In 2020 Russia ranks 149 on the World Press Freedom Index, annually published by Reporters Without Borders. This is far below any other western country, and even lower than some Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait.
Many in the West will take this for a fact, because for decades their media have been hammering into their heads the Kremlin kills journalists.
Contrary to the widespread belief that Putin's rise to power in 1999 somehow triggered a gulf of assassinations of journalists, these assassinations have sharply dropped since 2000. The numbers given by New York based Committee To Protect Journalists clearly indicate that under Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, things were much worse. Was there as much moral outrage in the West about the killing of reporters in the Yeltsin years as there was under Putin? Has Yeltsin ever been accused of killing journalists? I think not.
Even Russia's most outspoken opposition paper Novaya Gazeta, which has lost six of its reporters to contract-style assassinations, doesn't think Putin or the Kremlin have anything do with the killing of journalists. The only thing they accuse their government of is for not taking adequate measures to secure their safety.
Putin Depicted as a Dog
I'm from a country, The Netherlands, that's ranked 5 on the World Press Freedom Index. In the last seven years it was even ranked 2, 3, and 4. And I must say: I feel free to write anything I want without getting in trouble with the authorities. But I'm sure this does not mean I'm better off than a Russian journalist.
Apparently in Russia it's possible for media to depict president Vladimir Putin as a dog, like The Moscow Times did. In The Netherlands it would be impossible to depict king Willem-Alexander this way. It would be considered lese majesty. Twenty people have been prosecuted since 2000 for having offended the king. They can receive a prison sentence of up to five years or a fine of 20,500 euro.
Also, for the media in Russia it's possible to accuse the Russian military of being responsible for the MH17 crash in eastern Ukraine, as Novaya Gazeta has been doing continuously. In the Dutch mainstream press the first article or item that questions the official narrative about the crash is still to see the light of day. The Dutch press has done nothing but promote it. They even went to great length to help the authorities to substantiate their claim the rebels and Russia are to blame. And so the watchdog was barking up the wrong tree. Instead of doing what journalists should do, challenging the authorities by trying to shoot holes into their narrative, they sided with them.
The above-mentioned examples are only two of many that could be given to show the Russia press is much freer than western audiences believe they are, and in some respects even freer. In Russia it is possible to connect Putin to money laundering schemes; to call Russians "red fascists"; to call the Russian minority in Eastern Ukraine "genetic waste"; to applaud the death of Russian soldiers in Syria and to justify the violence of the Ukrainian military in Donbass. And so on, and so forth.
Those who expressed these opinions did so without grave consequences. As far as I know the journalists, pundits and media from the above examples are still alive and kicking. They haven’t been closed down, killed or banned from national TV.
Russian Media More Diverse
I interviewed Jeroen Ketting, a Dutch entrepreneur living in Moscow. He is a regular guest on Russian TV shows and sometimes makes appearances on Dutch TV or radio as well.
"The Dutch media are freer than the Russian media", he says. "But on the other hand, dissenters in the Dutch press are not tolerated. They are given very little space to express themselves. There is much more discussion on Russian television. In talk shows you hear more opposing opinions and things get much more rough. In contrast Dutch talk shows are very mealy-mouthed, with people buttering each other up".
Foreigners like Ketting are often invited to Russian talk shows to clarify issues related to Russia and their country of origin. I know at least three Dutchmen who are regulars on these shows. But never do I see Russians living in the Netherlands defending the domestic and foreign policies of the Russian government.
The American ambassador is on Dutch TV all the time. I remember having seen the Russian ambassador only once.
And so, even if it is presumed the Russian press is more restricted than the Dutch press, this clearly does not lead to one being inferior to the other. Quite to the contrary. Whereas in Russia many journalists are going to the max in exercising the freedom they have, in The Netherlands journalists somehow seem to be doing quite the opposite. This results in the Russian media being much more diverse and bringing more "news that somebody does not want printed".
The Last Opposition Paper
Being free to express one self is one thing, but to get things published in the main stream media is quite another. For example, none of the columns I have written thus far for Sputnik News could have made it to the Dutch papers and weeklies, including this one, simply because the topics discussed and opinions expressed are taboo.
Journalists who go against the mainstream are boycotted, denied subsidies and refused a press card. It certainly is the case in The Netherlands and I wouldn't be surprised if the same goes for almost every country in the world.
A remark recently made by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte illustrates the condition in which the Dutch media finds itself today. Rutte complimented the papers and broadcast media for their 'objective' coverage of the Corona crisis. Imagine Putin complimenting the Russian press. In the West such remark would have stirred up a storm. It would be presented as the ultimate proof the Russian press is fully controlled by the Kremlin.
If the media in The Netherlands are freer than the Russian media, than maybe it's because the Dutch journalists are more docile than their Russian colleagues? If media do not fully take advantage of the freedom they have, then governments are less inclined to put all kinds of restrictive measures in place.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.