On April 1, Novaya Gazeta, well-known for its biting exposés and publications about human-rights violations, reported on the mass arrests and torture of suspected homosexuals in Chechnya—at least 100 gay men were arrested and at least three are dead as a result of this persecution. Three days after the publication, a special meeting of public-opinion influencers and theologians was held at the central mosque of Grozny, Chechen Republic. An adviser to Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, accused the newspaper’s journalists of slander and called them “enemies of our faith and homeland.”
The meeting produced a resolution, which decries Novaya’s report as false and states: “In view of the fact that the centuries-old foundations of Chechen society and the dignity of Chechen men, as well as our faith, have been insulted, we promise that vengeance shall come upon the true instigators, wherever and with whomever they may be, without a statute of limitation.” The paper’s editor in chief, Dmitri Muratov, officially appealed to the general procurator of the Russian Federation with a demand for its investigative committee to follow Russian laws and react to this threat.
The president’s press secretary made a brief statement with a reminder that all arguments must be settled by legal methods. The journalists at Ekho Moskvy radio station expressed their solidarity with their colleagues on air, and soon afterward, its editor in chief, Alexei Venediktov, received threats addressed to the station. The offices of Novaya received an envelope from Grozny with a mysterious powder, which is currently being analyzed.
At that time, the declaration of the new association, Freedom of Speech, appeared on the website of Ekho and other media, demanding that the perpetrators of the threats be held responsible and also that there be an end to the culture of impunity in general.
“We remember how these threats end,” the announcement says:
The unresolved murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova, the inability of investigators and the court to hold an adequate trial in the killing of Boris Nemtsov, make us follow the development of this situation with special anxiety.
We demand the law-enforcement agencies and the Procurator’s Office of the RF give the appropriate evaluation of the actions directed at inciting hatred of and hostility toward journalists who are executing their professional duties and to decisively put an end to the constant attempts recently to replace the legal foundations of the Russian Constitution with vestiges of common law or religious dogmas.
The declaration is signed by several dozen writers, journalists, scholars, and philologists, including Nobel Laureate for Literature Svetlana Alexievich, Vladimir Voinovich, and Ludmila Ulitskaya. At present, the association has close to 100 members, writers, journalists, and publishers, with the number growing with each day. The principles of International PEN are the foundation of its charter. The appearance of a new initiative is to be expected. Paradoxically, 26 years after the repeal of censorship and the confirmation of freedom of speech as one of the fundamental constitutional principles, the country does not have an organization that consistently and actively defends the right to freedom of speech and literary creativity. The numerous attacks on journalists, censorship, threats, and other violations of rights that are reported weekly by the Foundation for the Defense of Glasnost are not evaluated properly and in most cases the perpetrators are not punished. The foundation’s monitoring also shows that almost all the tragedies began with threats. That was the case with Politkovskaya, Estermirova, and dozens others who have been killed.
Threats are made against writers, artists, publishers, and feminist writers, including on the Internet, and groups of religious fundamentalists attack exhibitions and disrupt theater productions. These attacks are not met with determined and consolidated resistance from citizens or creative organizations. Most of them are concerned first with questions of social protection of their members and solving economic issues. Russian PEN, once the avant-garde of the fight for rights and freedom, today does not represent those it is supposed to help and basically refuses to perform its main task: defending rights. The bitter truth lies also in the fact that the solidarity of colleagues is weak and scattered voices are not enough.
Freedom of Speech represents the desire to consolidate active forces in the creative community and to resist various forms of censorship, the advance of fundamentalism, “new barbarianism,” and the culture of impunity in society.
Russian literature thrived for over two centuries with the dream of freedom, respect for human dignity, and the right to personal opinions. The dream called for compassion for the humiliated and injured. It encompassed making personal moral efforts and believed in the victory of goodness and justice and overcoming slavery. This made it, to borrow Dostoevsky’s phrase, great and truly “universally responsive.” Tolstoy’s cry of “I Cannot Be Silent!” and an active civic position are also indivisible parts of this great tradition. The recently deceased Yevgeny Yevtushenko repeated essentially Tolstoyan words when he said, “A poet in Russia is more than a poet.” To his final days, he tried to follow that principle, never tiring of pointing out lawlessness and defending the persecuted—be they persecuted peoples or persecuted writers. He believed that people’s passivity could be overcome and character and respect for oneself and others could be inculcated.
Freedom of Speech is flesh of the flesh of that old tradition, which never faded in Russia.
Now the investigative committee has started looking into the threat against Novaya Gazeta. It will probably move faster if many other mass media besides Ekho Moskvy come out in defense of their colleagues. In any case, Freedom of Speech will continue reminding people that solidarity and glasnost are the main weapons in the struggle against impunity.
PS: As we were going to press, we learned that the investigative journalist and political activist Nikolai Andrushchenko died in St. Petersburg after a terrible beating. For years, he had written about corruption in the weekly Novy Peterburg, and had received many threats in the course of his investigations.