With Russia’s parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2and the pro-Kremlin United Russia party expected to win an overwhelmingmajority in the voting, President Vladimir Putin has intensified attackson his opponents–most recently, accusing them of being in the pocketof Western governments. Most of the country’s state-run media have fallenin line.
Attacks on opposition forces are not confined to verbaldemonization. On Wednesday, Farid Babayev–the head of the Yabloko partyticket in Dagestan was shot at the entrance of his apartment building.Babayev, a human rights activist and fierce critic of the United Russiaparty and local authorities, died on Saturday. That same day, GarryKasparov, one of the leaders of the opposition coalition Other Russia,was arrested in Moscow and sentenced to five days in jail for leading anunsanctioned street march on Russia’s Central Election Commission. (Cityofficials had given the coalition permission to hold a rally but not amarch.)
The Kremlin’s tightening grip on the media, especially national andlocal television, and authorities’ harassment of opposition parties,led Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky to draw a parallel between Putin’sRussia and Soviet Russia. “Russia stands on the threshold of therestoration of Soviet-style single-party rule.”
On the eve of elections, there has been an intensification of attacks onwhat remains of Russia’s free press. On November 9, Russianauthorities shut down one of the country’s few remaining independentnewspapers– the Samara edition of Novaya Gazeta. The pretext providedby authorities was cynical and hypocritical: in a country which leadswhen it comes to intellectual piracy, the police confiscated the paper’slast remaining computer (the others were seized in a raid last spring)and indicted its editor for allegedly using a counterfeit version ofMicrosoft software.
Last week, Dmitrii Muratov–the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta‘snational edition–was in New York to receive the Committee to ProtectJournalist’s International Press Freedom Award. I had the honor andpersonal pleasure of presenting CPJ’s award to him. My husband StephenCohen and I first met Dmitrii–a tenacious and brave editor–in 1993.He and a few other colleagues had gathered in the basement cafeteria ofMoscow News–then a bold paper of the glasnost era–to plan the launchof Novaya Gazeta. Survival of a different kind was on their minds atthat time; they were beginning the paper with two computers, oneprinter, two rooms and no money for salaries!
An initial boost of financial support came from former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev,who contributed part of his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize Award to pay for morecomputers and salaries. By 1996, Novaya‘s circulation had risen to70,000 from its initial run of 10,000; today it’s national circulationis close to 600,000 and 100,000 visit its website every week.
I knew in 1993 that Dmitrii was a bold and creative editor. What Idid not foresee was that he would become one of the last defenders ofpress freedom in Russia. The newspaper, which continues to publishagainst great odds, has paid a heavy price for its crusadinginvestigations into high-level corruption, human rights violations,brutality in Chechnya and abuses of power. Three of its most courageousreporters –Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin and AnnaPolitkovskaya–have been murdered for their unflinching investigations
One by one, newspapers and television networks have yielded toKremlin pressure and surrendered their independence. Nonetheless, asRussia has descended from the media freedoms of Gorbachev’s “glasnost”to today’s conformity and compliance, Dmitrii Muratov and NovayaGazeta’s reporters and editors have continued –despite the financial,political, physical threats and pressures—to remain independent andpublish.
In his remarks at the Committee to Protect Journalist’s dinner in NYlast week (the English translation of his speech and a You Tube video of the event are posted below), Muratov spokepowerfully, and personally, of his fight for press freedom–and forjustice on behalf of his slain colleagues.
Let all who care about a free press and a democratic society workto ensure that Novaya Gazeta survive and thrive as an independent,oppositionist force–and that the journalists’ killers be brought tojustice.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Esteemed Colleagues:
Igor Domnikov was murdered for investigating corruption. YuriShchekochikhin, my best friend, deputy, and a nationally famousjournalist was murdered. Anna Politkovskaya was murdered. Three of themost important people in my life. And it’s me who gets to stand here ina tuxedo and receive an award. It’s not normal. I feel no joy. I neverwill.
If she were alive, Politkovskaya would have had some of her favorite redwine with me. With Domnikov and Shchekochikhin–I would have had lots ofvodka. And we would’ve been happy. But now we cannot be. And I won’tever be.
So why do this? Why continue to publish a paper that endangers people’slives?
Because our million readers share the values of democracy. Realdemocracy–not its imitation. This is not fashionable in Russia today.This could damage one’s career and reputation. Because today there isonly one official god – the State and its interests. As opposed tosociety and individual rights.
The state, alas, became a corporate business–the business of specialsecurity forces.
And that business–like special security forces–needs silence, notpress freedom.
On November 9, one of our regional editions was shut down – NovayaGazeta in Samara. The pretext: police found unlicensed Microsoftsoftware in its computers during a search.
The paper is no longer. All of its documents and equipment were seizedahead of parliamentary elections, now just two weeks away.
Our paper is denied advertising for political reasons. Americancompanies and institutions are allowed to advertise in other Russianpapers, not us. I call on advertisers to work directly with NovayaGazeta.
Support us and our smart, highly intelligent, thinking readership. Mypaper needs your support.
On the anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s death we turned on her cellphone. There were thousands of calls on the phone.The readers appealedto us to continue her work; to not be silent.
We will not be silent.
But we can allow ourselves a moment of silence for our murderedjournalists. I am asking you to honor them right now.
[A moment of silence]
A granddaughter was born to Anna Politkovskaya this year. Her name isAnna Victoria. Life goes on.
Here’s the video: