Staunton, October 21 – Russian government censorship and self-censorship by editors and writers fearful of running afoul of officials are seriously restricting the coverage of religious issues and especially those involving conflicts between Russian Orthodox and others, groups not traditionally found in Russian society, and Muslims.
Those are some of the conclusions that were offered by participants at a conference on religion and the media held at Moscow State University in October 2015 and that were confirmed by a survey of 128 Russian journalists about their experiences in writing on religious questions in recent months.
The survey was conducted by Yevgeny Onegin of the Sane Thinking Foundation which promotes the ideas of secularism. He interviewed 96 Orthodox journalists, 13 Muslim journalists and 19 who did not declare a religion about their experiences with censorship and self-censorship in media outlets.
He reported that 119 of the 128 said that they had been told by editors after the adoption of the law on protecting the religious feelings of Russians that they should not make reference in their articles to “religion, religious problems, traditions or about various forms of the manifestation of the absence of faith.”
Specifically, they were told not to use the words “God,” “Allah” or “atheist.”
Editors are so worried about falling afoul of the law that they have even gone into their archives and changed the titles and subtitles of articles that mentioned these or other words in their titles in previously published materials as much as several years’ old, the journalists reported.
Judging from the comments of those surveyed, editors at entertainment outlets are even more strict about this than are those at news ones, Onegin said. Thus sports journalists have been enjoined against any reference to God such as suggestions that God helped this or that sports participant to win.
108 of the journalists said they were now afraid to report about any clashes between Russian Orthodox faithful and others; 63 said they avoided any reference to atheism or lack of faith; and 29 said they were now avoiding reviews of religious activities altogether Orthodox, Muslim or any other.
Speaking to the group, Nikolay Svanidze, a journalist who is also a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, said that he personally hadn’t encountered censorship of religious stories but that he was “certain” that there is such censorship and that it is having “very serious” consequences.
“But stronger than censorship,” he suggested, “is self-censorship” because editors are afraid of getting in trouble. And Svanidze added, “censorship on religious themes is now not so obvious as on those of domestic or foreign policy such as references to ‘the first person of the state or our main opponent who is officially called a partner, the US.”
Another participant in the meeting expressed what appears to be the view of many: “the law defending the feelings of believers imposes criminal penalties. It is thus entirely natural that a journalist will reflect 100 times before writing anything on a religious theme.”