Christopher Walker

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity appears to resist the laws of political physics. Despite the price of oil sinking below $50 a barrel and the Russian economy falling into a tailspin, Putin’s approval ratings hover above 80 percent, seemingly defying ­gravity.

But the numbers should not be taken at face value.

Deeper scrutiny is especially important because the more Putin’s sky-high popularity ratings are mentioned, the more they become accepted wisdom. Western news media and political analysts frequently report on them without providing critically needed context.

First, Putin’s popularity has been achieved in an information vacuum. An informal set of censorship rules, actively enforced by the Kremlin, makes it virtually impossible to discuss important issues and question official actions through the mass media.…  Seguir leyendo »

With a surprise decree Dec. 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin shut down RIA Novosti, the massive, state-controlled news agency, and replaced it with an entity that will be overseen by Margarita Simonyan, the head of “RT,” Russia’s international propaganda arm, and Dmitry Kiselyov, an odious television presenter.

Officially, the Kremlin described the change as a way to “provide information on Russian state policy and Russian life and society for audiences abroad.” But this shake-up is better understood as the latest Kremlin effort to reassert control over its domestic mass media. RIA Novosti had a growing reputation for pursuing independent and analytical reporting.…  Seguir leyendo »

When Russian tax and law enforcement authorities recently raided the Moscow offices of Human Rights Watch, they invited a television crew from one of the country’s key state-controlled broadcast networks, NTV, to film the proceedings. State news television cameras similarly tagged along when government inspectors staged raids of other NGOs, including Amnesty International and the human rights group Memorial.

While President Vladimir Putin has described these raids as “routine measures linked to the desire of the law enforcement agencies to bring the activities of organizations in line with the law,” the question must be asked: Why the need to film and then feature in prime time news broadcasts if these measures are simply “routine”?…  Seguir leyendo »

Hilary Swank is making news for her warm birthday wishes to one of the world’s most cold-blooded leaders, Chechen tyrant Ramzan Kadyrov.

On Oct. 5, Swank attended the Chechen president’s lavish 35th birthday party, along with actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, singer Seal and British violinist Vanessa-Mae. For this engagement, each of these performers reportedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars in appearance fees. On videos posted to YouTube, Swank can be seen saying to Kadyrov, “Happy birthday, Mr. President”. Van Damme tells him, “I love you”.

Kadyrov’s egregious human rights record makes this affectionate embrace deeply disturbing. Freedom House has consistently found Chechnya to be one of the world’s most violently repressive places.…  Seguir leyendo »

By Christopher Walker, the director of studies at Freedom House and Robert W. Orttung, an assistant director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 23/04/11):

Facebook, Twitter and other social media have revolutionized the global press landscape, helping to dislodge dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and foment protests in Bahrain and Syria.

But another revolution is taking shape simultaneously in old media institutions — one that could break the stranglehold that the state news media hold over unfree societies.

Dictators make controlling the news media a priority for a reason.…  Seguir leyendo »