UNTOLD STORIES: SILENCING RUSSIAN JOURNALISM

The aftermath of the Second Chechen War fought between The Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria brought about some of the most significant free speech violations in Russia’s recent history. Although the conflict lasted between 1994 and 1996, journalists and human rights activists remember it for Anna Politkovskaya’s unsolved 2006 murder.

Politkovskaya, a prominent Russian journalist, dared to write about the truth behind the Second Chechen War and was consequentially killed outside of her Moscow apartment in October of 2006. Her case became the embodiment for journalistic rights activists all over the world. Non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders pressure the Russian government into reforming press rights through mass-media exposure and conversing directly with political leaders. Oppression of the press in Russia is a direct violation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Russian government is aware of this violation and is in the process of reforming its policy that is responsible for violence against journalists and media companies. Non-governmental agencies like Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch work to expose these crimes against journalists to the international community, thus pressuring the Russian government to provide a safe working environment for them through new policies.

Russia is in clear violation of basic human rights. The Russian authorities are infringing upon journalists’ right to hold and express opinions different from the Kremlin’s. In order to have free press, human rights need to be imposed on Russian society. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (United Nations). The number of journalists and media assistants killed is alarming in Russia. 52 journalists were killed with motive confirmed in the last 8 years, landing Russia a spot on the list of worst places to be a journalist (Committee to Protect Journalists). 62% of the deaths were murders, while only 23% of journalists died in crossfire or combat of the 52 killed (Committee to Protect Journalists). The key to solving this human rights problem is establishing a true democracy because “no society freely chooses to limit speech or the right of association”, argues Jason Mark of globalexchange.org. To create a free reporting environment, “the will of the people [should] be the basis of the authority of the government” (United Nations).

Russian authorities can persecute the press legally based on vague legislation. These muzzy laws give the authorities legal power to harass journalists. In the volatile Caucasus region, the government combats terrorism with “anti-extremist legislation” that can persecute everyday citizens (including media workers) suspected of engaging in terrorist activity (RIA Novosti). The law applies to every region in Russia and to even the smallest of actions such as interviewing a rebel leader not supported by the Russian state. The consequences can include the police searching a media company’s offices, seizing files, and threatening to shut down the company (RIA Novosti). In addition to harming a media company’s image, the government abuses its power by search a journalist’s home and detaining his files (RIA Novosti). Russia is infamous for journalists’ murders right after publishing controversial content. Some of these “mysterious” deaths happened to Natalia Estemirova, Anna Politkovskaya, Telman (Abdulla) Alishayev, Anastasia Baburova, and Olga Kotovskaya (Committee to Protect Journalists). The majority of the victims used to report on topics like politics, war, and corruption (Committee to Protect Journalists). It is no coincidence that journalists who challenged the state were attacked: the government condemns “hostile attitude[s] toward[s] law enforcement agencies” (Reporters Without Borders). This means that an article or broadcast that so much as “defame[s] [a] political leader” is not in compliance with the law (Reporters Without Borders). The fact that the state allowed an unusual number of these attacks on its own citizens to go unpunished is an embarrassment to democratic nations worldwide: something must be done about this situation in Russia.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use diplomatic routes and mass media to pressure Russia into reforming its strict policies toward treatment of its journalists as well as gather and publish their finding in reports for the public to see. Since the organizations are non-governmental, they lack the factor of national interest, thus they focus more on the issues at hand. Although non-governmental organizations do not have legal power and run solely on donations and grants, they still have a powerful voice in combating oppression of journalists. Human Rights Watch is an NGO committed to protecting human rights by “preventing discrimination, upholding political freedom, protect[ing] people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and bring[ing] offenders to justice” (Human Rights Watch). This organization criticizes the Russian government for allowing Anna Politkovskaya’s murder to go unsolved. Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent journalist for Novaya Gazeta, was murdered in Moscow in October of 2006. She documented torture and other abuses during the Second Chechnya War (Lokshina). She was one of the few who “travelled to the region… wrote about such burning issues, took such tremendous risks, that after a while many of us thought that she had managed to transcend danger” in Chechnya (Lokshina). The acquittals of the three men accused of the murder “highlight a culture of impunity that must be brought to an end” (Lokshina). Politkovskaya’s case brought media and political attention to the fact that Russians “who dare criticize the government can be killed, with their killers practically guaranteed impunity” (Lokshina). Can the offenders get away with these crimes? The answer is yes; therefore, non-governmental organizations prove useful in situations where the government holds problematic views on freedom of speech.

