Two years ago I testified before the Helsinki Commission for Human Rights on the situation with Freedom of the Press in Russia. Two years is a long period of time. Long enough for visual changes if the situation improves.
Russian president Dimtry Medvedev recently gave interview to Novaya Gazeta, which some observers characterized as a significant political step that the new Russian leader took to emphasize his liberal views and plans, because for the long time Novaya Gazeta was the most critical newspaper in the country. However the fact that the case of the Novaya Gazeta’s most known journalist Anna Politkovskaya felt apart and collapsed during the Court hearings, and the defendants have been freed, takes as to the suggestion that the president’s interview was no more than a smart PR action. The question of who murdered Anna remains unanswered, murders remain unpunished and free, and Justice remains humiliated.
The case of Magomed Evloev - founder and editor of the most popular local Internet site Ingushetia.ru, assassinated by the Police, also collapsed during the trial. Magomed’s relatives run their own investigation. His brother Aslan told me three days ago, that they have collected incontrovertible proofs of involvement of Ingushetia’s high ranked police officers in the assassination. According to Evloev’s brother the court did not take the evidence into consideration. Murders were not even arrested. More over the two who physically put the plan into effect were promoted and continue their service outside of Ingushetia under Russian federal military command.
Zurab Marchiev – freelance journalist who worked in the North Caucasus for the Prague Watchdog, online news agency based in Czech Republic left to Europe seeking for political asylum after being kidnapped, tortured and forced to sign the agreement of collaboration with the FSB. For two years Zurab had to show every single report to his curator in FSB before he could send it to his editor. He lived dangerous dual life using his real name for approved journalism and pseudonym to tell the truth.
My sister Zhanna Akbasheva also a journalist after writing intensively on violence of rights of ethnic minorities, particularly Circassians was attacked by two officers of UBOP – the branch of MVD that cares out secret operations. In her letter to me Zhanna wrote: “No one from Russian human rights organisations nor from Russian Journalists Union, federal or local ever made a public statement, or simply called me to offer help or just to impress their solidarity. I felt completely unsecured and isolated”. Only after New York based CPJ issued the open letter to the Russian President calling to investigate Akbasheva’s case the MVD opened the case. But very soon the investigators started to call in all the people that Zhanna used to write on, after what most of them publicly denied that they ever gave interview to Akbasheva. Most the questions that were raised during the interrogation of Zhanna were about CPJ and the influence the organization have in Western society. Zhanna was told that the MVD is going to call the director of CPJ for interrogation. This curios example is the obvious evidence that the local MVD received orders from the top that they even did not know how to fulfil. It also shows that Russian autorities on some level are concerned about the country’s international image and publicity is one of the powerful tolls that must be used against the violations of Freedom of Press and rights of Journalists there. In the end of the day only CPJ and Rory Pack Trust supported Zhanna in her effort to remain a journalist.
No wander that the media landscape in the rest of Russia’s regions, especially in the North Caucasus remains poor with very limited access to the Internet and only government controlled local newspapers on the surface. The level of corruption among journalists equals with the corruption among the state officials. Self-censorship together with unprofessionalism is another common disaster but sometimes lifesaving necessity. However the public hunger for the true information rises amazingly. Miriam Axmatova human rights activist in Nalchik, told me last week that she printed out dozens of copies of the article from Russian Newsweek to hand out at their street meeting. She was arrested, taken to the 1st branch of MVD for interrogation and had to write an explanation “why she printed and distributed copies of the article”. She wrote: Because I wanted people to know the truth. Miriam was released after four hours all the Newsweek copies were confiscated.
In my opinion the situation with the Freedom of speech in Russia and particularly in the North Caucasus can be improved, although it looks like the case is hopeless. The ways of salvation for organizations like Community to Protect Journalists, who’s influence is significant, might by increasing the numbers and variety of the programs they run in the region as well as creation of the grass roots of representatives that are easy to reach by the local journalists. Using the amazing tools that, Internet gives us in distant education in general and journalism trainings in particular can be another helpful idea.
For major fund organisations like NED it might be risky but necessary in my view to give out small grants to new local NGOs and websites that are the most popular communicational, news sharing, and discussion place for younger and most socially and politically active population.
In conclusion, I would like to bring attention to the fact that Western politics often prefer to tolerate Press Freedom abuses even public executions of journalists in Russia for the economical or political stability reasons. It is important to understand that people in the North Caucasus still believe in Democracy and still look at the West as the symbol of the Democracy. Every time when the next tolerant western statement is made, those people, including journalists fell abandoned and betrayed. From their point of view the co-called neutrality or simple silence means support for the violent offensive on Rights and Freedoms. The consequences of this tolerance can bring the world to the point when the great value of Freedom and Democracy will become worthless not only in the countries like Russia but in the West as well.