As the global spotlight fixes on Sochi this weekend, the Russian government is crushing dissent...and there’s a lot of it. As the Committee to Protect Journalists notes in a new report, people there have suffered long-lasting power outages, environmental damage, evictions, corruption, and widespread violation of labor laws. But local news organizations are silent on these issues, instead functioning as public relations agencies for the government. Brooke talks with Nina Ognianova about the stories that aren't being told in the Russian media.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media.
I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. [MUSIC]
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As the global spotlight fixes on Sochi this weekend, the Russian government is crushing dissent, and there's a lot of it. As the Committee to Protect Journalists notes in a new report, people that have suffered long-lasting power outages, contaminated water, or no water at all, and eviction if their homes got in the way of Olympic construction. They’ve been victim to widespread violations of labor laws and witness to corruption in the form of illegal building permits for the wealthy, unrelated to the Games. To quash the complaints, the authorities have denied several political activists the spectator passes they need to enter sporting venues, where they might meet foreign reporters. And they jailed environmental activists, one on the pretext of swearing in public. The local media, meanwhile, have been conscripted to do public relations for the government, says
Nina Ognianova of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
NINA OGNIANOVA: National television stations and news agencies received their directives from the central authorities, as well as from the municipal authorities, and the directive said to cover the Sochi Olympics the way that media would cover a deceased person, either in positive light or not at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me examples of how stories were spiked or changed in order to reflect this directive.
NINA OGNIANOVA: In one incident, a journalist working for a major news agency in Sochi told us that her editors in Moscow completely rejected three stories that she pitched to them. The first story had to do with a local journalist who was incarcerated on false charges by the local police. The second story had to do with faulty waterworks at a hastily-built building, where Sochi residents evicted from their homes were being resettled. The third story had to do with just worsening of the local weather in Sochi. At one point, the editor told this correspondent, you may have a storm, you may have a twister or even a 9 Richter scale earthquake, we still have to write that all skies are clear over Sochi.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So there is clearly an information vacuum in Sochi. Your report says that activists have made an effort to fill in for the journalists. How is that working?
NINA OGNIANOVA: The activists started covering these issues through their personal blogs, through posting video, through social media, and they have incurred the wrath of the local government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like what?
NINA OGNIANOVA: For example, one particular activist, Suren Gazaryan, had to flee the country because of trumped up charges of murder.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How do you know it’s trumped up?
NINA OGNIANOVA: Gazaryan, along with some of his colleagues from Ekovakhta, which is a very prominent environmental organization in the region, went to assess the possible environmental effects that the building of a private marina, allegedly for Vladimir Putin, had on the local environment. When they went to visit the site, they were accosted by private guards. One of the guards twisted Suren Gazaryan’s arms. When he tried to rid himself of the grip, he picked up a small rock and told the guards to back off. This incident was used as pretext for one of the guards to file criminal charges.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Attempted murder.
NINA OGNIANOVA: Attempted murder, that’s correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: By a small rock.
NINA OGNIANOVA: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: With the same group, Valdimir Kimaev had started blogging about a lot of environmental damage connected with Olympic preparations, including water pollution, deforestation, mudslides, and so on. When people had problems, they started calling him, not local law enforcement, not local media. They didn't see anybody else taking an interest.
NINA OGNIANOVA: That's right. The state media have not only ignored the subject of environmental damage and other rights violations but have outright vilified the victims. The state owned NTV, which is one of the biggest television stations in Russia, in fact, did a so-called “documentary” in which it portrayed victims of eviction packed to the Olympic Games as greedy residents who wanted to enrich themselves on government's dime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Speaking of self-enrichment, your report begins [LAUGHS] with the story of Roman Kuznetsov who is a construction worker sent down to Sochi to help build for the Olympic Games and, like many, many, many people not paid. There’s not been a single case filed against any of the employers that have denied these men their wages. He sewed up his lips using a needle and black thread and held up a paper saying, “Please help get the reporters’ attention! I am not from around here.” Did he get the reporter’s attention?
NINA OGNIANOVA: He did, but he got the international media's attention. The activists we spoke to said that first they go to the international media, and only after the story gets so big that it transcends the boundaries of Russia, that some media locally start picking it up. In most recent months and even days, the authorities have started rounding up and even preventatively detaining activists.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if Putin sweeps them from the streets of Sochi, there’ll be no one for the international media to talk to.
NINA OGNIANOVA: The administration has gone beyond any previous recorded attempts to clear the space of inconvenient voices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you happen to see Pussy Riot on The Colbert Report?
NINA OGNIANOVA: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, they were remarkable. Do you see a possible opportunity in activists from Russia telling their stories on American soil?
NINA OGNIANOVA: It’s a very difficult question because the bravest and the most critical voices of Russia, they have to be able to do their job in Russia. And a big responsibility falls upon the International Olympic Committee. The IOC has to urge the Russian government to keep to their commitments, as enshrined in the Olympic Charter. Those commitments include guaranteeing press freedom, at least for the duration of the Games.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nina, thank you very much.
NINA OGNIANOVA: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nina Ognianova is the Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
STEPHEN COLBERT: You seem like a nice couple of kids. What I don't understand is why you would be going against someone like Vladimir Putin, who is just trying to preserve the peace and bring Russia into a brighter future.
What do you have against Vladimir Putin? He’s a strong man. That’s what Russia needs.
[RESPONSE IN RUSSIAN LANGUAGE]
INTERPRETER FOR NADYA TOLOKONNIKOVA: We have different ideas about a bright future, and we don’t want a shirtless man on a horse leading us into that –
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