WASHINGTON—After the communist totalitarian regime fell in the former Soviet Union in 1991, Russia was free to develop an open and vibrant independent media. Instead, Vladimir Putin’s appointment as Prime Minister and Dmitri Medvedev as Head of State, has seen the independent media gradually lose ground as Russia becomes increasingly authoritarian and repressive.
Journalists who write stories about corruption or human rights are often harassed, threatened, and killed. The murders of Igor Domnikov, Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova testify to a hostile and dangerous environment under which Russian journalists are forced to work.
To better understand the critical state of journalism in Russia, the Commission on Security in Europe (OSCE), also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, convened a briefing Nov. 3, on Capitol Hill.
At least a handful of Russian journalists had been killed in the past year alone including journalist and human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, said OSCE policy advisor Ron McNamara in his opening remarks.
“Investigations are opened, rarely leading to arrest and even rarer, to prosecutions,” he said. “Russia’s information space for independent media outlets—newspapers, radio, television—continues to shrink, with Russians increasingly migrating to blogs and other technologies to fill the void.”
Newspaper Novaya Gazeta Loses Three Journalists to Murder
Dmitry Muratov, editor of independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta was one of the three Russian journalists on the panel. In the course of six years, three of his reporters, the pillars of his newspaper, have been murdered: Igor Domnikov in 2000, Yuri Shchekochikhin in 2003, and Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.
Muratov believes Shchekochikhin was poisoned. Within a week he had no skin left, his hair was gone, and “he turned from a youthful man into a frail, old person,” Muratov said in an interview with Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The medical records of Shchekochikhin, who was a member of Parliament, have mysteriously disappeared. Muratov implied there was a coverup of the murder.
“The criminal investigation into Yuri’s [Shchekochikhin] death was only launched six years after the fact, after personal interference by President Dmitry Medvedev,” said Muratov.
In the case of the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, a highly compromised trial and the acquittal of three men accused of involvement in the murder followed, according to RSF. The actual killer and the instigator are still at large, despite an international arrest warrant for the murderer himself, while the investigation has virtually stalled, the press freedom organization said.
At that point, Muratov felt so bad he just wanted to shut the paper down, he told CPJ, but was encouraged to keep on.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also reported on the murders of Anastasia Baburova (Novaya Gazeta) and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov in a Moscow street in January 2009.
U.S. Publishing Company Condé Nast Criticized
Panelist Maxim Trudolyubov, spoke of the importance of foreign opinion in their struggle against the suppression of Russia’s media. Trudolyubov is the commentary editor for an independent business daily published jointly by the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. He is currently at Yale University.
“When we are talking about people who’ve been killed on their duty, being journalists, investigators, that’s important that Russian authorities do not forget…that there are people abroad who care about it,” he said. ”We still live in the world where good is good and evil is evil.”
Trudolyubov was confident that the Russian people would become more active if they were more aware of the scale of corruption, mismanagement, and inefficiency in the current government.
He said Western media have too often aided the forces of repression rather than set an example of freedom of the press. He told the story of a magazine called GQ, published by Condé Nast, which is sold in the U.S. and has a Russian edition. An article which was highly critical of Vladimir Putin was published in the U.S. but not in Russia because Condé Nast legal counsel advised against it.
“…[This] is a case of an American company caring about their business in Russia and at the same time forsaking values of freedom of speech,” said Trudolyubov. “It happens a lot in China … because business is business. But this is troublesome and worrying for us who work in Russia, who have to deal with … a very hostile environment where people don’t understand what freedom of speech is for.”
New Public Consciousness Achieved Through Media
Chief editor of The Caucasian Knot, Grigory Shvedov, was introduced to the panel as “a world-renowned expert on the Caucasus,” a violent and turbulent area, especially in the north. Shvedov’s courage in traveling in this area and seeking to understand how the violence could be curbed gives him a special vantage point on how to protect and enhance independent media in Russia.
Shvedov said since the spring of 2009, terrorists were on the rise again, and acts such as suicide bombing in northern Caucasus had increased. “We need to admit that real terrorism, not just the threat, exists,” he said.
Great difficulties lie ahead for independent media to strike a path between corrupt and abusive government officials and home-grown terrorism, he said. At the same time, Shvedov is optimistic that there are people in top positions in governments as well as a dedicated minority of people who want to set a new course for Russia, a different direction from the kidnappings, torture, and killings.
“I do believe that there are new leaders and new policies implemented in the Northern Caucasus. There are leaders who are trying to fight the corruption,” Shvedov said.
The Role of Media in Creating a Civil Society
Shvedov would like to see the media reaching past the decision-makers to the people, a kind of “participatory media” to bring about discussions among the people on making positive changes in society. He sees the Internet as helping toward that end.
Trudolyubov said there was a minority of people who understand Russia’s situation and would be able to “contribute to the country’s development if they had a chance.”
The consensus of all three journalists on the panel is that the West has a vital role to play in supporting the brave journalists who give their lives for the sake of a free and independent media. Trudolyubov said the moral support that the West can provide is needed.
Russia now sits at 153rd of 175 countries on the RSF 2009 press freedom index.