Reporters Without Borders’ work to alert the international community about Russia’s human rights violations brought about favorable outcomes. Working with the United Nations as consultant, Reporters Without Borders publicizes the results of its fact-finding missions to Russia (Reporters Without Borders). The situation in the Caucasus region is unstable and dangerous, especially to a journalist. The report reveals, “the media and the civil society representatives who defend free expression are subject to a great deal of harassment” (Reporters Without Borders). Consequentially, “civil society and independent media are in danger of being abandoned to their day-to-day violence with no one taking notice” (Reporters Without Borders). In response to this, Reporters Without Borders publishes an annual report called the Press Freedom Index that measures the degree of freedom that journalists and new organizations in a specific country have and to which degree the authorities respect this right (Reporters Without Borders). With Russia ranked 140th of 178 on the Index, it is one of the most volatile places for media workers (Reporters Without Borders). The steps this organization has taken proves to be useful. In reaction to the current condition in Russia, Reporters Without Borders “urge[d] Europe’s leaders to remind their Russian counterparts that the international community expects these murders to be solved” (Reporters Without Borders).

The international community did indeed react with outrage and demanded reform on Russia’s behalf. The European Court of Human Rights was established in 1959 to enforce the European Convention on Human Rights (European Court of Human Rights). Similar to the UDHR, the European Convention on Human Rights is a list of articles that secure and defend human freedoms, however, the document was also signed by the Council of Europe, an organization of 47 countries that includes Russia (European Court of Human Rights). Unlike the UDHR, the Convention has legal authority in prosecuting governments as it is a “powerful living instrument for meeting new challenges and consolidating the rule of law and democracy in Europe” (European Court of Human Rights). On November of 2006 at the European Union’s Helsinki Summit, Russia was reminded of Politkovskaya’s murder and was pressured both politically and economically into improving its freedom of speech rights. As a signatory of the Convention, “Russia has an explicit undertaking to respect and protect human rights” (Reporters Without Borders). Because “all final judgments of the European Court of Human Rights are binding on the State involved,” Russia is under great pressure to amend its policies (European Court of Human Rights).

Dmitry Medvedvev’s summoning of officers from Human Rights Watch to discuss human rights issues at the Kremlin after much persuasion from the global community brought about promises in improving the safety of journalists and NGO employees working in Russia. Human rights activists and reporters raised questions regarding abuses by law enforcement and security agencies, kidnappings, disappearances, and murders of journalists and activists like Politkovskaya, Markelov, and Estemirova (Lokshina). Medvedvev started off by stating, “bodies of power at all levels should be in constant dialogue with non-governmental organizations” and also acknowledged “the staffing decisions that [he] has made in this regard… were connected… with the fact that… the position of heads of republics of the Federation in the North Caucasus lost contact with various civic bodies” (Lokshina). Although the president appears to be making progress to improve relations between NGOs and the government, Anna Sevortian, HRW’s Russia office director does not believe he is. She says that although “the Kremlin’s upbeat talk about human rights has improved Russia’s international standing, the human rights climate in Russia remains very hostile” (Human Rights Watch). Tension still remains between law enforcement agencies and news organizations presently. For example, Nadira Isayeva continues to fight for free press while reporting “on [the government’s] handling of violence and militant Islam in the region [of Dagestan]” (Committee to Protect Journalists). The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) presented Nadira Isayeva, Editor in Chief of the independent newspaper, Chernovik, with a Press Freedom Award on November 24, 2010 (Committee to Protect Journalists). Using anti-extremist legislation, the authorities “brought a criminal case against her… after she published an interview with a former guerrilla leader, who accused local authorities of corruption and of being in thrall to the Kremlin (Committee to Protect Journalists). She is known to be “counter-productive [of] the heavy-handed tactics of state agencies charged with fighting terrorism” (Committee to Protect Journalists).

