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Putin Strikes Again

Russian journalists have suffered crippling attacks in recent years, as Vladimir Putin pursues his policy of strengthening the “vertical” dimension of his administration’s “power pyramid.” The Kremlin’s geometrical terminology means enforcing, from the top down, an ideology intended to align all sectors of Russia’s “managed democracy” (another key phrase of the Putin era) into tidy, clearly demarcated, easily controlled zones of activity and influence. No strong minority views, no awkward revelations in the press are to mar the sleek façades of the state. The messy disarray normally associated with functioning democracy—the irritating criticism, noisy opposition, and inconvenient news uncovered by investigative reporters (what Russians proudly called glasnost a mere seventeen years ago)—has been summarily and sometimes harshly dealt with.

The techniques range from mild bureaucratic harassment of news organizations to physical attacks on individual journalists. The body count among Russian reporters is now thirteen murders in the line of duty since Putin has been in power. In each case the reporter was investigating or had published stories critical of government or business officials. No one has been convicted of these killings, even in the rare instances when the police have apprehended suspects. The murder last October of the brave, rash Anna Politkovskaya, about whom Robert Cottrell wrote eloquently in these pages recently,1 got worldwide attention but others are little known abroad. The Committee to Protect Journalists found in 2006 that Russia was the third most deadly country in the world for reporters.2

Murdering journalists is simply the most visible manifestation of the constant campaign against the press. Far more effective are the economic, judicial, and administrative measures being used systematically to quash human rights and information-gathering organizations and other genuinely independent members of civil society. Frequent tax audits and expensive, time-consuming re-registration procedures have been among the weapons of choice. In recent months there have been raids on news organizations to confiscate “illegal software”; shuffles of top-level management between government-controlled and “private” national television stations that provide most Russians with their news; managerial directives to present 50 percent “positive” news; “stop lists” of politicians and activists not to be mentioned on the air; and an end to live, on-the-scene reporting and live talk shows.3 Local television and radio stations are especially vulnerable to ad hoc attacks—e.g., the regional governor or big-city mayor who tells companies not to advertise on “disloyal” TV stations, the municipal authorities who suddenly discover problems with a lease, or violations of fire or sanitation codes.

One of the most recent victims of the Putin bureaucracy has been an NGO called the Educated Media Foundation (EMF), formerly known as Internews Russia. Over the past decade, this nonprofit organization has trained more than 15,000 Russian broadcast journalists, mostly from the provinces, in the best practices of journalism. It has, for example, conducted seminars, workshops, and classes for news writers, editors, managers, advertising directors, and program producers that have helped them to establish independent television and radio stations. It has given awards for documentaries of high quality, and worked out arrangements for sharing originally produced material among regional radio and television stations, thus encouraging the regions to report on themselves while achieving financial independence. The only “ideological” aspect of their work has been to explain and encourage internationally recognized ethical standards for fair reporting.

On April 18, EMF (whose headquarters are located in Moscow’s famed House of Journalists) was raided by twenty officers of the Department of Economic Security of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. During the eleven-hour “occupation,” no one was allowed to leave, and the ministry police confiscated all of the organization’s computer servers, in addition to all current financial and administrative records, from contracts to entries for an upcoming journalism award competition. EMF was effectively shut down and forced to suspend its programs indefinitely.

In an editorial published in late May (during the conference of the International Federation of Journalists, held in Moscow this year), Vedomosti, a prestigious Russian-language business daily produced jointly with The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, wrote:

Yet another trend has made itself abundantly evident in the situation of “Educated Media.” It is not unusual for Russian law enforcement agencies to engage in “inverse ad hominem” attacks in which they transplant charges brought against a private citizen onto the organization run by that person even when alleged transgressions are nothing but a private act.

The ostensible reason for raiding the offices of EMF was a minor personal infraction of customs laws by the EMF’s president, Manana Aslamazyan. In January of this year, she returned to Russia from a trip abroad, entering the country without declaring 9,550 euros, or some $12,900; by doing so she slightly exceeded the legal limit of $10,000. Though this would normally incur a small fine, it was transformed into a criminal charge of transporting “contraband” and used to close down the entire organization.

Ms. Aslamazyan is a well-known and highly respected figure among Russian journalists; she has been a member of the Russian Federal Broadcast Licensing Committee and has received numerous awards. After the raid halted the EMF’s programs, over two thousand journalists from throughout the country signed an open protest letter to President Putin, among them Russia’s most prominent television journalists, including Sergei Dorenko, Mikhail Osokin, Leonid Parfenov, Vladimir Pozner, and Svetlana Sorokina.

