Don't shoot the journalist

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Maxim Krans) - The recent World Public Opinion poll shows that the majority of people in the world favor freedom of the press.

Russia also has quite a few supporters of media freedom. But it is surprising that out of 20 states that took part in the poll, Russia has more opponents of freedom of the press than any other country. In this respect, we are similar to Iran. However, to be objective, I must say that this is not a strictly Russian trend. Muslim countries also stand for restricting anything-goes attitudes.

The current poll, which coincided with the World Press Freedom Day marked on May 3, was conducted in countries of very different socio-political orientations. The answers of Russian residents show that they have a special opinion on the topic. Forty-four percent of them believe that the authorities have the right to control the media, and prevent the publication of materials that could destabilize the nation's mentality. But at the same time, 69% of those polled are convinced that Russia has a free press, and every sixth thinks that there is too much media freedom.

This is a paradoxical situation. Two thirds of Russians are enthusiastic supporters of society's democratic development, but they are not so sure about freedom of the press. The majority of them believe that the authorities should be controlled by the people. But isn't the press the most powerful and effective means of control?

Moreover, during the poll conducted by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM) two years ago, 63% of citizens voted for the introduction of state censorship. There were no more polls on this subject later.

Meanwhile, many of those polled must have read with enthusiasm the perestroika-launched Ogonyok and Moscow News, and were happy that they wouldn't be sent to prison or asylum for a political joke. This was the time when people were giving up doublethink and communist stereotypes. At long last they were able to say what they thought. This was the time of idealism and big hopes. Although Boris Yeltsin did not favor the press too much, he never dared encroach on its freedom.

But later on, everything went downhill. Today, Russia has rare islands of dissidence; practically all owners of the media have introduced self-censorship, and most of them have seriously restricted pluralism, if not abolished it altogether.

It is no accident that the annual report of the NGO Freedom House, which was traditionally issued on the eve of the World Press Freedom Day, states that Russia substantially curtailed press freedom last year. In this respect it fell to 170th place in the world. It is a scant consolation that many other post-Soviet states are close by.

According to estimates by the sociological Levada centre, 56% of Russians are confident that "the Russian authorities do not threaten freedom of the press and the operation of the independent media in any way."

But the reality is different. The monitoring conducted by human rights organizations, for instance, the Glasnost Defense Foundation, shows that more and more editorial boards are being subjected to legal harassment, fined and evicted from their offices. More and more journalists are being dismissed, beaten, and arrested. Russia has the second highest number of journalists killed while performing their professional duty during the last ten years.

How could this have become possible? Maybe, because society is not extremely interested in freedom of the press, and does not defend it anyway? What should we interpret as freedom of the press - a possibility of openly expressing an opinion, or crude interference in other people's life? Does it raise urgent issues or is it after cheap sensations? Does it criticize thoughtless actions of officials or is it about dirty laundry? Public opinion polls show that the perception of the media is contradictory, just as the attitude toward their freedom.

Serious analytical articles are not in fashion now. Other genres are more popular - glamour, dissected bodies, gossip, pop songs, talk shows for house wives and below-the-belt humor. They are being actively consumed, but without much respect for their authors. The media are following in the wake of public opinion, which guarantees them high ratings and profits. But at the same time, they are shaping this opinion, and drawing the audience into a merry and horrible virtual world, thereby sidetracking them from participating in deciding the destiny of their own country.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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