In the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, Russian media organizations -– with the exception of some independent outlets –- have largely avoided controversial issues that might cast a negative light on President Vladimir Putin’s grand project on the Black Sea.
Nina Ognianova, the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said in an interview that “the domestic media is absolutely gagged” from reporting on human rights issues and corruption claims. The price tag for turning Russia's summer resort city into a winter Olympics wonderland has ballooned to over four times more than planned. “The majority of the news outlets, particularly those that are controlled by the state,” she said, “prefer to cover Sochi, the Olympic city, the way they would cover a deceased man: either in a positive light or not at all.”
Russia's largest television networks and news agencies (which, under Putin, are now state-controlled), are unlikely to air reports questioning the country’s costly preparations for the games, the concerns of LGBT athletes, or the environmental impact of drastically changing the landscape in Sochi.
An unnamed Sochi correspondent for a Russian news organization recalled filing three stories to editors in Moscow-- one on the arrest of a journalist, one covering dysfunction at a newly built construction project, and another on a major storm expected to hit Sochi. All three were rejected in Moscow. “You may have a storm, a twister, and even a 9-Richter-scale earthquake; still, we have to write that all skies are clear over Sochi,” the correspondent recalled her editor saying.
Censorship in authoritarian countries can be overt, as when negative stories are spiked, or more subtle, creating a climate where journalists self-censor out of fear of risking their livelihoods.
Private ownership doesn’t necessarily lead to objective coverage. Olga Allenova, an award-winning journalist with business-focused daily Kommersant, was taken off the Olympics beat for reporting aggressively on human rights abuses. Allenova’s editor was also later fired from the publication, which is owned by a billionaire friend of Putin's.
More on Putin's Potemkin Village and other controversies surrounding the Sochi Olympics later this week.