Despite this unprecedented show of solidarity and support, it is unlikely that the protest will have any effect. Everyone recognizes that the government’s aim was to “manage” another aspect of Russian “democracy”: i.e., NGOs that have received funding from foreign sources—in this case, USAID, TACIS, and numerous American and European foundations. EMF had also been supported by the Open Russia Foundation, established by the billionaire businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose political ambitions, many feel, led to his present internment in a remote Siberian prison camp for allegedly committing fraud in his business dealings.

The impact of this single episode may appear negligible—after all, no actual TV stations were closed, and EMF did no more than train and advise journalists; it wasn’t itself a news-gathering organization; but the tactics being used are much the same as those employed to dismantle Yukos, the oil company run by Khodorkovsky, and to prevent anyone even remotely related to it from exercising the constitutional freedoms guaranteed in the Russian constitution. In a May 30 article in the paper Novoe Vremia, titled “Why Manana?,” Irina Yasina, former program director of Open Russia, now chairperson of the Regional Journalists Association, explained the rationale behind the recent actions against EMF:

What are the driving forces of yet another pogrom on the already sterilized landscape of Russian television? Why was one necessary in the first place?… This is all about making an example of one to scare others. No need to kill off an entire pack of wolves if… you can just take out the alpha male, right?… Others will simply get the message well in advance and do what is expected of them….

It is difficult to keep track of what is going on regional television from the Kremlin. There are way too many regional TV outlets in the country…. People watch their programming simply because they can no longer take all the propaganda rushing in from the channels controlled by the federal government. In order to… “streamline” the broadcasting on all the [recalcitrant regional] channels without incurring too high an expense for staff censors, one fires a single shot across the bow to scare them all into submission at once….

For this to have the desired effect, the target of choice has to have iconic status in regional journalism. If you simply trump up some charges against a reporter or even an editor-in-chief from Siberia, people elsewhere—for example, in Stavropol’ye or in Lipetsk—may or may not perceive that as a threat to them….

Choosing Manana Aslamazyan for the role of a “whipping girl” is dead-on accurate. The taming of the “old NTV” [the formerly independent TV channel] was a perfect choice. It was all a slam dunk from there. The case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s wealthiest and most successful businessman, was a perfect choice as well. Now, all business leaders, from the very prominent to the most obscure, see in their sleep the chilling visuals of the Krasnokamensk correctional facility.4

The authorities twice extended the “criminal investigation” beyond the original sixty-day timeline for filing charges established by Russian law. Lawyers for Ms. Aslamazyan and the Educated Media Foundation’s founders (the Russian equivalent of trustees) are continuing to pursue a legal remedy through the courts to prevent the case against Ms. Aslamazyan personally from being expanded to include the organization. The damage, however, has been done. A criminal indictment for “contraband” was handed down on June 19. Ms. Aslamazyan has decided to resign from EMF and to accept a consulting position with the Internews Network. See her open letter to friends and supporters on www.internews.org/russia.

The attack on EMF—and on organizations like it—deserves attention from writers, editors, and civil libertarians outside Russia. Links to the Open Letter to President Putin and a list of its signers (in English and Russian), as well as to numerous other articles in the Russian and Western press, can be found at the Internews site. Writers, editors, and others concerned about press freedom wishing to sign the international version of the petition can find it at the Global Forum for Media Development, www.gfmd.info.

—June 21, 2007

  1. 1

    See “Death Under the Tsar,” The New York Review, June 14, 2007.

  2. 2

    See “Attacks on the Press in 2006: Europe and Central Asia,” Committee to Protect Journalists, www.cpj.org/attacks_06/europe_06/eur_analysis_06.html.

  3. 3

    On May 11, in advance of an opposition rally at Samara, police raided the offices of Novaya Gazeta there, evidently trying to prevent reports on the rally. Gazeta.ru, an Internet publication, reported on April 17 that a series of sudden top-level management changes at REN-TV, the Russian News Service (RSN), and Radio Russia, all major regional networks (the latter two belong to the Russian Media Group, a holding company controlled by Lukoil), had brought about a radical shift in editorial policies.

    In a story that was picked up in part by The New York Times, Gazeta.ru wrote that RSN staff were given explicit instructions by their new bosses on who could be mentioned on air, how any opposition to the government would be referred to, and were told that 50 percent of their stories about Russia had to be “positive.” See “Russkaia sluzhba promyvaniia mozgov” (“The Russian Brainwashing Service”), www.gazeta.ru/2007/04/17/oa_2 36937.shtml, and Andrew E. Kramer, “50% Good News Is the Bad News in Russian Radio,” The New York Times, April 22, 2007. For the Samara raid, see http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?index=4919.

  4. 4

    See www.internews.org/articles/2007/20070531_rja_emf.shtm.

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