Post-Soviet Russia is a dangerous and demoralizing place to be a journalist. In fact, it is an intimidating place even to ask questions about the media. My requests for interviews were met with a stream of incredulous questions, often beginning with, ‘Who sent you?’ from journalists who have learned the hard way that it pays to be suspicious. Those who did agree to meet – often on the condition of anonymity – chose locations far from prying eyes: an empty burlesque club in the early morning; the back of a moving taxi; and, most paranoid of all, on a boat moored in the River Moskva.
Yet, not all Russia’s journalists are prepared to live in the shadows. A surprisingly large number of brave individuals continue openly to criticize the Kremlin and to expose the ills of the society over which it presides. Yevgeny Kiselyov is one such. As editor-in-chief of Russia’s largest commercial broadcaster, NTV, and host of the channel’s flagship political show Itogi, Kiselyov was arguably Russia’s most popular and powerful journalist when Vladimir Putin first came to power in 2000. Week after week on Itogi, Kiselyov offered audiences an alternative narrative on Russia’s conduct of the Chechen war to that proffered by the Kremlin.
It is a testament to Russian audiences’ political sophistication and sense of citizenship that in the 1990s and early 2000s, political shows such as Itogi were among the top-rated programmes in the country. Kiselyov and his colleagues enjoyed far greater influence over public opinion than their counterparts in the West.
The professional purpose of many Russian journalists is the antithesis of Western concepts of the neutral reporter. As one particularly philosophical TV talk-show host told me: ‘Russian people look to journalists to guide them through the moral maze of our post-Soviet society. Journalists are more important as moral leaders than politicians. Presidents come and go, but journalists and journalism last. I was here before Yeltsin and I am here after him. I was here before Putin and I will be here after him too.’ It is this perception of themselves as the nation’s moral compass that leads Russia’s journalists into conflict with the Kremlin.
Yevgeny Kiselyov and NTV were among the first victims of Putin’s media purge. In April 2001, NTV was taken over by the gas giant Gazprom, a company with close ties to the Kremlin. As its first act, the new Gazprom management sacked the outspoken Kiselyov. After a brief stint as editor-in-chief at two smaller TV channels, both also shut down at the behest of the Kremlin, Kiselyov retreated to the print media, which – owing to its smaller audience – has been subject to less government harassment and interference than television. For Kiselyov, Putin’s obsession with television is personal: ‘Putin is the child of television. He was a nobody until state-controlled television made him a star. He doesn’t care about newspapers. What do they matter? A readership of 100,000 or 200,000 doesn’t provide leverage, it is not a political weapon.’
In 2008, Kiselyov triumphantly returned to national television, fronting his own political show – in Ukraine. Kiselyov’s experience is typical of many of the journalists I meet; former TV stars forced to toil away in obscurity in the Russian print media or to seek new opportunities outside of Russia.
The threats to critical journalists extend beyond damage to their careers. A 2009 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists found that since 2000, 17 journalists in Russia have been killed in reprisal for their work.1 While some were internationally recognized names, others were local reporters investigating issues important to their communities. All were killed for uncovering information that threatened the interests of powerful groups in government, business or organized crime.
If we stop reporting on high risk topics like Chechnya out of fear, then we give those who commit violence against us exactly what they want
Independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, well known in Russia for its critical and investigative reporting, has – perhaps not coincidentally – experienced more tragedy than most. Since 2000, five journalists associated with the paper have been killed, including the internationally renowned critic of the Putin administration Anna Politkovksaya, who was shot five times in the elevator of her apartment building in October 2006. In July last year, Natalia Estemirova, who wrote under a pseudonym for the newspaper, was abducted from outside her home in Grozny and later found dead by a roadside in neighbouring Ingushetia. According to her colleagues in Moscow, Estemirova’s reports were among the few remaining independent sources of information on Chechnya. As one veteran war correspondent told me: ‘By laying down a myriad politicized regulations, the government have made it almost impossible for journalists to travel independently in Chechnya. You can go, but you must agree to a military escort. If you don’t, they can revoke your accreditation. These rules are ostensibly for security purposes, but in reality they are imposed to control what journalists see.’
