It’s the journalism award that dare not speak its name.
On Monday, the Russian newspaper Vedomosti reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed a decree last month honoring a group of Russian reporters for the purported "objectivity" of their coverage of Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that has been annexed under the barrel of a Russian gun. But unlike, say, any other journalism award in the world, the names of the reporters who made the cut for the award won’t be announced publicly.
Indeed, the Kremlin has refused to even publish the decree and doesn’t plan on releasing any more information about it. "I can confirm that such a decree was signed, but we usually do not publish them. Now, since this information has become public, we do not plan to add any details about it," Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told the Moscow Times by telephone. Unfortunately for Peskov, that isn’t true: As the Moscow Times points out, the Kremlin issued a similar award for objectivity in coverage following the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and publicly released the names of the journalists whose coverage the government approved of.
This time around, the honored journalists — which, according to Vedomosti, number more than 300 — include individuals from the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, the Kremlin-funded cable network RT, and employees at a handful of other outlets. It’s not clear what, if anything, they receive beyond a thumbs-up from the notoriously repressive and press-averse Putin government.
The news of the award is certainly timely. After Secretary of State John Kerry accused RT of being a "propaganda bullhorn" by promoting "Putin’s fantasy about what is playing out on the ground" in Ukraine, Russian media aligned with the Kremlin have launched something of a counter-offensive. RT has recently been broadcasting segments about itself that trumpet the alleged objectivity of the network’s reporting, citing its efforts to cover both sides of the conflict in Ukraine and hardline critics of the "corporate" American media.
Watch for yourself as the lady doth protest too much:
The debate over whether RT is or isn’t a propaganda network — which isn’t really much of a debate at all — reflects the sad state of press freedom in Russia. "The media environment in Russia … is characterized by the use of a pliant judiciary to prosecute independent journalists, impunity for the physical harassment and murder of journalists, and continued state control or influence over almost all traditional media outlets," Freedom House writes in their 2013 report on media freedoms around the world. "Following Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in May 2012, which was aided by an overwhelming media advantage ahead of the March election, the regime enacted a series of laws that could be used to further restrict media freedom, included a broadly worded measure allowing for the censorship of internet-based content that took effect in November."
The Kremlin’s use of secret awards to honor "objectivity" in Crimea coverage — obviously nothing but a codeword for hewing to the government line — is but one of the many tools Moscow has in its arsenal to influence the media. Thus, with a combination of sweeteners and threats, the Kremlin exercises its power over the media.
But there is a silver lining: The secret award was exposed by a Russian newspaper.