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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)

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.

Text of Remarks by David E. Hoffman During 2010 PMA Ceremony

I worked in Russia in the 1990s, and I remember well the violence. In those first years after the Soviet Union collapsed, the rule of law – so essential in a democracy – did not exist. Without enforceable laws and courts that functioned impartially, disputes were settled with coercion and violence.

I know that it became fashionable to say this was ll Boris Yeltsin’s fault, that Russian was chaos in the 1990s. But the truth is that the fault was much deeper – many people don’t’ realize this, but in those first years, the laws of the Soviet Union were changed only gradually. Entrepreneurship was against the law in Soviet times. When the country disappeared, there was the dawn of a new system but a lawless space. It took several years to just pass a law on how private enterprise companies could function. Yeltsin certainly is to blame for this – he didn’t build rule of law fast or carefully enough – but it is important to understand that this was a vacuum , a space without rule of law.

At first it was the businessmen who were victims, but soon it became the journalists too. When I look down the lists of the journalists who have died int he line of duty, I see some who were my friends and sources in the 1990s.

Two in particular stand out.

Valery Ivanov was a courageous editor of the Togliatti Review and provided me and my researcher then with a great deal of valuable material about the workings of Aftovaz, a huge auto factory there. Ivanov was gunned down April 29, 2002. His assailants have never been caught.

The other was my friend and colleague Ivan Safronov. Ivan had served in the rocket forces and he helped me with some very important stories, including the one about the 1983 false alarm that opens my book The Dead Hand. Ivan was a tall, strapping fellow and to this day I cannot believe that we know the full story of hi death on March 2, 2007, when he fell from a fourth floor staircase window.

Neither of these cases was adequately investigated.

And this lack of rule of law which I mentioned earlier persists now, almost two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I know that both President Medvedev and then-President Putin have paid lip-service to establishing the rule of law. Remember that Putin promised “diktatura zakon,” or dictatorship of law, whatever that means, and Medvedev promised to end “legal nihilism,” but the fact is they have not.

Rule of law means that no one is above the law. But we see now that some people in Russia think they are above the law. We see it in the reaction to Ilya’s recent article exposing the Moscow riot police and their methods.

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.

And there must be days, many days, when you ask yourself, Ilya, is it worth it? Why do this? Why get up every day and go out to ask these difficult questions and put yourself at risk?

And I am sure that there are days when you must ask, if Russia has been without rule of law for two decades of post-Soviet history, what will the next two decades bring? If this is what Russia inherited after seven decades of Soviet rule, then was it really worth it, all this effort to end the Soviet system? Will things ever change?

Ilya, and to all of us, I want to say, yes. It is worth it, and here is why.

What the Soviet Union lacked was a functioning civil society. Civil society is the glue, or the sinews, that connect the rulers and the ruled in a democracy. In the Soviet Union, the Communist Part and it extinguished any other organization or person – there was no oxygen for others.

Now since the Soviet collapse, there have been some new green shoots of grass growing up – there has been a change. There is some oxygen. 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.

But I think we should not entirely despair about the press in Russia today. The New Times has 50,000 readers and about 300,000 visitors a month to its web site. The magazine is distributed in all the major cities of Russia, and winds up on the desk of Putin and Medvedev.

In fact there is a fair measure of press independence today in the non-government media – print, radio, Internet and some television. Some do their best to expose the government while others are openly analytical or carry angry opinions.

These are tender green shoots of civil society. They have not been extinguished. Now they are small; they are often struggling – the New Times has difficulty gaining advertising – and they are easily intimidated. But fortunately they are surviving.

Meanwhile, the big media, such as state television, commands a huge audience. The big media are controlled by the state and don’t make waves.

When the small independent press makes noise, it is often ignored by the authorities. Scandals can be uncovered, but no one reacts. The powers either ignore it or intimidate it.

There is no link – no glue – no sinews – between the rulers and the ruled.

But this is not so much the fault of journalism. It is bigger than just journalism. Much bigger.

The rulers have sucked up the oxygen for free politics.

They have failed to build a rule of law.

Moreover, there is a certain passivity among your readers today. People are focused on personal freedoms and standard of living. They do not protests against the authorities. My good friend Masha Lipman has written, “the atomization and passivity of Russian society makes matters worse.. even the advanced and critically-minded audiences of alternative news outlets do not take action and do not seem to mind that the government keeps them from participating in national affairs.”

This is not a healthy situation. It is not good to have rulers who are not accountable to the ruled. It is not good to have a people who are indifferent to these kind of rulers.

But the situation is not hopeless.

When society changes – and I think it will – they will need you, Ilya. That is why you should get up every morning eager to continue your work. To use some stale words from another era, you are the vanguard, you are a pioneer! Everyone else will come. You need to be there for the day when civil society and rule of law will be created.

I cannot say how long it will take, but inevitably the courage of your work will feed a feeling among people that something must be done.

So 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.

Don’t give up!