In Sochi, press freedom is a question mark

It's unclear what sort of environment journalists covering the Winter Olympics in Russia will find

In June, investigative reporter Nikolai Yarst, who works for the Public Television of Russia, was prevented by authorities from interviewing police about a story he was writing in Sochi, the site of the upcoming Olympics, on alleged police misconduct. Yarst was arrested on drug charges and quickly sentenced to house arrest.

So when police near Sochi stopped Norwegian TV2 reporter Øystein Bogen and his cameraman, Aare Aune, a few weeks ago and asked them to take drug tests, the two were anxious. Before complying, Bogen, an 18-year veteran of reporting on Russian affairs, called his embassy. Staffers there strongly advised him to resist any tests.

More than one hour and much diplomatic wrangling later, Bogen and Aune continued on their way—only to be stopped six more times in the two-and-a-half days they attempted to talk with residents and report on the impact the upcoming Olympic games is having. At one point, authorities confiscated the journalists’ equipment and detained them for three hours, during which someone Bogen believes was from the Russian secret service interrogated them. That detention was a ruse to hack into his iPhone and obtain phone and email records, Bogen believes.

In the end, after strong protests from the Norwegian government, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued an apology, calling the journalists’ detention a “technical error” and promising to punish those who exceeded their powers.

Crackdown on local media is nothing new—Russia has one of the worst records of free speech in Europe, according to Reporters without Borders. But Bogen said that attempts to muzzle foreign reporters mark a shift.

“They are for the first time going after foreign journalists,” said Bogen. “They were under orders to harass us,” he continued. “They had a suspicion that we would be reporting on critical issues, and they didn’t want to allow that to happen.”

President Vladimir Putin wants to use the Sochi Olympics to show the world that his country has modernized since the fall of the Soviet Union. That conflicts, though, with reports of workers’ rights violations during the building of Olympic sites, illegal dumping of construction material, and allegations that up to half the of the $50 billion Olympic budget—the most ever spent preparing for the games —has been lost to corruption and inefficiency.

And the journalists reporting on the allegations are being penalized. Human Rights Watch has documented threats to and harassment of editors, journalists, bloggers, and the staff of news outlets after publishing stories critical of Olympic preparations. At least two reporters and the general director of a newspaper face criminal charges, apparently in retaliation for their work.

Another human rights activist, who asked not to be named, said that might explain some of the “chaotic” behavior by local authorities, who only know one way to stay on message: intimidation.

“Putin wants the Olympics to be a showcase for a new Russia, but it’s wrong to separate that from the crackdown he and the Kremlin have unleashed,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch. In the last four months alone, Russia’s foreign ministry, the Russian Olympic Committee, and the International Olympic Committee have been in crisis communication mode, apologizing, clarifying, and denying incidents that lead many westerners wondering how free expression actually will be this winter.

Major renovations made to telephone and wireless networks in Sochi ensure “extensive and all-permeating monitoring and filtering of all traffic,” using Russia’s system for intercepting phone and internet communications, according to a Guardian report.

And earlier this month reporters from Reuters, ITar/Tass, and Radio Liberty, heard Vasily Konov, the head of Russia’s state-run RIA sport channel, tell sports journalists at a seminar that they would neither be allowed to use their mobile devices and tablets nor social media while attending the games. A few days later, IOC officials corrected the report.

“Sochi pledges, in its bid book, excellent working conditions for the media at the games. It also promises the media an open dialogue with the Organising Committee, so that your needs are met, in their words, ‘openly, honestly and promptly,’” Emmanuelle Moreau, head of media relations at the IOC wrote in an email. “We are working with Sochi 2014 to achieve these objectives, and we expect that the media will be able to report normally at the games.”

While Bogen and others said they believe there will be few glitches during the two-week event, they are convinced problems are more likely to occur before and after the torch reaches Sochi.

“I am certain that before the Olympics there will be other incidents with foreign journalists,” he said.

And afterwards—when the spotlight fades—the reckoning for the Russians who spoke with local and foreign journalists will come.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna.