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Russian media: True, we're 'not free' - but we're not Zimbabwe

Russian media experts and journalists say Freedom House's annual press freedom survey doesn't acknowledge the rise of independent media outlets and social media, which are broadening the landscape.

Moscow

The New York-based human rights watchdog Freedom House released its annual survey of press freedom in almost 200 countries today. At first blush it may not seem surprising that Russia, which will inaugurate Vladimir Putin for his third presidential term on May 7, remains firmly in the "Not Free" category of nations, holding down a dismal 172nd place, together with Zimbabwe and Azerbaijan, just one slot higher than last year's rating.

But this year, at least, many Russian media experts and journalists say that Freedom House makes some good points, but its judgement is too monochromatic and has failed to note sweeping changes – often happening below the West's radar screen – that are broadening out Russia's media spectrum, creating new and independent sources of information that the public can access.

The analytical reports issued by Freedom House, which is 80 percent funded by the US government, are typically received by Russian officialdom with an angry scoff and an occasional diatribe on Western double-standards. In his final interview as Russian president last week, Dmitry Medvedev flatly denied there is any state censorship of the media in Russia.

RELATED: Reporters without Borders' 10 least free countries

"There's a better mood among journalists today, and a new fighting spirit," says Yassen Zassoursky, who was dean of Moscow State University's journalism faculty from 1965 to 2007. "I talk to a lot of my former students, and keep close track. Things are changing in our society, and today's journalists are pushing harder, making incremental improvements, but they are trying to do their jobs. Yes, there's still self-censorship, and an attitude of caution, but I feel very optimistic about how things are going."

While major TV networks, which reach the bulk of the population, remain closely state-guided, there is a wide spectrum of newspapers and a growing number of independent radio stations that have consistently pushed the limits of what they can report. For example, a two-year-old cable and Internet TV station, Dozhd TV, successfully weathered official threats of shutdown early this year after it gave coverage to the wave of street protests against alleged electoral fraud in last December's Duma elections.

Russia's unfettered Internet has become host to thousands of critical blogs, uncensored online newspapers, and an expanding social media that proved the main organizational force behind the protest rallies of recent months.

The Christian Science Monitor