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Russian media: True, we're 'not free' - but we're not Zimbabwe.

Russian media experts and journalists say Freedom House's annual press freedom survey doesn't acknowledge the rise of independent media outlets and social media, which are broadening the landscape.

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Russia is one of the world's fastest-growing Internet markets, with penetration now estimated at 44 percent, and Europe's biggest, with over 60 million users.

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One of the reforms proposed by outgoing President Medvedev was a pledge – still far from being realized – to establish a public TV channel that would be independent of state control. If that should happen, it might change Russia's media landscape fundamentally, experts say.

Freedom House defended its finding that Russia's media remains unfree, citing "the use of a pliant judiciary to prosecute independent journalists, impunity for the physical harassment and murder of journalists, and continued state control or influence over almost all traditional media outlets."

But, despite threats, there have been no shutdowns or takeovers of independent Russian media this year. While there is a list of almost 20 unsolved murders of journalists since Mr. Putin came to power, there have been fewer violent incidents recorded over the past year.

Some of Freedom House's arguments are valid points, says Yelena Zelinskaya, vice president of Media Soyuz, the more pro-Kremlin of Russia's two major associations of media workers.

"But the situation of our media is more complicated and problematic than Freedom House pictures it. What Freedom House describes seems to be a picture from a completely different life," she says. "I agree that the authorities do pressure the mass media, but the pressure comes in different forms and is not direct, while authorities themselves feel pressure from the mass media. Even inside the media itself there are lots of pressures and problems. The situation is more complicated but totally different" from Freedom House's portrayal, she says.

But critics argue that only inhabitants of big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg have access to relatively independent radio stations, newspapers, and niche TV stations like Dozhd.

"There are really serious problems with press freedom in Russia," says Nadezhda Prusenkova, spokesperson for Novaya Gazeta, the combative opposition weekly that's seen several of its own journalists, including Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in the past decade.

"Big TV channels are all in the hands of structures that are close to the Kremlin, and even if journalists are not subject to direct censorship they are hemmed-in by self-censoring fears. I don't find Freedom House's ranking of Russia at 172nd place the least bit surprising," she says.

But Ms. Prusenkova adds that "as long as we have islands of freedom, like Novaya Gazeta, radio station Ekho Moskvi and TV Dozhd, and as long as there's freedom of speech on the Internet, there is hope. We need to work harder. I would hate to see Russia still holding down 172nd place in 12 years time."

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