Russian Crackdown Silences Independent Media

With only days to go until Russia chooses its new president, fears are growing over an increasing media crackdown.

'It' girl Ksenia Sobchak was best known for presenting Russia's Big Brother.

Now, in the run-up to the presidential elections, she is at the centre of a row over media freedom.

Her political debate show on MTV seemed a rare and genuine effort at objectivity before it was cancelled in what was widely seen as a politically motivated move.

Dubbed the 'Russian Paris Hilton', she was a family friend of Putin , but Ksenia has now pitched herself firmly in the opposition camp.

Speaking about her banned show she says: "It was the kind of place where the opposition could discuss things. It was closed but I was ready for this. I know where we live and how it works."

Her privileged status meant a less than warm welcome into the opposition camp: "I am ready to stand for my opinion and I'm ready to be criticised. I'm ready to be booed at the protest, it's okay, this is my choice, I have to stand up for it."

State TV, with its pro-Putin agenda, is how the majority of Russians get their news.

It surprised critics by broadcasting the recent anti-Putin protests, raising hopes of a shift away from the usual propaganda.

But with a new crackdown on those who report objectively, those hopes are fading.

At the uber-trendy industrial-themed TV Rain newsroom, a wheelchair-using news anchor is delivering the latest bulletin while an ironic, graffitied bust of Lenin looks on.

This is the only independent news channel in Russia.

Chief Natalya Sindeyeva funds the channel, which broadcasts online and on cable.

She was recently questioned by the prosecutor's office after accusations that its coverage of the opposition protests received foreign funding.

She says: "Our channel is watched by people who recently stopped watching Russian state TV. We feel a responsibility for what's happening in society.

"We think that media is a great tool for solving difficult problems. We are very sincere and open.

"What's happened recently bothers me, this space and newsroom has been designed to stress in a nonverbal way our openness."

Mr Putin has publicly voiced his irritation over free-speaking radio station Ekho Moskvy's criticism of him.

The stalwart of the marginal free media has been forced to shake up its board in what they say was an attempt to change their editorial policy.

The internet is also a major challenge for the authorities.

Unprecedented booing of Mr Putin at a martial arts fight was quickly edited out of state TV broadcasts but on YouTube it reached millions.

Despite having her own political show cancelled, one of Russia's most popular TV hosts Tina Kandelaki argues the media is now more free and the internet makes censorship impossible.

"After the opposition protests on Bolotnaya Square, television opened up but there is some catching up to do. Manipulation still happens because they do not realise that everything you cut appears on the internet straight away."

Putin's victory seems inevitable, heightening fears that six more years of his rule could suffocate an already stifled media.

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