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Media Repression Hits New Low in Russia


Alexei Navalny (37), a prominent dissident and an important figure in the opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin was sentenced on July 17 to five years in prison  for embezzlement, but released soon after on bail pending appeal.
Navalny, whose conviction in a court in Kirov follows years of persecution for his grassroots activism against corruption and abuse of power by Putin’s United Russia party, first rose to prominence as a blogger.
“This whole case reeks of political vindictiveness for Navalny’s corruption revelations and political challenge to Putin and United Russia,” said David J. Kramer, president of the New York-based rights organisation Freedom House.
Another victim of Russia’s suppression of the media is Ilya Barabanov, deputy editor of Novoye Vremya, who was awarded the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism in 2010. Speaking of the brutal censorship in his country, Barabanov said in his acceptance speech in October 2010, “Over the past 10 years an unhelpful notion has developed that any media outlet in Russia which allows itself to write about politics without adjusting its position to that of the Kremlin, is, by definition, in opposition.”
Although Navalny’s bail application was accepted hours after his conviction there are two competing theories for the reason, and neither of them have anything to do with the law. Some are of the opinion that public protests against the sentence, some which turned violent, had persuaded the authorities to agree to bail. Others attribute a more sinister motive. Navalny is contesting municipal elections in Moscow scheduled September 8.  The proponents of this theory believe that he was freed to contest elections and lose, hoping the loss would undermine his legitimacy as a credible opponent of Putin.
Analysing trends in Russia’s media freedom in 2012, Freedom House said on May 3, “Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has emerged as a laboratory for the development of methods to suppress media freedom in the post-totalitarian era. Outright censorship has been eliminated, and outlets are left relatively free to pursue commercial success with entertainment programming, sports coverage, and news content on non-sensitive subjects. While their reach is limited, a few niche publications with more critical material have been allowed to survive.” Freedom House observes that influential media platforms such as television stations were brought under direct state control to serve as propaganda instruments of the Kremlin and journalists like Navalny are “depicted … as extremists, criminals, and traitors, paid by shadowy foreign interests to undermine Russia.”
Other instruments pursued Russian leaders are much harsher. One of them is murdering journalists. To commemorate the death of Natalia Estemirova, a Russian journalist from the North Caucuses killed exactly four years ago, and six others, a meeting was organised in Paris by Reporters without Borders (RSF) on July 17. RSF says 30 journalists have been killed in Russia from 2000.
“This (North Caucus) region’s population lives in fear of reporting the violence and abuses it has to endure, and those whose job is to report the violence no longer succeed in breaking the silence. The situation in this region is alarming, and journalists and human rights defenders can barely operate there,” RSF’s secretary general Chritophe Deloire said.
The most recent victim was Akhmednabi Akhmednabiev of the Dagastan-based Noveo Delo newspaper who was gunned down on July 9. “We have no doubt that Akmednabi’s murder was linked to his work. He was the paper’s political editor and wrote widely about the rights of Muslims and extra-judicial shootings. His latest story, published on 5 July, was critical of the region’s governor,” the deputy editor of Noveo Delo told RSF. RSF places Russia 148 of 179 countries in its 2013 press freedom index.
Meanwhile there is thinking that with the conviction of Navalny for embezzlement, a line has been crossed in the persecution of dissidents and whistleblowers in Russia. Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution and author of ‘Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin’ told PBS News Hour on July 17, that Navalny “[w]as dispensed with from the Kremlin point of view in a very public and humiliating fashion… What they have done is to turn around on Navalny the accusations he has been throwing at the system of corruption…”
Hill said there was a lot of “cynicism across the board of the political game being played out in Moscow.” She went on to quote a survey by the Lavada Centre showing 20% of Russians interviewed seemed to believe that the whole system was full of corruption and the opposition people too were in the game of enriching themselves.”  She said the conviction would have a chilling effect on the opposition
Links:
http://www.freedomhouse.org/blog/russian-model-gains-press-freedom-declines
http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jXy7-zc0TFyYHWhnsNbjPCnlvlWw?docId=CNG.5fca53d45e63867a717bba99eb385591.171
http://en.rsf.org/russia-little-progress-in-various-novaya-17-07-2013,44945.html
http://en.rsf.org/russia-dagestan-journalist-s-09-07-2013,44913.html
http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2013,1054.html
http://video.pbs.org/video/2365049284/

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…

Podcast of Ilya Barabanov’s Talk At the Columbia Journalism School

On October 25, 2010, Ilya Barabanov, 2010 Winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism, addressed students at the prestigious Columbia University Journalism School. Barabanov discussed the situation of independent press in Russia today, and highlighted the particular challenges faced by his publication, The New Times.


