Russian Media Called 'Empire of Lies'

The campaign to control the media began almost as soon as Putin took office in 2000. His administration attacked the wealthy oligarchs who had privatized -- often illegally and with disastrous effects for regular Russians -- many state enterprises, driving those who dared to use their stations to support political opponents out of the country.

But Russians have never had much experience with independent news.

"In Russia, there never was freedom of speech. The population had 80 years of communistic propagation -- they have gotten used to this type of television," Panfilov said. "Only a small part of the population can search for independent sources of information through the Internet, or by the old Soviet tradition to listen to programs of foreign radio stations in Russian."

The lack of interest in independent news was demonstrated recently at the annual Andrei Sakharov journalism awards -- Russia's equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize -- for investigative journalism. About two dozen people were present at the awards ceremony in Moscow, with almost no press coverage.

Anna Lebedeva won the top award for her work in a small town in central Russia. During her acceptance speech, she said that because of the danger of her work and the lack of public interest, she was considering switching to "writing restaurant reviews."

"It is a terrible situation," said Alexei Simonov, the head of the award committee and the president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation. "If you want to risk your life for very little reward, then join this profession."

Indeed, Russia is the third most dangerous country in which to practice journalism, after Iraq and Alergia. In 2006, two journalists were killed in Russia.

Two years ago, Forbes' Russian editor Paul Klebnikov, an American of Russian descent, was shot to death on a Moscow street. The publisher of Forbes' Russian edition has said that the murder is "definitely linked to his professional activity."

Klebnikov often investigated government corruption and the closed-door dealings of the country's wealthiest oligarchs. A new trial has recently been opened in the case, overturning the acquittal of two suspects.

In October, Anna Politkovskaya, Russia's most famous human rights journalist, was gunned down in a contract-style killing in her Moscow apartment building. Known for her critical reporting on the Kremlin and her investigative work in Chechnya, Politkovskaya had received top international awards for her courage.

But in Moscow, her death was barely acknowledged by Putin, who waited days before making a public statement. Some believe that Politkovskaya's murder and Litvinenko's poisoning are tied, because the former spy was rumored to be investigating her death.

Politkovskaya described her work, which often took her undercover to Chechnya, as part of the Russian theory of "little business."

"It's a special Russian theory that if you can't change the whole world, you need to do some little things to help specific people," she said in a phone interview last year. "Russian journalism was and now is the possibility to help people first of all in their everyday life and in their catastrophic life. I decided that it was a very nice theory for me."

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