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How Russia Is Censoring Reporting On Sochi Olympics Controversies

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NEW YORK – Corruption. Environmental damage. Forced evictions. Exploitation of migrant workers.

Journalists would be expected to dive headfirst into such headline-grabbing allegations, especially when tied to an estimated $50 billion construction project that will command the world’s attention on February 7. But 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 with The Huffington Post 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.”

On Tuesday, CPJ released a critical report on Russian coverage, "Media suffer winter chill in coverage of Sochi Olympics," written by Ognianova and Elena Milashina, an investigative journalist for leading opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. In the report, the journalists' advocacy group concluded that "official repression and self-censorship have restricted coverage of sensitive issues in the run-up to Sochi -- the most expensive Games in Olympic history.”

‘We Have To Write That All Skies Are Clear Over Sochi’

It's never just about who gets the gold at the Olympics, where political and social issues often compete for center stage.

There’s the prestige factor, with host countries taking the opportunity to assert strength on the world stage, as China did through 2008’s lavish $40 billion games in Beijing. The Sochi games are widely seen as Putin’s attempt to project a powerful image of new Russia to a worldwide audience, at a cost that exceeds that of all previous winter Olympics combined.

Foreign policy tensions have played out at the Olympics as well, with the U.S. and Russia boycotting the 1980 and 1984 games, respectively. And, tragically, the games been the site of violence, from 11 Israeli athletes being killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics to the 1996 bombing in Atlanta. The bombings that recently took place within a few hundred miles from Sochi have heightened fears about future attacks and led to ample press coverage of the security situation.

The Sochi games have also attracted negative international attention as a result of Russia’s law banning “propaganda” about so-called nontraditional relationships, anti-gay legislation that has been widely condemned around the world.

But Russian state-controlled media outlets, which include the nation's largest television networks and news agencies, 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 -- essentially, anything that doesn't help project the image Putin wants for the Olympics.

In CPJ’s report, an unnamed Sochi correspondent for a Russian news organization recalled filing three stories to editors in Moscow. The first cast doubt on authorities’ claims about a journalist arrested for narcotics possession, while two others looked at dysfunction at a newly built Sochi residential complex for the games and 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.

“Nobody calls me; nobody says to me what I should or should not write about,” Svetlana Sagradova, the editor-in-chief of a local business magazine, told CPJ. “But I know what the topics that would anger the authorities are, and I have imposed self-censorship when it comes to those. Because -- one move by the prosecutors -- and my publication could lose its license.”

Since many Sochi-based news outlets receive funding from the government, it’s expected that Olympics stories that upset the Kremlin could lead to funds getting cut off.

Andrey Miroshnichenko, a Russian media analyst and author of “Man as Media," told HuffPost over email that the media landscape in his country is "divided into two unequal areas.”

“Old media express different scales of support of government efforts -– from moderate to enthusiastic and hurray-patriotic,” Miroshnichenko said. “Most of media follows the official agenda directly because they are owned by governmental or pro-governmental structures or depend on governmental or pro-governmental funding. Others really consider Olympic Games the matter of national honor. And sometimes, self-censorship may get into game."

Unlike during Soviet times, there are some independent news outlets that provide opposing points of view, such newspaper Novaya Gazeta, television channel Dozhd ("Rain"), the website Slon.ru ("Elephant"), and radio station Echo of Moscow. So it's not as if dissenting views don't exist in Russia.

Miroshnichenko said the “the Internet and the blogosphere offer much wider spectrum of opinions,” but acknowledged their reach doesn’t match that of the government-owned or controlled media.

In its report, CPJ pointed out that private ownership doesn’t necessarily lead to objective coverage, noting how Olga Allenova, an award-winning journalist with business-focused daily Kommersant, was presumably taken off the Olympics beat for reporting aggressively on human rights abuses. According to the report, Allenova’s editor was also later fired from the publication, which is owned by a billionaire friend of Putin's.

The CPJ report echoes findings published earlier this month by Human Rights Watch, which wrote that preparations for the Sochi games “have been marred by exploitation, illegal detentions, and deportations of migrant construction workers engaged on Olympic venues.” That report also found that local journalists and activists have faced harassment.

Ognianova told HuffPost that some activists have taken on the role of journalists, reporting on the situation in Sochi by way of websites, personal blogs, and YouTube.

And international journalists have "a crucial role to play in Sochi," she said, adding that it's important for them to be aware of the risks their Russians colleagues face.

‘One Of The Biggest Frauds’

International media has looked critically at the Sochi preparations, and HuffPost and other outlets reported Monday on a new report released by Putin critic Alexei Navalny.

HBO's "Real Sports" ran a lengthy report looking at corruption in Sochi and Bloomberg Businessweek devoted its cover to preparations for the Olympics. Both outlets cited a critical report co-written by Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin and a dissident voice in Putin’s Russia.

Nemtsov also appeared in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, telling acting Moscow bureau chief Steven Lee Myers that the Sochi build-up is “one of the biggest frauds of the Olympics” and “maybe even the biggest in human history.” In his magazine piece, “Putin’s Olympic Fever Dream,” Myers compared the Sochi overhaul to Soviet-era megaprojects.

Myers told HuffPost that he hasn’t faced any restrictions in covering issues related to Sochi, outside of the bureaucratic challenges he normally faces in Russia. “Over the last year, you could go to Sochi freely and look around and talk to people and so forth,” said Myers, who also has taken official government tours through the sprawling construction zone.

Phil Black, a Moscow-based correspondent with CNN International, similarly said there are always bureaucratic difficulties when reporting in Russia, particularly when trying to get direct answers from government bodies. But he also said the Russian authorities haven’t obstructed his reporting.

Still, Black acknowledged that some Sochi residents have been reluctant to express their concerns about the preparations on the record.

“On the streets of Sochi, and I’ve been there may times over the years, there are plenty of people when the camera isn’t rolling that will talk about their concerns,” Black said. “Within Sochi, there are many people not happy about these Olympics. They feel it’s turned their city into a construction project, a traffic jam.”

For NBC, the Olympics serves as a 17-day extravaganza spread across the television networks of NBCUniversal and all its digital platforms. And the focus will remain on sports, with segments about Olympic athletes' perseverance airing before they schuss down the slopes or skate across the ice.

But at a press preview earlier this month, primetime host Bob Costas stressed that he won’t shy away from controversial topics if they're relevant to the games, including Russia’s anti-gay legislation. "If Putin doesn’t drag his butt into the studio, then we’ll talk about it without him," Costas said.

New Yorker Editor David Remnick, who will appear as an analyst during NBC’s coverage of the opening ceremonies, told HuffPost that the international media should not pull punches out of concern that their perspective may conflict with Putin’s vision for the Sochi Olympics.

“What’s happening at the Olympics is that Russia is self-presenting, in the contemporary terminology,” said Remnick, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on the fall of the Soviet Union, “Lenin’s Tomb."

“They’re going to put forward some notion of what Russianness is and Russian history and what Russia is in the 21st century," Remnick continued. "For the many millions of people listening and watching, they want someone to give some perspective on that, whether that has to do with commenting on the horrendous laws on gays and lesbians or what’s the nature of Putin’s government -- all these things.”

Remnick said “reporters have the obligation to be as rigorous and critical as reality demands, and anything less is not journalism.”

“I think it would be dereliction of duty to do otherwise,” he added. “And why would I cross the street, much less go to Sochi, to do otherwise?”

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