Barabanov, deputy editor of The New Times, received the award at a ceremony held October 22, 2010 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Keynote speaker David E. Hoffman, contributing editor to the Washington Post and Foreign Policy Magazine, and the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Dead Hand, called BarabanovAn example of what has gone right with Russia since the collapse of communism.”


Listen to the Podcast here.
Photo: Ilya Barabanov (left) and Alexander Osipovich (right) speaking at the Columbia Journalism School.

2010 Award Ceremony Recap – Ilya Barabanov Receives Peter Mackler Award

As he stood before a packed room of journalists and DC insiders on October 22, 2010, Ilya Barabanov called on his colleagues to speak about not only the most tragic examples of violence against journalists in his native Russia, but to remember all of those who have suffered because they pursued their profession. “Each and every one of these incidents is connected 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.” said Barabanov, the deputy editor of the Russian News Weekly The New Times.

Barabanov was awarded the 2010 Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism at a ceremony held at the National Press Club last Friday. Barabanov, who flew in from Moscow for the ceremony, was named this year’s winner not only for his work exposing corruption within the Russian government, but also for his courage in defending his profession’s right to do so. While introducing Barabanov, Peter Mackler Award Project Director Camille Mackler stated that “By getting up and going to work every day, Ilya shows more courage than any of us will probably be called to display during our life time … Ilya’s work reminds us that the principles of a free press can never be compromised.”

During his acceptance speech, Barabanov spoke about the difficulties faced by journalists in Russia, but also noted that for independent media journalists, “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.”

Russia, which recently ranked number 140 on Reporters Without Borders’ 2010 Press Freedom Index, is generally viewed as being at a cross roads regarding press freedom. Clothilde Le Coz, Director of Reporters Without Borders – USA, told guests at the ceremony that “in a country where being a reporter too often rhymes with renouncing your freedom, Ilya is part of the young generation of reporters who are fighting back for change.” Nonetheless, violence, harassment, and intimidation of journalists whose opinions do not align with the Kremlin continues to be rampant as the perpetrators remain able to act with impunity.

David E. Hoffman, the evening’s keynote speaker, also deplored the situation in Russia. “Russia today is not the Soviet Union. It is not an absolute dictatorship. Rather, Russia is at a crossroads. After communism, it did not develop as a full democracy. It has gone backwards in recent years.” Hoffman, a contributing editor to the Washington Post and Foreign Policy Magazine, is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Dead Hand, a look at the arms’ race during the Cold War. He also served as Moscow Bureau Chief for the Washington Post and spoke of his own friends and experiences when describing the dangers faced by journalists in Russia. Hoffman also praised Barabanov’s courage: “Ilya’s investigations are a testament to the courage of all journalists in Russia who work against such terrible odds. This kind of work is not glamorous and not easy. There is a great deal of secrecy, threats, and coercion.”

Hoffman concluded by praising Barabanov, telling him to “realize that your articles are part of making history in Russia, making a new society, building a new democracy. All around you it may seem like a dry desert – but you are a green shoot of grass. You are an example of what has gone right with Russia since the collapse of communism.”

2009 winner, J. S. Tissainayagam, also spoke at the ceremony, praising the work of the Peter Mackler Award and stating that the existence of such an award provides “solace and encouragement” to journalists who work in difficult situations, and helps shine a spotlight on the situations reporters face world wide. Tissainayagam was unable to personally accept his award last year, as he was serving a twenty-year prison sentence after having been falsely convicted on terrorism charges. After being granted a pardon, Tissainayagam arrived in the United States in June, 2010. This year’s Peter Mackler Award Ceremony was Tissainayagam’s first public speaking engagement since his release. Le Coz also praised Tissainayagam and his wife, Ronnate, saying that “it is great to see you tonight with your wife Ronnate, still determined to get the word out when it comes to Sri Lanka’s sad reality.”

Barabanov took advantage of his trip to the United States to meet with government officials and media outlets to speak about the situation of journalists in Russia. He granted interviews to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. Barabanov also participated in a Question & Answer session with students at Columbia University’s Journalism School.

The Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism was founded in 2008 to honor the memory of Peter Mackler, a thirty-year career journalist who passed away June 20, 2008. The award is run jointly by the US branch of Reporters Without Borders and the Global Media Forum, a company founded by Mackler to provide journalism training.