Watchdog warns of media manipulation for Sochi Games

MOSCOW Tue Mar 2, 2010 3:08am EST

A tribute to Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is unveiled during the closing ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, February 28, 2010. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

A tribute to Sochi, Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is unveiled during the closing ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, February 28, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia is pressuring local journalists to toe the Kremlin line on preparations to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, blocking coverage of environmental problems and evictions, a leading media rights group said.

This year's host Vancouver handed the Olympic flag over to the mayor of the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Sunday, shining the spotlight on Russian preparations that have been criticized by environmental and human rights groups.

Paris-based journalist rights group Reporters Without Borders said that shortcomings were being compounded by the authorities pressuring local media to hide problems with the preparations.

"The authorities are making sure there are no discussions concerning any arrangements for the Olympic Games," Andrei Ballin, co-author of a new report, told Reuters on Tuesday.

"In the local media there is no mention of this debate."

A spokesman for the regional authorities said they would not comment on the report.

The Sochi Games are seen as the personal project of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the country's most powerful politician. Russia has pledged to spend $12 billion in private and public money on developing the city.

In Vancouver, Russia finished a disappointing 11th in the medals table after winning just three golds and 15 in total.

FINANCIAL CONTROL

Regional authorities used control over finances and registration to keep media outlets in line and said officials occasionally intervened directly in editorial decisions, the report said.

Local media were "press-ganged into supporting the Kremlin policy of 'the games at any cost,'" it said.

"They never reported the environmental concerns or the protests, such as those by... residents facing eviction, except to brand them as anti-patriotic."

The World Wildlife Fund's Russian branch last month said borders of nature reserves had been altered to suit the Olympic site construction and its calls for closer monitoring of the environmental impact had gone unheeded.

Rights groups have accused the authorities of railroading residents from homes being razed to make way for Olympic venues.

Last year's election to choose the mayor who would open the Olympic Games were "totally biased," with regional media denigrating the opposition rival of the Kremlin-backed candidate, the report said. (Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by John O'Brien; To comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)

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