PtG Article 31.10.2013

Sochi 2014: Press freedom under threat?

With just 100 days to go to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Play the Game asked whether security concerns and the desire for positive coverage could stifle press freedom.

The decision to hold the Winter Olympics in the Russian Black Sea resort was controversial right from the start.

Few facilities or supporting infrastructure existed, and the terrorist threat from separatists in the Caucuses and elsewhere was compounded by fears that racial and homophobic abuse could be directed at visitors.

While such a major world event normally merit independent press coverage, attendees at the Play the Game conference expressed fears that the right of journalists to report freely from Sochi would be curtailed by a security clampdown. Jean-Paul Marthoz, a Senior Adviser at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told Play the Game that the job of a journalist was not to be “herded about and presented with previously-prepared information”.

After experiencing such treatment at previous mega-events, he said, journalists at Sochi would likely be more resistant to attempts to manipulate their coverage. Sochi 2014 would be a “major test of journalists’ integrity in a globalised world which relies on international media to take the lead and break the stories,” he said.

Marthoz said that traditional news gathering practices were increasingly being hampered at mega-events through such measures as the “privatisation of public spaces.” Journalists should not accept the establishment of “draconian media and social media guidelines designed to leave coverage of the event totally in the hands of the PR people,” he said.

Following an August 19 parliamentary decree this year, he pointed out, the Russian authorities now had the power to cordon off the entire city of Sochi. While a real threat of terrorism existed, he said. severe freedom of movement restrictions could affect mainstream reporting on legitimate stories.

Russia’s recent re-criminalisation of libel could also inhibit the work of journalists, he added. Dmitry Tugarin, Executive Director at the media co-host RIA Novosti, agreed that many restrictions would apply to international journalists in Sochi, but added that most would be ordinary restrictions dictated by the IOC.

“Many things will be strictly prohibited, but [journalists] will be able to walk the streets of Sochi and meet the people they want to meet,” he said. Some estimates have put the total cost of Sochi at up to USD 50 billion – the most expensive Olympics ever.

However, Tugarin told Play the Game that the figure was different “depending on how you count”.

A lot of funds take the form of the private sector investment, he pointed out, and the games were at the centre of a wider project to develop the entire region’s infrastructure. Questions about how much corruption had taken place were being “discussed by Russian media very openly”, which he said was a “positive thing”.

“This is a matter for national discussion,” he said. Alexy Konov, Head of Division at Russia’s G20 Expert Council’s Anti Corruption Division, pointed out that Russia’s G20 presidency had launched a number of anti-corruption initiatives during its term in office, including a proposal for a new Global Alliance for Integrity in Sports.

One of the reasons for launching this initiative within the G20, he said, was that most recent sporting mega-events had been held in G20 counties.

“It’s quite natural for G20 nations- to play a role because they are the organisers of these events,” he said.