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The State of Journalism in Russia

By: Margaret Colbert.

The recent attack on journalist Oleg Kashin was a shocking example of the pressures and threats that journalists have been living with in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but unfortunately not a unique event in the context of recent Russian history. During the period between 1993 and 2009 over 300 journalists were murdered in Russia alone; incidents that have rarely produced prosecutions or convictions by the government. Considering what many critics of the Putin and Medvedev regimes have considered a stance on journalistic freedoms that approached complicity with the attacks on journalists publishing works critical of the government or its partners, President Medvedev’s condemnation of the attack on Kashin was noteworthy, causing some commentators to hope for a change in Russia’s hostile stance towards a free and critical press. Protests in the Moscow streets indicate that a Russian public, long apathetic about concerns relating to the existence of an open press, are now beginning to realize the suppressive environment that these attacks breed, and may be rejecting old attitudes of ambivalence in regards to strong-arm tactics used by the government and its agents to stifle dissent.

It is interesting that often, in states where press freedoms are heavily controlled or suppressed, there will often be little expressed concern on the part of the populace. It is no accident that measures of relative quality of life and measures of international standards of press freedom generally group states in a like manner. That is, if a state scores high on the quality of life index, it is likely to score high on the Press Freedoms Index (compiled by RSF), with the inverse being true as well. While it may not be possible to identify a direct or absolute correlation between an open press and a higher standard of living, in a climate where individuals and groups have a higher relative educational level, as well as a higher level of personal security and wealth, a press that identifies threats to these conditions is more likely to be broadly supported. In states where issues of personal security and income are still major concerns for the general populace, critical dissent can often seem like a secondary concern for those focused on issues of basic survival. A free and open press, in states like Russia, where high levels of corruption and violence have come to be expected from the government, suffers not only from direct government interference and suppression, but also from the general lack of support from a public that feels that democracy and its attendant press freedoms can be legitimately limited in the name of progress or stability.

It is heartening then, that attacks on individuals like Kashin, as well as high profile murders of journalists like Anna Politkovskaya in October of 2006, have seemed to hit a nerve among the Russian public. It is likely that this public disenchantment with the Russian government’s reactions may also have spurred the government to reopen the investigation related to the brutal 2008 attack on Khimkinskaya Pravda’s editor, Mikhail Beketov- though this encouraging development comes on the coattails of Beketov being found guilty of criminal slander against a political figure he criticized on air during a television interview in 2007. While the dichotomy of this response is disappointing, it may be that Russia is, slowly, moving towards a future where journalists and activists may face the clearly conveyed displeasure of the government in its various offices, without the threat to their personal security that has for too long been part and parcel of Moscow’s approach to stifling journalistic enterprise.

Photo: Mikhail Beketov (Agence France-Presse)

Russian Journalist Oleg Kashin Brutally Attacked in Moscow

Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, a well-known journalist for the Russian daily Kommersant, was savagely beaten outside his home at 12:40 AM on November 6 as he returned from dinner with friends. The attack, which Kommersant editor Mikhail Mikhailin insisted was related to Kashin’s work, left Kashin with a two broken jaws, a broken leg, a fractured skull, a concussion, blood in the lungs, and several broken fingers, one of which had to be amputated.

Free press organization Reporters Without Borders (RWB), among others, publicly decried the attack and called on the perpetrators to be punished. In a rare move in Russia, President Medvedev also condemned the attack and announced, via his Twitter feed, that he had ordered the interior minister and prosecutor’s office to supervise the investigation and bring the attackers to justice. Secretary-General of RWB, Jean-Francois Julliard, said that “We hold [President Medvedev] to his word and we urge the authorities to put all the necessary conditions in place for the police and judicial authorities to be able to work independently and get results.”

Reporters Without Borders – USA Director Clothilde Le Coz called Russia “one of the world’s most dangerous countries for independent journalists.” High profile murder cases, such as that of Anna Politcovskaya, remain unsolved years after their commission, despite the identity of the killers being well known to authorities. According to Julliard, “The culture of impunity has prevailed for too long. No crime of violence against journalists has been solved since the start of the past decade.”

Ilya Barabanov, deputy editor of the Russian independent weekly The New Times and
2010 Peter Mackler Award winner, told guests at the 2010 Peter Mackler Award Ceremony that “the reality is that independent media outlets are not able to feel safe in Russia.” Barabanov, however, further stated that “the enemies of independent press have yet to break down or intimidate those journalists who truly believe in honestly executing their duty before the citizens of their country.”

As the events of this past week show, detractors of a free press in Russia have not yet given up trying to shut down those independent voices exemplified by Kashin and Barabanov. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Oleg Kashin and his family.” Said Peter Mackler Award Project Director Camille Mackler. “We hope he will make a full and speedy recovery and that Russia will finally reverse its trend and bring the perpetrators of this terrible act to justice.”

Text of Remarks by J.S. Tissinayagam During 2010 Peter Mackler Award Ceremony

Ladies and gentlemen it gives me great pleasure to speak a few words this evening on the occasion of the annual Peter Mackler Award.

I have not had the good fortune of a personal acquaintance with veteran journalist Peter Mackler, whose long and dedicated service to his profession, this award commemorates. However, I am greatly indebted to his wife Catherine Antoine, and their two children – Camille and Lauren – for their friendship and support both to my wife and I during a very stressful period in the past.

At this time last year, I was in prison having served precisely 54 days of a 20-year jail term with hard labour, imposed by the Sri Lankan courts after what the International Committee of Jurists, ICJ, said was “a flawed judicial process.”

This year, the Peter Mackler Award recognises a young man for his courage and commitment to ethical journalism – Ilya Barabanov. What is sad however, is that the Novoye Vremya the Moscow weekly of which he is the deputy editor, has been the victim of persistent harassment and intimidation by Russian authorities. What is ironic though is that the threat to the freedom of expression that Ilya and his colleagues confront in Russia is hardly different from what afflicts journalists in Sri Lanka. Though the two countries are vastly different in most respects, they are united by this common evil.

Of the many Sri Lankan journalists killed for their work and their deaths still unaccounted for, Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga’s murder is perhaps foremost. Less known but equally chilling was the brutal gunning down 10 years ago of Mylvaganam Nimalarajan. His murderers are still at large, and Reporters Sans Frontiers issued a statement this week pointing to the impunity protecting his killers.

Equally cruel and mystifying is the disappearance of another Sri Lankan journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda. He was last seen on the evening of January 24 this year. Repeated calls by his wife and human rights groups for a fair investigation into his abduction, let alone information as to his whereabouts, have passed unheeded by the police and government authorities.

It is no different in Russia. The brutal slaying of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya of the Novaya Gazeta in October 2006 stands out because of the international publicity it has received. But in the heinousness of the crime compounded by the indifference of the authorities to investigate it, it is no different from numerous other cases. Disregard to principles of accountability and the rule of law have seen attacks on many Russian journalists go unpunished.

To scores of journalists confronting the perils of persecution and censorship, an award like the Peter Mackler, offers solace and encouragement. Such awards open a window of hope illustrating that although authoritarian governments might shun the work and persecute journalists, there is a world outside that appreciates and rewards it. Furthermore, it shines a spotlight on the issues they report on.

These awards are also important because they are given by the community of journalists to other journalists for courageous investigative writing. Such writing is often done in harrowing circumstances, to keep fellow citizens informed about powerful people behaving in unethical and criminal ways.

As much as persecuted journalists value the support and recognition of their fellows in countries such as the US and other democracies – the problem is – will this relationship be able to continue? Some of the emerging trends in US journalism seem to cast a shadow of doubt on this.

There is a school of thought today that says investigative journalism, the journalism that acts as a bulwark against excessive and untrammelled power, is in decline in the US itself.

A reason cited for this decline is the prohibitive cost for long-term tracking of stories with well-trained, experienced staff. Faced with maintaining a costly newsroom in times of contracting advertising budgets, the media has fallen back on the digital – internet, blogs and so on. But unfortunately, revenues generated by the websites of individual media organisations are generally said to be insufficient to fund pools of professionally-trained journalists required for sustained, high-quality investigative journalism.

Excessive costs have also resulted in media institutions cutting back on international reporting by closing or merging their overseas bureaus. This has led to an erosion of interest in international affairs except those that preoccupy American minds: Iraq, Afghanistan and neighbours in the region.

Another constraint on rigorous investigative journalism is privacy suits. In recent years the American judiciary has upheld claims by aggrieved individuals against the media not for defamation or inaccurate reporting, but for violating privacy. Fear of expensive law suites on privacy issues has dissuaded editors from pursuing investigative reporting even if the matter might be in the public interest.

With American journalism facing such constraints there is reasonable fear that investigative reporting by journalists from other countries will figure less prominently in the eyes of the US community of journalists.

Ladies and gentlemen, the reason Ilya and I are here today is because the community of journalists outside our respective countries believed in our work and that governments of our countries had no right to stop us from writing. But if indifference to investigative journalism sets in, in countries where it is most prized, journalists like us battling autocratic regimes for human rights, equity and justice will find it much harder to survive. Please do not let that happen.

