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Chinese Authorities Retreat As They Confront Internet Realities

Yang Hui 

Two methods of censoring media in China – by regulation, and by targeting citizen journalists – came under attack recently. The country witnessed the authorities’ growing realisation that the world’s second largest economy cannot function without the internet despite the web’s use by dissidents to challenge the Communist Party-dominated state.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post wrote earlier this week that measures are to be introduced to make foreign social media and the New York Times blog accessible to users within the free trade zone at Pudong in the country’s commercial capital of Shanghai. The free trade zone is to be inaugurated next month.
While acknowledging the limited availability of these facilities – the measures will apply only to a 30-square mile area, populated mostly by foreigners and the commercial elite – the Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RSF) welcomed it as a sign of technology driving change that political authoritarianism finds hard to prevent.
“By taking this decision, the Chinese government is acknowledging that Internet censorship is bad for business. We regret that this lifting of censorship will apply to just a limited part of the country and that the reasons behind it are purely economic. Targeted mainly at foreigners, this measure will probably not benefit the Chinese population,” RSF said
Meanwhile, a different battle was being waged on the other form of censorship – targeting citizen journalists who highlight crime by high-ranking state officials – far from the rarefied environment of Shanghai’s commercial district. On September 22, police in Zhangjiachuan, in the Gansu Province, arrested 16-year-old Yang Hui for posting online comments about the involvement of the police in the death of a karaoke bar owner. RSF said that Yang was arrested for “provocation and disruption,” after his comments were re-tweeted 500 times.
According to the New York Times, Yang was among the “first people to be charged under new regulations that criminalize the spreading of online rumours with up to three years in jail.” But as a robust online campaign exploded with over 10,000 people voicing their support for him, he was released after the authorities said Yang had confessed to his crime and punished. “Hours after his release, he posted online a photograph of himself flashing a victory sign. His shirt read, ‘Make the Change,'” the Times said.
“‘With the arrest of this kid, I think the public saw this rumour campaign for what it really is: a devious attempt to crush normal online expression,’ said Zhou Ze, a lawyer in Beijing who sought to rally public support for Mr. Yang’s case through his own account on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog service,” the account by Times’ Andrew Jacobs continues.
The rumour campaign he refers to are the recent regulations brought in by Beijing to stifle any online dissent as a crime. “Those arrested include Xu Zhiyong, a prominent lawyer who had called on officials to publicly disclose their financial assets, and Xue Manzi, a Chinese-American investor who often railed against injustice to his 12 million microblog followers,” says the Times. (Please read this blog’s account of the arrests here.)
While these moves by the Chinese authorities are not indicative of the larger reality of draconian measures against the publication of any criticism of the government or the Communist Party, it shows only too well the dilemma posed by the internet to autocratic governments. While they need the internet to for the day-to-day running of the government, the economy and administration, cyberspace defies control the way traditional media does. It makes governance without consent all the more difficult.

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.

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!