Independent voices in the Russian media are becoming targets again. Yet their journalistic conscience leads them into increasingly hazardous situations. How can they be protected? And can the authorities be persuaded to investigate the perpetrators of violence on Russian correspondents?
One of my freshmen students wrote that a journalist’s professional competence should include knowing how to use a weapon, and the code of ethics should be changed with the addition of a paragraph that a journalist is allowed to use it to save her life. She went on, “If Tatiana Felgengauer had a stun gun or even a gas spray, she could have neutralized the man who attacked her and avoided injury.” She totally supported the decision of Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, to hand out weapons to correspondents who get regular threats. The seminar participants—26 people aged 18–22, from Moscow and other regions of the country as well as from Ukraine and Kazakhstan—supported her. This was the student reaction to the latest events—the attack on Tatiana Felgengauer, deputy editor-in-chief and news host on Ekho Mosvky, and Muratov’s decision to arm journalists.
That made me very uncomfortable. I had been a college student in Soviet times, and I remember well the lectures of our best teachers, who, despite state propaganda and the Cold War, told us about the honest and principled work of correspondents all over the world, the tradition of defending human rights, the abused and forgotten, and of the struggle for freedom that Russian literature sustained across the centuries of despotism. We knew that journalists were killed—but it happened far away, in wars and conflicts in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. My generation was lucky—perestroika commenced just as we were starting out professionally. Ogonyok magazine, where I had the good fortune to work, was in the avant-garde of changes, wrote the truth about the past and present, called for civil rights and freedom of speech, and was supported by millions of grateful readers. We believed, as do my students, that the truth would change the world, making it cleaner and better. We pushed for change. We were prepared to do whatever was needed to make it happen. We could not have imagined that attaining freedom of speech in a Russia free of an ideological yoke would cost so dearly. Or that independent journalists would be threatened, intimidated, obstructed, beaten, and even murdered not somewhere far away but here at home. Or that those crimes would go unpunished.
According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, more than 350 journalists were killed, were disappeared, or died in mysterious circumstances since 1991. Most of the tragedies were not investigated adequately. Most of the names are not known well, not only in the West but also in Russia.
The database of the Conflicts in Media Foundation tracks violations of rights in mass media, threats, illegal firings, persecutions, attacks, and censorship. The weekly report it distributes presents a picture of the total lack of law in the country. The few laws meant to protect journalists are not followed at all, while many innovations limiting the work of journalists and media are applied excessively and selectively—punishments are meted out to critics of the regime, critics of businesses related to it, and essentially independent voices.
The director of the Mass Media Defense Center, Galina Arapova, relates that the trend is for investigators to readily take on appeals from state media and be in no hurry to defend independent ones. Moreover, the independent media are significantly more likely to be criticized and prosecuted by controlling agencies. And while five years ago most complaints came to the courts from officials and politicians who wanted compensation for damage to their personal dignity or business reputation, today most of the appeals to the court are initiated by controlling agencies who found violations of the law about extremism (the definition is too broad, and any kind of criticism can be construed as extremism), calls for protest activity, and other alleged infractions. Media lawyers have counted more than 20 new laws, acts, and regulations relating to mass-media activity intended to limit freedom of speech and expression in one form or another. These laws have been passed since 2014, almost all without discussion with journalists or a wide audience. Yet the amendments to the law on media that were requested by the Council on Human Rights under the president of the Russian Federation right after the death of Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine in 2014—for mandatory insurance, training in defense, rehabilitation, and compensation to families that the employer must provide—have still not been passed—even though they were sent to Parliament almost three years ago.
Threats against journalists and, as a rule, even attacks on them do not attract serious attention from law-enforcement agencies. This is despite the fact that threats precede all the tragedies. Today women journalists around the world get three times as many threats online and otherwise than men do. The statistics are the same in Russia. Perhaps the balance is even more skewed there, for almost all the recent incidents of violence and threats were against women.
Recently Ekho Moskvy news host Yulia Latynina left the country after death threats were made against her and her family. She had already been attacked and her car burned. After the attack on Felgengauer, Ekho’s editor in chief suggested that Ksenia Larina, another journalist at the station, also leave Russia. She had received numerous threats. Recently Tatiana went back on the air, recovering from her wounds. An important detail to consider: Not long before she was attacked, Tatiana and other journalists at the station were named in odious official propaganda programs on radio and TV (in particular, the segment Ekho of the State Department on Russia 24) as “friends of the State Department,” “agents of influence of the USA,” and enemies of Russia.
