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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.”