On Monday, President Obama heads to Moscow for two days of talks with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He also plans to meet with Russian opposition leaders and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and deliver what White House officials are billing as his third major foreign policy address–after his April arms control speech in Prague and his address in Cairo to the Muslim World. And today the White House confirmed that Obama will give an interview to Russia’s leading opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
This is very good news.
In April, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave his very first print interview to Novaya and its courageous editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov. The view inside Russia at the time was that Medvedev’s interview gave the paper protection at a time when the economic and human rights situation in Russia is, at best, unstable.
Indeed, the Kremlin’s tightening grip on the media, especially national and local television, and authorities’ harassment of opposition parties, has led Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky to draw a parallel between Putin’s Russia and Soviet Russia. “Russia stands on the threshold of the restoration of Soviet-style single-party rule.”
President Obama’s interview to Novaya signals support for the paper and for the importance of independent media in Russia.
As someone who’s been close to Novaya over the years, I’m pleased to learn that “Dima” Muratov and his colleagues’s tenacious efforts to get an interview with Obama were rewarded. When my husband Stephen Cohen and I were in Moscow in March, we spent considerable time talking to Muratov about such a possibility–and the substance of the interview.
For those who want to know more about this remarkable paper and its editor, it is worth reading Muratov’s powerful remarks when he was in New York in November 2007 to receive the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award. I had the honor and personal pleasure of presenting the award to him. My husband Steve and I first met Muratov–a tenacious and brave editor– in 1993. He and a few other colleagues had gathered in the basement cafeteria of Moscow News–then a bold paper of the glasnost era–to plan the launch of Novaya Gazeta. Survival of a different kind was on their minds at that time; they were beginning the paper with two computers, one printer, 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 more computers and salaries. By 1996, Novaya‘s circulation had risen to 70,000 from its initial run of 10,000; today it’s national circulation is close to 600,000 and 100,000 visit its website every week.
I knew in 1993 that “Dima” was a bold and creative editor. What I did not foresee was that he would become one of the last defenders of press freedom in Russia. The newspaper, which continues to publish against great odds, has paid a heavy price for its crusading investigations into high-level corruption, human rights violations, brutality in Chechnya and abuses of power. Three of its most courageous reporters –Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaya–have been murdered for their unflinching investigations
One by one, newspapers and television networks have yielded to Kremlin pressure and surrendered their independence. Nonetheless, as Russia has descended from the media freedoms of Gorbachev’s “glasnost” to today’s conformity and compliance, Dmitry Muratov and Novaya Gazeta‘s reporters and editors have continued –despite the financial, political, physical threats and pressures—to remain independent and publish.
In his remarks at the Committee to Protect Journalists’ dinner in NY in 2007, Muratov spoke powerfully, and personally, of his fight for press freedom–and for justice on behalf of his slain colleagues.
Let all who care about a free press and a democratic society work to ensure that Novaya Gazeta survive and thrive as an independent, oppositionist force–and that the journalists’ killers be brought to justice.
Here are his remarks:
Ladies and Gentlemen, Esteemed Colleagues,
Igor Domnikov was murdered for investigating corruption. Yuri Shchekochikhin, my best friend, deputy, and a nationally famous journalist was murdered. Anna Politkovskaya was murdered. Three of the most important people in my life. And it’s me who gets to stand here in a tuxedo and receive an award. It’s not normal. I feel no joy. I never will.
If she were alive, Politkovskaya would have had some of her favorite red wine with me. With Domnikov and Shchekochikhin–I would have had lots of vodka. And we would’ve been happy. But now we cannot be. And I won’t ever be.
So why do this? Why continue to publish a paper that endangers people’s lives?
Because our million readers share the values of democracy. Real democracy– not its imitation. This is not fashionable in Russia today. This could damage one’s career and reputation. Because today there is only one official god — the State and its interests. As opposed to society and individual rights.
The state, alas, became a corporate business–the business of special security forces.
And that business–like special security forces–needs silence, not press freedom.
On November 9, one of our regional editions was shut down – Novaya Gazeta in Samara. The pretext: police found unlicensed Microsoft software in its computers during a search.
The paper is no longer. All of its documents and equipment were seized ahead of parliamentary elections, now just two weeks away.
Our paper is denied advertising for political reasons. American companies and institutions are allowed to advertise in other Russian papers, not us. I call on advertisers to work directly with Novaya Gazeta.
Support us and our smart, highly intelligent, thinking readership. My paper needs your support.
On the anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s death we turned on her cell phone. There were thousands of calls on the phone. The readers appealed to 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 murdered journalists. I am asking you to honor them right now.
[A moment of silence]
A granddaughter was born to Anna Politkovskaya this year. Her name is Anna Victoria. Life goes on.