Thank you…

Text of Remarks by Ilya Barabanov, 2010 Peter Mackler Award Winner, During This Year’s Ceremony

Dear Colleagues,

I would like to begin by giving thanks to the Peter Mackler Foundation, Reporters Without Borders, and the Global Media Forum all of whom took part in awarding me with the prestigious 2010 Peter Mackler Award. I am grateful to the director of the Peter Mackler Award, Camille J. Mackler, as well as the entire Mackler family, to the Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders, Jean-Francois Julliard, and also to David Hoffman, who voiced so many kind words today. I would never have received this award if not for my colleagues at The New Times magazine, and I would like to express special thanks to Irena Lesnevskaya, the magazine published and owner, and our Editor-in-Chief, Yevgenia Albats.

The New Times appeared on the Russian media-market four years ago, in February of 2007. Irena Lesnevskaya stated her desire to begin such a project immediately after the murder of Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya back then in an interview.

Naturally, it would have been more satisfying and fulfilling for me and my colleagues to work if Russia had a more developed news media market: only in the face of lively competition can publications grow, develop and progress. However, we have to admit, that all the independent media sources can be counted on the fingers of not two, but even just one hand.

Aside from The New Times, among them is the well-known Novaya Gazeta, the radio station Echo Moskvy, as well as a number of developing internet publications. Unfortunately, just a few days ago the Russian Newsweek ceased publishing, causing the number of political journals to drop even lower.

Often times, The New Times has been mistakenly identified and referred to as an “opposition” publication. Indeed, over the past ten years, an unhelpful notion has developed that any media outlet which allows itself to write about politics, without adjusting its position to that of the Kremlin, is by definition “in opposition.” Yet this is incorrect. The position of our magazine is that we simply support the right of citizens to information. This right is guaranteed in the Russian Constitution and, in the United States, as far as I know, it is the First Amendment to the Constitution. We do not take any sides, and attempt to be equally critical of both the representatives of the ruling elite, and to those who call themselves political opponents of the regime in Russia. We are ready to provide a platform for all parties in any discussion, and, whether we are writing a political piece of conducting a financial investigation, we are always interested in both sides of the argument.

Investigative journalism, in particular, is a genre that The New Times specializes in. In our very first issue, we published an investigation of the murder of a Russian special agent, Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was murdered in the fall of 2006. The magazine is constantly publishing articles exposing corruption in various government agencies of Russia. My own most recent investigations are concerned with corruption within the Ministry of Internal Affairs – Russian police – and the Federal Security Service, a successor to the KGB.

My colleague at The New Times, and a very dear friend, Natalia Morari, was conducting for quite some time an investigation of the murder of a high ranked official of the Russian Central Bank – Andrei Kozlov. His death was linked to the struggle he led against “cash pushers” – officials and criminals engaged in money laundering. For her courageous articles, Natalia was expelled from Russia in December 2007. Natalia, who is a citizen of the Republic of Moldova, was denied entry to Russia, which declared her to be a national security threat. Any and all attempts made to challenge this decision through the legal system have been fruitless, but we continue to fight for her return.

Even with the use of such harsh methods, the enemies of independent press have yet to break down or intimidate those journalists who truly believe in honestly executing their duty before the citizens of their country.

But I am not complaining. My colleagues and I derive great pleasure simply from the opportunity to practice investigative journalism in Russia, despite the fact that the nature of our jobs presents certain difficulties. We are not, by any means, in despair, and Natalia Morari, who, for the past three years, has not been permitted to enter Russia, has become one of the most recognizable television reporters in her home country. If any of you follow the happenings of the former Soviet Union, then you are probably aware of Natalia’s activity especially in connection with the famous Twitter-revolution which occurred in Chisinau about a year ago, and resulted in the end of the communist rule in Moldova and the commencement of clean and legitimate elections in which democratic parties were able to participate and gain support.

I would like to use this opportunity to take a moment to highlight the situation which has developed in Russia with regards to independent media. The International Press Institute demonstrated that the first nine years of the new millennium 735 journalists were killed. Thirty-five of those were in Russia. Only a month ago, at the request of The New Times, Russia’s Glasnost Defense Foundation conducted its own investigation, the results of which, I must admit, shocked us. We discovered that over the past five years in sixty-six of eighty-three regions in Russia (that is almost eighty percent) journalists were either killed or crippled. Over seventy percent of the regions (sixty-one to be exact) journalists were faced with criminal charges. In forty-three regions (fifty percent), censorship is a natural occurrence. Contrary to popular opinion, the most dangerous place for journalists to work, are not the republics of North Caucasus, but the central Russian cities – Moscow and St. Petersburg. Researchers found a complete lack of incidents of government pressure on journalists only in 5 Russian regions.

