European and American perceptions of Russian life are nothing if not naive. My view is reaffirmed every time I speak to western journalists, and hear the way they interpret the dangers their Russian colleagues face and the limitations imposed on free speech in Russia. It is naivety in the positive sense of the word: a real failure to grasp why Russian state officials do not resign after press revelations have directly implicated them in criminal cases; why the public does not protest when local elections are cancelled; why assassinations of journalists do not bring thousands out on to the streets or provoke questions of the authorities. In Europe, any one of these events would create a level of indignation capable of bringing down a government. In Russia, it passes unnoticed. So what is the point of Russian journalism, if there is virtually no response to revelations either from the public or the state?
For more than ten years I have worked for Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper viewed in Russia as an opposition publication. Currently, I am in charge of the investigations section. The paper appears twice a week and has a print run of 500,000 copies, pretty much average for Russia. It focuses on misappropriation of power and corruption. It also reports on human rights abuses and the repression of opposition. Many western journalists discovered Novaya Gazeta through Anna Politkovskaya. One of her chief areas of interest was the human rights situation in Chechnya and the North Caucasus. She was highly critical of the authorities, both federal and local, for their policies in these regions. In 2006, she was assassinated in the lift of her apartment block.
For our editorial team, this loss was by no means the first. In 1994, our special correspondent Svetlana Orliuk travelled to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia to look into the detention of an officer held in a solitary-confinement cell for interrogation. The officer was released and it was acknowledged that his arrest had been illegal. Orliuk died of poisoning. There was no proper official investigation into her death. In 2000, our columnist Igor Domnikov was murdered in the entrance to his home in Moscow. He had been reporting on corruption in Lipetsk Province. The culprits are now in the dock, but the people who ordered the hit are still free. In 2001, Viktor Popkov, a freelance correspondent and human rights activist, was killed in Chechnya. Yuri Shchekochikhin – our deputy editor, a parliamentary deputy and member of the Russian parlia mentary commission against corruption – died suddenly in 2003. He had received a number of death threats. A preliminary diagnosis suggested poisoning, but no official investigation ever took place. The killings testify to the fact that, in Russia, journalists have influence and are taken seriously. According to the international Committee to Protect Journalists, 42 Russian journalists have been murdered over the past 15 years. The Russian Union of Journalists estimates that more than 200 have been killed in ten years.
Appalling as it may sound, we have grown accustomed to these things happening. Anna’s assassination provoked a stronger response in the west than it did in Russia. If it had not been for a telephone conversation between the Russian president and George Bush two days after the tragedy, and questions raised by European journalists, Vladimir Putin would probably not even have referred to her death. At a press conference in Germany, he emphasised that Politkovskaya’s influence on Russian politics was negligible. He also blamed forces from abroad for her murder. Putin’s thinking is shared by other state officials as well as the leaders of state-controlled businesses. They are, in effect, unaccountable to the public (or their shareholders); they look to their superiors alone; and they tend to interpret journalistic criticism as open hostility.
But it would be unfair to point the finger only at the authorities. Russian civil society, including its journalists, is immature, ill-developed and accustomed to being ignored by the state. Most people remain convinced that their views can have no impact. It would be optimistic to estimate that 10-15 per cent of the population is engaged with public life. The passive majority is stirred into action only when its survival or personal welfare is under threat. Russian pensioners came out on to the streets when they were deprived of free travel on public transport, for example. Car owners organised nationwide pro tests when the government attempted to stop the use of right-hand-drive vehicles. Yet when the elections for regional governors were called off in 2004, there was no sign of mass protest.
At present, most people do not consider elections as important as a car or a pension, and cannot imagine participating in decision-making. Journalists writing for publications that are not geared to entertainment or the mass market address a very small proportion of the population.
To be fair, there are signs of change. When, in 2005, the car of a regional governor rammed another at 125mph, the owner of the other vehicle – a member of the public – was deemed respon sible for the accident. With press support, a national wave of protest ensued and the verdict was overturned in March last year. This offers some hope that the public is capable of making its views heard, though the threshold of sensitivity to events remains extremely low.
In the provinces, living standards vary a great deal and it would be a mistake to judge Russia by Moscow or St Petersburg. “The other Russia” begins just beyond the Moscow ring road, and the degree of free speech permitted there is considerably lower than in the capital. The catalogue of assassinated journalists consists mainly of people who worked in the provinces. Their names are unlikely to be publicised in Europe because they reported on local issues: corruption among governors and heads of administration, their links with crime, battles for regional ownership, and the involvement of the local security services, law-enforcement agencies, public pro secutors’ offices and courts in these struggles.
Regional assignments are the most dangerous. Local authorities react to publications far more ruthlessly than federal ones. The heads of local administrations and presidents of republics within the Russian Federation have free rein in their dealings with journalists. On their own territory, they are small-time “tsars”, and they mimic the central authorities in exaggerated form. The militia, public prosecutor’s offices, courts and the special services are deployed to create obstacles for newspapers. Legal justifications are provided for formality’s sake, but the game is poorly played and motives behind the allegations are all too visible.