In January 2009, human rights lawyer and occasional journalist Stanislav Markelov and his youthful colleague, Anastasia Baburova, a rising star at Novaya Gazeta, were gunned down by a masked assailant in a busy district of central Moscow. Markelov was a well-known defender of Chechen war-crime victims and was shot leaving a press conference he had organized to protest against the early release of Russian Colonel Yuri Budanov, who in 2003 was sentenced to 10 years in jail for killing a young Chechen woman, Kheda Kungayeva. Eighteen-year-old Kungayeva had been snatched from her home in March 2000 and taken to the colonel’s office, where she was accused of being a rebel sniper, raped and then strangled. Markelov, who represented the Kungayeva family at Budanov’s trial, was also lawyer to Anna Politkovksaya.
As Markelov and Baburova lay slowly bleeding to death on a Moscow street, Russian democracy bled along with them. While Russia’s law enforcement agencies initially claimed there was no evidence linking the double murder to Markelov’s professional activities, Novaya Gazeta’s editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, was in no doubt that the pair were killed because of their work. With the violent deaths of Markelov and Baburova coming so soon after the murder of Politkovksaya, Muratov reluctantly decided to cease his newspaper’s reporting on Chechnya, reasoning that ‘I’m responsible for people, and I cannot protect staff there. Our journalists’ lives are more important than that one subject.’ When Politkovksaya was slain, Muratov was all for shutting up shop permanently, but it was his staff who talked him round. ‘They were of a very different view,’ he says. As another correspondent with experience in the Caucasus told me: ‘If we stop reporting on high-risk topics like Chechnya out of fear, then we give those who commit violence against us exactly what they want.’
Russia’s media-savvy citizens appear to agree, with the murder of Markelov and Baburova sparking public protests in defence of media freedom in Moscow and Grozny. Such was the outrage, both within Russia and from overseas, that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made overtures to Novaya Gazeta inviting Muratov and one of the paper’s principal shareholders, Mikhail Gorbachev, to meet with him at the Kremlin. ‘What I expect from this meeting is that the President will watch over the investigations of the killings of our staff members,’ Muratov told Radio Free Europe after the meeting.
Pressure for justice
Since assuming the presidency in May 2009, Medvedev – a lawyer by trade – frequently pays lip service to re-establishing the rule of law over Russia’s corrupt courts and crime-ridden society. True to the President’s word, in November 2009 two members of a neo-fascist group were convicted of murdering Markelov and Baburova, supposedly in revenge for the pair’s investigations into the increasing frequency and intensity of xenophobic attacks perpetrated by the far-Right. Although much hyped by the Kremlin, the successful conviction in this high-profile case is an exception rather than the rule. Since Medvedev took office, the killing and harassment of journalists has not stopped. In the vast majority of cases, the deaths of journalists remain unsolved. According to data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Russia remains the fourth most dangerous country in the world to work in the media, behind only Iraq, the Philippines and Algeria.2
A successful conviction in the Markelov-Baburova case shows that international pressure can help bring justice. Putin and Medvedev are both sensitive to their reputations overseas. Journalists in the West must show solidarity with their colleagues in Russia by reporting more extensively on all such crimes and on the curtailment of Russian media freedom.
At the end of January this year, over a thousand Muscovites braved freezing temperatures to march in homage to Markelov and Baburova on the first anniversary of their murder. They haven’t forgotten them, and neither should we. ‘Journalists are safest when international eyes are watching,’ one journalist tells me. ‘It is not too dramatic to say that it can save lives.’
- The International Federation of Journalists’ database listing all violent and unexplained deaths of journalists in Russia: www.journalists-in-russia.org
- The Moscow-based Glasnost Defence Foundation publishes weekly English language digests documenting violations of media freedoms across Russia: www.gdf.ru.
- ‘Anatomy of Injustice’, Committee to Protect Journalists, September 2009, www.cpj.org/reports/2009/09/anatomy-injustice-russian-journalist-killings.php
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