Although not as widely covered in the news, Russia’s present condition regarding human rights is a complicated mess. Currently in violation of several human rights treaties, Russia is arguably making progress, after a few dozen nudges from its neighbors in the right direction. Its vague and oppressive laws make it almost impossible to report the truth safely, let alone run a news organization. Fortunately NGOs are doing something about this. Working in one of the most difficult nations for the press, journalists embody the struggle for free speech. Their work defies governmental restriction… “their courage is a shield for many journalists.”

Works Cited

“Disabled Editor Found Guilty of Defaming Mayor.” Reporters Sans Frontières. 10 Nov. 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2010. .Mikhail Beketov, a newspaper editor, has been recently been on trial for defaming the mayor, Vladimir Strelchenko, after accusing him of “political terror”. He was left mentally and physically disabled from an attack outside his home in Khimiki. The police dismissed his case without making an arrest. He isn’t allowed to leave the country until his trial is over. This poses a problem because he needs to seek medical treatment in another country.

“Elena Milashina, Russia | Human Rights Watch.” Human Rights Watch. 1 Oct. 2009. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. <http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/10/01/elena-milashina-russia>.

“European Court on Human Rights.” European Court on Human Rights. Web. 5 Dec. 2010. <http://www.echr.coe.int/NR/rdonlyres/DF074FE4-96C2-4384-BFF6-404AAF5BC585/0/Brochure_EN_Portes_ouvertes.pdf>.

“Helsinki Summit: Europe Urged to Remind Russia of Its Human Rights Commitments.” Reporters Sans Frontières. 24 Nov. 2006. Web. 16 Nov. 2010. <http://en.rsf.org/belarus-helsinki-summit-europe-urged-to-24-11-2006,19887.html>. EU reminds Russia at Helsinki summit that it must uphold human rights within its boarders. The discussions revolved around the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. Since Russia is a signatory of European Convention on Human Rights, the international community expects Russia to uphold its end of the deal.

“Introduction.” Reporters Sans Frontières. 24 Apr. 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. <http://en.rsf.org/introduction-24-04-2009,32617.html>. Reporters Without Borders works to protect the rights of journalists all over the world. It fights laws for censorship and laws that undermine press freedom. It is registered NGO in France as well as a consultant in the United Nations. RWB works to improve safety of journalists in war zones.

Lokshina, Tanya. “Anna Politkovskaya: No Justice.” Human Rights Watch. 20 Feb. 2009. Web. 04 Nov. 2010. <http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/02/20/anna-politkovskaya-no-justice>. Anna Politkovskaya was killed for reporting on the truth behind the second Chechen War in Russia. The three suspected men who were said to have been her killers were acquitted, thus leaving her real murderers at large in Russia. This sent a message out that killings related to journalists were “forgotten” by the Russian government.

Lokshina, Tanya. “President Medvedev Summons Russia’s Human Rights Workers | Human Rights Watch.” Human Rights Watch. 3 June 2010. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. <http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/06/03/president-medvedvev-summons-russia-s-human-rights-workers>. Tanya Lokshina analyzes a recent meeting between Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, and human rights activists. The goal of the meeting was to place emphasis on the relationship between NGOs and the Russian government, especially in the Caucasus, where a lot of unrest between civilians and state officials occurs.

Mark, Jason. “A New Definition of Human Rights.” Global Exchange – Building People-to-People Ties. Jan. 2001. Web. 30 Nov. 2010. <http://www.globalexchange.org/about/newhumanrights.html>.

“Nadira Isayeva, Russia – Awards – Committee to Protect Journalists.” Press Freedom Online – Committee to Protect Journalists. Web. 27 Nov. 2010. <http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/10/15/russia-sarkozy-merkel-should-raise-rights-issues-medvedev>. Human Rights Watch calls on leaders of France and Germany to intervene in the human rights condition in Russia.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. <http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a19>.

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