The Novaya Gazeta reporters investigated corruption and human-rights violations. Six of its journalists, Boris Dubin, Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Natalya Estermirova, and Anastasia Baburina, have died. In the last year, Elena Kostuchenko and Natalia Milashina, who published materials about violence against the LGBT community, were attacked and threatened. In the spring, the Islamic Forum in Chechnya declared a fatwa against all the newspaper’s reporters after it published a story about the murders of gays in Chechnya. The newspaper appealed to law-enforcement agencies, but the case is still not being investigated. Elena Milashina was forced to leave the country several times for her safety. The official investigation of the threats is not completed. The fatwa has not been called off.
The editor in chief of the online news site Caucasian Knot, Grigory Shvedov, has been threatened many times, but, after a threat from the Chechen speaker of the parliament was published on its official government website, he appealed to the procurator’s office. A case was opened but then turned over to Chechnya for investigation—no results yet. Caucasian Knot has lost two reporters. Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev was killed after a series of attempts on his life. A new prize for the best material on the Caucasus has been named for him. But the killers have not been found. Zhelaudi Geriyev has been under arrest on trumped-up charges for several months. Shvedov says that the Russian authorities are following the example of Azerbaijan and Belorussia, where arrests of reporters are commonplace.
Little is known about the killing of journalists (more than 20 in the last 15 years) and persecution of reporters in the Caucasus, Moscow, and other cities of Central Russia. The lack of information is a pillar of support for the culture of impunity, which is deeply rooted. Impunity is the path to new crimes, say the defenders of rights of journalists. A few years ago both the European Federation of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists started projects in seven countries of the former USSR on overcoming impunity. Much data was gathered, there were discussions, and it became clear that glasnost, the exchange of information, and solidarity were the main weapons in the struggle against impunity.
The lack of information and isolation, which is increasing, pose a real danger for reporters. So do the absence of solidarity and the passivity of the public.
There is no question that freedom of speech and freedom of expression are the main results of perestroika and its first lasting success. The dream of generations of Russian liberals was a gift from the authorities, from the regime, from Gorbachev. But it was preceded by decades of hard work—the dissident movement, the heroic efforts of the intelligentsia, including liberal journalists, the work of Western correspondents who during the stagnation years and perestroika maintained ties with writers and human-rights activists, the work of scholars, historians, and literary historians. American Slavists played an important role in opening up the Russian press, and other historians devoted to the émigré writers and building fragile bridges between intellectuals in the East and West in the early years of perestroika; the first joint programs and projects all expanded the space of freedom and prepared the soil for dialogue and cooperation. Freedom of speech in Russia is the result of many years of stubborn work by many people, experts, journalists, scholars, and human-rights activists, supported by millions of ordinary readers, listeners, and citizens in a huge country. Freedom is never someone’s individual decision; it is the result of solidarity in the common struggle.
How did this freedom become a risk factor today? Is the market and free competition, which were the dream of my colleagues and others, to blame for the persecution of independent voices? Or are the Soviet past, totalitarian thinking, and totalitarian methods of administration, which are becoming more apparent in the Russian political agenda, still influencing society? And why is the public silent when journalists are being killed and persecuted? What can be done to change the situation?
Russian society is divided today. The most recent public-opinion polls show that some consider the rehabilitation of Stalin and the use of force to realize state policy desirable, while others are categorically against it. The centenary of the Russian revolution this year also showed that the country is not ready for real dialogue; the regime fears it; civil society is not prepared; and radical groups on all sides are against dialogue per se. However, this is what we have. Journalists, as usual, are on the front lines. They are the ones who consider it their duty to tell the truth, no matter how bitter it may be. There are many more than people think, than American media write, than Russian propagandists imagine. There are many more among young people like my students. It is imperative that they be protected by the law and the respect of the state and the society they serve and not by stun guns. I believe that this will happen.
We need the political will to execute the laws that guarantee freedom of speech and the safety of journalists and punishment for those who interfere with them. Respect for the freedom of speech. This is impossible without political will and the participation of society. Active discussion about the past and present is essential, about the meaning of free thought and free press—and about the personal participation of every citizen in this work.
On December 15, Russian journalists memorialize their fallen colleagues. This memorial day in 2017 will be the 20th one. On that day relatives and friends will gather at the Central House of Journalists to honor the men and women who died doing their professional duty: the people who believed that the word would change the world, making it more just and more kind. Their families and friends wait for the investigations of their deaths, for the perpetrators to be found, named, and punished. They want all of us to learn the truth.