‘You lynch negroes’was said to be a typical response from the Soviet Russian authorities to criticism from the West.
The Economist’s East Europe correspondent Edward Lucas criticised two Russian journalists for using similar tactics when they addressed a London School of Economics debate on press freedom in Russia.
Darya Pushkova, London correspondent for Russian TV channel Russia Today, and Pavel Andreev, London deputy bureau chief for the Russian News and Information agency, both agreed that press freedom has reduced under President Putin.
But they both claimed that Russia is better off that way and defended it by alleging Western bias in the reporting of Russian issues.
The event was held to mark the anniversary of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya – the campaigning Russian journalist shot dead on 7 October last year.
Miklos Haraszti, from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said one of the main threats to press freedom in Russia was the ‘Extremism laws’under which journalists can be arrested for even mentioning the names of proscribed people.
He also cited violence, pointing out that journalists who were physically attacked were nearly always from the non-state press.
Russian agency journalist Andreev, defending the situation in Russia, said: ‘There was no democracy in Russia in the Nineties, there was chaos. Democracy is a system where there are not only freedoms and rights but also responsibilities.
‘The chaos of the Nineties provided for a very poor quality of journalism – I remember media owned by oligarchs responsible not to the public interest but to the owners of Russian businesses.’
He said Putin’s regime has brought control – and prosperity – and that the public and journalists support this.
‘The public interest coincides with the state interest and the majority of journalists understand that.’
The Economist’s Lucas – a former Russian correspondent – said he believed press freedom in Russia was effectively dead.
He said: ‘The Kremlin is working on the 80/20 principle – if you control 80 per cent you don’t have to worry about the remaining 20 per cent.’
He claimed tax laws are used to enable state-owned companies to take over newspapers and broadcasters. He also said he knows of Kremlin officials advising companies not to advertise with opposition newspapers.
Lucas highlighted the case of Russian journalist Larisa Arap – who was locked up in a mental hospital for 46 days earlier this year after investigating the mental health system and was only freed after a ‘massive campaign to get her out”.
Russia Today correspondent Pushkova criticised the way the Alexander Litvinenko murder was covered by the UK press and the ‘daring’suggestion that he was killed on the order of the Russian president.
She also criticised reports suggesting that Russian bombers flying near UK airspace meant Russia was ‘stretching its muscles”. She said: ‘Russia has the right to exercise its pilots.’
She added that 84 per cent of Russians support Putin because ‘their lives have got better”.
Responding to this, Lucas said: ‘You don’t know how popular Putin would be with a free press.’
He added: ‘You have a prime minister who is produced from someone’s pocket and is someone we have never heard of. Press freedom is not a panacea. But it does make it very hard for people in charge to get away with dirty business without the electorate knowing about it.’
The debate’s most damning criticism of Russian press freedom came from Natalia Estemirova – the first recipient of the new annual Anna Politkovskaya award, which is presented by human rights group Reach All Women in War.
She said: ‘What’s happened to press freedom in Russia is something worse than deathâ€¦
‘When Putin announced in 1999 that we are winning the information war it is not a fair victory, because you don’t have a war and a victory when one side is armed and the other is not.
‘I would call this campaign a murder on words.’
Talking about Russian activities in Chechnya she said: ‘While solders were shooting, while children were being killed, journalists wrote about it and said the people who are being killed are bandits, they are terrorists.
‘Very few stayed on to report on this. The most outstanding journalist of all was Anna Politkovskaya and she was murdered.’