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Sochi Watch: Journalists, Beware — Putin Is Watching

Sochi Watch: Journalists, Beware — Putin Is Watching

The emerging surveillance state that is the Sochi Winter Olympics is shaping up to be a bleak place for journalists covering the games.

In an effort to project a positive image of President Vladimir Putin’s massive pet project — otherwise known as the most expensive Olympics in history — Russian authorities have spent the past two years carefully censoring coverage of Sochi and cracking down on local reporters, according to a report released Tuesday by the Committee to Project Journalists.

Faced with intimidation, harassment, and even imprisonment, most local media outlets have pro-actively self-censored their work, according to the report. That reality is particularly troubling given the myriad environmental, labor, and human rights issues that have emerged ahead of the games. "The majority of news outlets," the report reads, "prefer to cover Sochi the way they would cover a deceased man: in a positive light or not at all."

Part of the problem is that many news outlets covering Sochi are either controlled directly by the state, or are in various ways influenced by state authorities. Several reporters interviewed by CPJ admitted that Sochi media routinely receive government funding in exchange for censoring their content. Sochi’s city administration department typically reviews news reports before they air and airbrush out embarrassing details from television broadcasts. They also often have the power to kill articles. From December 2012 to March 2013, the report notes, Sochi’s city administration distributed nearly $1 million to 17 different media outlets.

Meanwhile, journalists intrepid enough to expose the darker side of Sochi – forced evictions, stolen wages, and political corruption, for example  — have been fired, reassigned, or arrested on allegedly trumped up charges. Olga Allenova, a reporter for the daily newspaper Kommersant, spent six months in 2011 covering human rights abuses related to the Olympics. During the course of her reporting, she told CPJ researchers, Russian authorities sent several threatening letters to the newspaper to "[make] sure we understood that if we did not shut up and stop ‘spoiling the country’s image,’ we would have serious problems." Shortly after publishing a series of articles, her editor was fired and Allenova was removed from Sochi coverage. Another journalist, Nikolai Yarst, was arrested on drug charges while investigating possible corruption among local officials.

Whether this alleged crackdown will extend to foreign journalists during the games remains to be seen. So far, international media have been able to report more freely on human rights and labor violations in Sochi. But there have been exceptions to that rule. According to the report, a crew from the Norwegian TV2 television station, which is the country’s official Olympics broadcaster, was "repeatedly stopped, detained, bullied, and threatened with imprisonment" while visiting Sochi last fall. Eventually, the journalists were released but not without consequence. "When I received my iPhone back," one of the Norwegian journalists told CPJ, "there was clear indication that the SIM card had been removed and probably copied. I have reasons to believe my contacts have been compromised."

Then again, journalists working in Sochi should probably assume that not only their contacts but all their communications will be compromised during the games. According to a report in the Guardian, the Russian Federal Security Service — better known as the FSB and formerly known as the KGB — will be monitoring all telephone and Internet communication by competitors, spectators, and even journalists in Sochi.

In short, it’s shaping up to be a great party.

The full report is here.