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Is Vladimir Putin using the Olympics for some nifty sleight of hand?
While the world's media has been focused on a short list of blow-ups and blunders around the Sochi Games – from Russia's anti-gay legislation and the hasty last-minute construction, to the failure of that fifth Olympic ring to open up during last week's opening ceremony – have they missed another mammoth story sitting right under their noses?
The new issue of the Economist magazine has some frightening things to say about the state of Russian media, suggesting that it has taken on "a whiff of Orwell's '1984.'"
"Just as Vladimir Putin's greatest project has been protected from terrorist attack by a 'ring of steel,' so the president himself is protected from political subversion by a virtual 'ring of steel' surrounding the media," the magazine charges. Channel One, a state-owned broadcaster, "has rebranded itself as 'First Olympic' and dressed its presenters in Russian sports uniforms."
That lack of criticism isn't entirely surprising: Media covering the Olympics, especially in their own country, often adopt a sudden troubling credulity. But the Economist makes more grave charges: "Any critic of the Olympics has been branded an enemy. Editors have been warned that carping reports would threaten their publication's survival."
Olympics coverage is only part of the problem. In December, the government liquidated the state news agency RIA Novosti to create another operation that many believe is too sympathetic to the Kremlin.
Its editor-in-chief, Svetlana Mironyuk, a media executive who had given the agency a more modern and professional focus, was replaced by Dmitry Kiselev, whom the Economist describes as "a television presenter whose venomous anti-American and homophobic rants would have been extreme even in Soviet times." A notorious pro-Russian propagandist, Mr. Kiselev charged last fall that the bloody protests in Kiev were a "co-production" between the U.S., Europe, and the Ukrainian opposition.
The magazine goes on to outline the virtual stranglehold on national media and the television advertising market enjoyed by friends of Putin, as well as a new law that permits Russian authorities "to block Internet sites without a court order on the grounds of vaguely defined 'extremism.'"
All of which is to say, if the international media have some time to spare while they're covering the action in Sochi, they might want to ask their Russian colleagues about the other games that Russia is playing.
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