However, even these numbers are due only to the fact that in such places as Chukotka, the Magadan or Tambov regions any and all independent media were silenced earlier, and hence, in the past ten years, there simply haven’t been any journalists who would allow themselves to speak out critically against the local authorities. Unfortunately, the international journalistic community becomes aware of only the most notorious of these tragedies. This, in my opinion, is completely unacceptable. Annual human rights advocacy monitorings gather only dry statistics: The updated number of journalists killed, in jail and fired for their alternative views. But each and every one of these incidents is connection to a very real human tragedy, disastrous for our colleague, his friends and family. Today, standing here at this podium, I would like to call upon you to pay attention to all of these cases.

And lastly… yes, the reality is that independent media outlets are not able to feel safe in Russia. But of course, this is not news for any journalists working in countries with authoritarian regimes. Most importantly, of course, is that our work gives us great pleasure. Being an investigative journalist in a country whose state authorities do everything to prevent such activity, is perhaps more interesting than working in an environment free of such obstacles. Furthermore, just by the rise in our sales we see that our readers need us. Based on ratings from September, The New Times has become the most quoted Russian magazine in the country, surpassing, for the first time even Forbes, which always held a firm first place in this report due to their publications of the ratings of the richest people in Russia. Is is all the more wonderful to realize that by doing your duty, you are helping ordinary citizens who have found themselves in difficult situations as well as our society as a whole. My countrymen will inevitably realize that a normal and comfortable life is impossible in our country without the presence of independent media outlets.

Thank you.

Ilya Barabanov Named 2010 Winner of Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism

NEW YORK, Aug. 22, 2010 – Global Media Forum and the US branch of Reporters Without Borders are pleased to announce that Russian journalist Ilya Barabanov, targeted by his government for exposing official corruption, has been selected as the 2010 winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. Barabanov will be awarded the prize at a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on October 22, 2010. Last year’s winner, Sri Lankan journalist and editor J.S. Tissainayagam, will speak at the presentation.

Ilya Barabanov is deputy editor of The New Times, an opposition news weekly in Russia which has been the target of an attempted illegal search and a lawsuit by the Russian government. Barabanov, 24, has decried the aborted search & seizure of the New Times editorial offices . He charged that the search, carried out in connection with a case filed against the New Times by the Russian interior minister’s OMON security forces, violated Articles 41 and 49 of the Russian Media Law. The New Times had previously published an article citing unnamed OMON sources and describing corrupt practices within OMON. Camille J. Mackler, Project Director for the Peter Mackler Award, said that “Barabanov, a young journalist, has displayed enormous courage in standing up for journalistic independence and the Russian people’s right to free and balanced news. These character traits are what the Peter Mackler Award seeks to encourage and reward.”

The plight of journalists in Russia continues to be a concern of the international community. Barabanov’s nomination comes amid growing accusations of internet censorship and government intimidation of journalists. In addition, the murders of journalists Natalia Estemirova and Anna Politkovskaya, remain unsolved. “We are delighted to know this award goes to Ilya Barabanov”, Jean-François Julliard, Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders said. “Being a journalist in Russia is one of the toughest jobs around. Russian journalists need to be supported and recognized worldwide for the work they do. Ilya’s talent, courage and persistence are essential to Russian journalism.” Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 153rd out of 175 countries in their 2009 Press Freedom Index.

About the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism

The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism was founded in June, 2008 to honor the memory of Peter Mackler, a Brooklyn-born thirty-five year veteran journalist who championed ethical journalism, freedom of expression. Mackler helped transform the news agency Agence France Press (AFP) into the international competitor that it is today. Mackler also founded the Global Media Forum, which has helped to train journalists and non-profit organizations to use the media as a tool for social change, and Project Plato, which teaches journalism as a life skill to disadvantaged teenagers.

The Peter Mackler award rewards journalists who fight courageously and ethically to report the news in countries where freedom of the press is either not guaranteed or not recognized. The Award is administered jointly by Global Media Forum and Reporters Without Borders. The Award ceremony will take place on October 22, 2010 at 6PM at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, 529 14th St. N.W, 13th Fl.; Washington, DC 20045. The ceremony will be followed by a networking hour. There will be a silent auction.

Camille J. Mackler
Project Director, Peter Mackler Award
Global Media Forum
Tel: +1-917-655-3548