In 2006, a newspaper in Perm, in the Urals, permitted itself to criticise the local authorities. A police search of the editorial offices followed. Militiamen removed computers, servers, discs, flashcards, audio recordings and photographs. That summer, all members of the editorial team faced criminal charges for “causing offence” and “disseminating state secrets”. A series of critical articles published in a paper in the mining town of Kemerovo prompted the governors of that province to write to the office of the public prosecutor, demanding that measures be taken against the editor. The regional office of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, told the public prosecutor’s office it had legal grounds to investigate the paper. In Kaliningrad, a newspaper frequently critical of the local authorities had its entire print run sequestrated, its offices searched and computers confiscated.
Regional newspapers in any position to criticise may belong to local opposition parties (sometimes to local MPs). They may be small publications founded by business people in conflict with the regional administration, who use the newspaper as a weapon in the struggle for private ownership. Or they may be a combination of these. In such conditions, journalistic standards in the provinces are not high and editorial independence is elusive. Never theless, this may be the only opportunity for regional audiences to hear criticism of the local authorities and get access to alternative information.
Journalists employed by mainstream publications are in a less dangerous position. Criticism of the federal authorities does not instantly lead to searches, arrests and criminal allegations for one reason – there is no cause for high-level officials to perform clumsy acts of vengeance in full view of the media at home and abroad. It is far more effective to make a deal with a newspaper owner, and if a loyal businessman is persuaded to take ownership of the paper, so much the better. Alternatively, material released by newspapers with small circulations can simply be ignored. Unpleasant reports will not be disseminated widely, because central TV channels, which have tens of millions of viewers, are entirely under state control.
In conditions where law-enforcement agencies, the public prosecutor’s office and the courts are compromised and the public is undemanding, the publication of even the most damning information does not bring about change. A multilayered field of protection – loyal owner, obedient television, dependent state arbiters – guarantees that no one will rock the boat. If necessary, legal proceedings can always be opened.
Novaya Gazeta‘s experience in this area is considerable. One example: a former nuclear energy minister, Yevgeny Adamov, sued us for defaming his “honour, dignity and professional reputation”. By way of evidence we offered the court copies of documents on which we had based an article about him. Adamov won. We then published facsimiles of documents containing the minister’s signature, so that our readers would understand how this case had been handled. Some years later Adamov was detained in Switzerland at the request of a US district attorney general. He was extradited to Russia to face criminal charges. A case against him is now under way in the same Russian court. It rests on the very facts to which Novaya Gazeta had originally referred. From time to time, our journalists are summoned to the public prosecutor’s office or to the FSB. Generally, a criminal case will be initiated in response to an article that, in the eyes of the public prosecutor or the special services, exposes a state secret. This happened when we published a list of former special service employees who had gone on to work for private business.
It is no secret that Russian state officials have strong links with business. Not long ago, we put together some material about a little-known firm, which had suddenly been granted a highly lucrative contract. After examining the facts, we turned to the company’s directors and to state officials for comment. Soon after, Novaya Gazeta was offered US$240,000 not to publish the material. When we refused, we received a series of telephone calls from government employees, and later from the presidential administration. Officials tried to interfere with editorial decisions and stop publication. The material appeared nonetheless and there are now hints of possible legal proceedings.
The most common reaction to criticism of highly placed officials, however, is silence. In 2005, we published lists of criminal cases that had featured the names of President Putin and several cabinet ministers. We called upon one of the former leading investigators in the case in which Putin’s name appeared. He had been forced to resign after several cases he was investigating were aborted. All the cases concerned Russian officials, and there was no hope that they would be indicted. After the investigator resigned, he brought a lawsuit against Putin as a common citizen, trying to prove that the cases had been stopped illegally. The court received a letter from the president’s office saying that Putin could not be part of the process. We turned to officials for comment but received no response. Even the publication of documents from criminal cases in which the head of state’s name has appeared will not bring repercussions. By the next day the public will have forgotten.
A journalist becomes a target not as a result of criticising the Kremlin and the state, as is often thought in the west, but after investigating how the bureaucracy in the regions really functions, where state policies are leading and who stands to gain. These were the issues Anna Politkov skaya addressed. I do not think that a Kremlin official organised her assassination, but the Kremlin is fully responsible for creating the situation in which the murder became possible.
Journalism becomes a threat and a serious irritant when it begins to influence social dynamics. Politkovskaya’s reports had this effect because they were seen by foreign human rights organisations as an alternative source of information. She had become more than a journalist: she was a social activist. It is not criticism of the Kremlin itself that endangers Russian journalists, but the threat they pose to an old system of relationships that benefits a tiny minority of people. And that will not be permitted.
Roman Shleinov is investigations editor of Novaya Gazeta
Translation by Irena Maryniak
A version of this article appears in the current issue of Index on Censorship