babchenko were rounded up when covering an opposition protest close to Lubyanka metro station in Moscow on 5 March.

"Russian authorities must adhere to their international press freedom and freedom of expression commitments, and allow the media to cover events around the presidential vote without fear of reprisal," said CPJ.

In Moscow, thousands of anti-government protesters gathered in Pushkin Square on 5 March - the biggest protests since the fall of the U.S.S.R., chanting "Russia without Putin," and "Putin is a thief; we are the government!"

When riot police ordered the crowd to disperse after a couple of hours, dozens of demonstrators encircled opposition leader and blogger Aleksei Navalny, trying to prevent his arrest. But officers briefly detained him, pushing him into a police van along with most of the movement's other prominent leaders. Opposition activists say that at least 500 people were arrested at the Pushkin Square rally.

Reuters adds that at least a further 300 people were detained by riot police in St. Petersburg, Putin's home town, and 50 at Moscow's Lubyanka Square, the seat of the Soviet-era KGB.

Days after capturing nearly 64 percent of the vote in Russia's presidential elections (but garnering just under 50 percent of the vote in Moscow, where the opposition movement is strongest), Putin faces a range of challenges to his legitimacy, including charges of electoral fraud and a crackdown on dissent.

While observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found less of the ballot stuffing and other flagrant violations that marred parliamentary elections in December, they said Putin had faced no real competition and unfairly benefited from lavish government spending on his behalf.

And though the authorities seemed to have tolerated some large public protests since December, IFEX members CPJ and Human Rights Watch say the Kremlin worked hard to hush its critics ahead of the election. Interference with non-governmental organisations and independent media outlets and their staff has included lawsuits, detention and threats from state officials.

"The Russian government has done the right thing by allowing unprecedented public protests and proposing some reforms," said Human Rights Watch. "But the authorities are also trying in numerous ways to make their critics think twice about speaking out or protesting. Despite the positive developments, the climate for civil society is as hostile as it ever was."

For instance, just last month, the main shareholder of the iconic radio station Ekho Moskvy announced a sudden decision to replace the board of directors. Shareholder Gazprom Media, which is largely controlled by the Kremlin, explained its decision was for financial reasons mostly.

Leading journalists and media experts expressed concern that the shuffle was a politically motivated attempt to influence the station's editorial policies. Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of the radio station for 12 years, resigned from the board in protest, and said the changes were likely meant as a warning to other independent outlets to silence criticism of Putin ahead of the vote.

Other prominent media outlets have been subject to official intimidation and scrutiny following their reporting on anti-Putin rallies. Editors on leading dailies and weeklies published by Kommersant were removed following their coverage of fallout from December's elections, and Russia's Prosecutor General's Office launched an investigation against independent online broadcaster Dozhd, which was accused of acting as a mouthpiece for the December protest rallies.

In another example, the National Reserve Bank last month blocked the account of Alexander Lebedev, the main shareholder of prominent independent weekly "Novaya Gazeta", due to alleged financial violations by Lebedev.

Meanwhile, state-controlled media have run articles that seek to discredit the protest movement, government critics and the political opposition.

Igor Yakovenko, former head of the Russian Union of Journalists, told CPJ said all of these moves to intimidate the media "send an unequivocal message of what is going to happen to Russian media after the March 4 presidential elections… the game is over."

Human Rights Watch is more hopeful. "Russia's authorities have tried to intimidate civic activists," it said. "But the voice of discontent heard on the streets and in social media is also impossible for Putin and the authorities to ignore. The first period of his presidency will be a crucial time to show sincerity about reform."