Sochi Watch: Journalists, Beware -- Putin Is Watching

The emerging surveillance state that is the Sochi Winter Olympics is shaping up to be a bleak place for journalists covering the games.

In an effort to project a positive image of President Vladimir Putin's massive pet project -- otherwise known as the most expensive Olympics in history -- Russian authorities have spent the past two years carefully censoring coverage of Sochi and cracking down on local reporters, according to a report released Tuesday by the Committee to Project Journalists.

Faced with intimidation, harassment, and even imprisonment, most local media outlets have pro-actively self-censored their work, according to the report. That reality is particularly troubling given the myriad environmental, labor, and human rights issues that have emerged ahead of the games. "The majority of news outlets," the report reads, "prefer to cover Sochi the way they would cover a deceased man: in a positive light or not at all."

Part of the problem is that many news outlets covering Sochi are either controlled directly by the state, or are in various ways influenced by state authorities. Several reporters interviewed by CPJ admitted that Sochi media routinely receive government funding in exchange for censoring their content. Sochi's city administration department typically reviews news reports before they air and airbrush out embarrassing details from television broadcasts. They also often have the power to kill articles. From December 2012 to March 2013, the report notes, Sochi's city administration distributed nearly $1 million to 17 different media outlets.

Meanwhile, journalists intrepid enough to expose the darker side of Sochi -- forced evictions, stolen wages, and political corruption, for example  -- have been fired, reassigned, or arrested on allegedly trumped up charges. Olga Allenova, a reporter for the daily newspaper Kommersant, spent six months in 2011 covering human rights abuses related to the Olympics. During the course of her reporting, she told CPJ researchers, Russian authorities sent several threatening letters to the newspaper to "[make] sure we understood that if we did not shut up and stop ‘spoiling the country's image,' we would have serious problems." Shortly after publishing a series of articles, her editor was fired and Allenova was removed from Sochi coverage. Another journalist, Nikolai Yarst, was arrested on drug charges while investigating possible corruption among local officials.

Whether this alleged crackdown will extend to foreign journalists during the games remains to be seen. So far, international media have been able to report more freely on human rights and labor violations in Sochi. But there have been exceptions to that rule. According to the report, a crew from the Norwegian TV2 television station, which is the country's official Olympics broadcaster, was "repeatedly stopped, detained, bullied, and threatened with imprisonment" while visiting Sochi last fall. Eventually, the journalists were released but not without consequence. "When I received my iPhone back," one of the Norwegian journalists told CPJ, "there was clear indication that the SIM card had been removed and probably copied. I have reasons to believe my contacts have been compromised."

Then again, journalists working in Sochi should probably assume that not only their contacts but all their communications will be compromised during the games. According to a report in the Guardian, the Russian Federal Security Service -- better known as the FSB and formerly known as the KGB -- will be monitoring all telephone and Internet communication by competitors, spectators, and even journalists in Sochi.

In short, it's shaping up to be a great party.

The full report is here.    



Sorry We're Not Sorry: Japan TV Exec Revives Comfort Women Debate

Japanese officials have apologized at least 54 times for the country's historical aggression against its Asian neighbors during World War II. And, almost without fail, these acts of contrition are effectively negated by revisionist statements from a rogue's gallery of public figures.

The latest such villain is Katsuto Momii, the new chair of Japan's public broadcasting network and the man thought to be Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's first choice to head the publicly-funded network. He re-ignited Japan's never-ending debate over "comfort women" on Saturday during a press conference by suggesting Japan's wartime practice of forcing women into brothels for the use of the country's army was not unique to Japan. "Do you think it only happened in South Korea?" he asked, referring to the such programs during Japan's occupation there. "I believe it could be found in all regions that were at war. Can you say such facilities were not available in Germany or France? It could be found everywhere in Europe. Why do you think the Netherlands still has its red-light district?" (In this case, Momii's remarks were particularly ill-timed, coinciding with the death of 89-year-old Hwang Keum-ja, a former comfort woman and activist.)

The issue of comfort women is particularly sensitive. Historians estimate that Japan's military forced up to 200,000 women from South Korea, China, and the Philippines into sexual servitude during the war, but it wasn't until 1993 that the country formally acknowledged the practice, let alone the cruelty and suffering it wrought on the women involved. At that time, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono released a statement apologizing for Japan's use of so-called comfort stations and established the Asian Women's Fund to privately collect reparations funds for former comfort women. Kono's statement constitutes Japan's official position on comfort women, but every few years some revisionist politician comes along and rouses the public ire by challenging it.

In 2007, Prime Minister Abe himself rekindled the debate when he told reporters that there was "no evidence" that Japanese soldiers coerced women into sexual servitude and announced that Japan would make no further apologies on the matter. He's since changed his tune, saying that his "heart aches acutely when I think about those who had to go through painful experiences beyond description. I am no different from successive prime ministers on that point." But a few months later, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto once more stoked the controversy by telling reporters that comfort women played a vital role in providing relief for soldiers.

Clearly, Momii's comments aren't without precedent and, as the Japan Times notes, many right-leaning Japanese officials are of the mind that comfort stations were essentially no different or worse than state-regulated brothels operated in other countries. Momii seems to take this view, too, as his equation of comfort stations with the Netherland's legal and regulated sex industry implies that comfort women were prostitutes, rather than prisoners. His statement is particularly ironic given that the Japanese military also forced several dozen Dutch women into comfort stations during the war. Digging himself deeper, Momii added that "under current morals, using comfort women is wrong. But comfort women accompanying the military was a reality of that time."

While Momii went to great lengths to present the use of comfort woman not as an extreme practice but as a common feature of World War II, in reality the Japanese army took the practice much further than other belligerents at the time. While allied forces are known to have raped some 14,000 European women during World War II (including in France), those crimes don't constitute the same kind of sanctioned, systematic practice of sexual servitude practiced by the Japanese military.

Germany, on the other hand, maintained concentration camp brothels, forcing women to service soldiers. But do the heinous extremes of Nazi cruelty neutralize Japan's culpability in similar crimes? Obviously not. While Germany has in recent decades undergone a painful process of atonement for the country's crimes during World War II, Japan has fallen far short of its former ally in reckoning with the country's wartime legacy. Germany has the Holocaust Memorial and countless other reminders of the country's dark past; Japan has no such monuments to the victims of wartime aggression.

Instead, Japanese politicians make a point of carrying out regular pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine, which pays tribute to fallen Japanese soldiers, including 14 Class-A war criminals. Predictably, Abe's recent trip to Yasukuni inflamed public opinion in both China and South Korea. And with Abe leading the way, it should come as no surprise that his lieutenants continue to confuse being an apologist for a true apology.

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images