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Vlad the Terrible: Putin's War on Russia's Media

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Putin and the Press
by Katrina vanden Heuvel
With Russia's parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2 and the pro-Kremlin United Russia party expected to win an overwhelming majority in the voting, President Vladimir Putin has intensified attacks on his opponents -- most recently, accusing them of being in the pocket of Western governments. Most of the country's state-run media have fallen in line.

Attacks on opposition forces are not confined to verbal demonization. On November 21, Farid Babayev -- the head of the Yabloko party ticket in Dagestan was shot at the entrance of his apartment building.
 
Babayev, a human rights activist and fierce critic of the United Russia party and local authorities, died on November 24. That same day, Garry Kasparov, one of the leaders of the opposition coalition Other Russia, was arrested in Moscow and sentenced to five days in jail for leading an unsanctioned street march on Russia's Central Election Commission. (City officials had given the coalition permission to hold a rally but not a march.)


[Republished at PFP with Agence Global permission.] 
 
With Russia's parliamentary elections less than a week away, Vladimir Putin has cracked down on opposition, dissent, and free expression. But Dmitrii Muratov's Novaya Gazeta continues to challenge the status quo.
 
 
The Kremlin's tightening grip on the media, especially national and local television, and authorities' harassment of opposition parties, led Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky to draw a parallel between Putin's Russia and Soviet Russia. "Russia stands on the threshold of the restoration of Soviet-style single-party rule."

On the eve of elections, there has been an intensification of attacks on what remains of Russia's free press. On November 9, Russian authorities shut down one of the country's few remaining independent newspapers -- the Samara edition of Novaya Gazeta. The pretext provided by authorities was cynical and hypocritical: In a country which leads when it comes to intellectual piracy, the police confiscated the paper's last remaining computer (the others were seized in a raid last spring) and indicted its editor for allegedly using a counterfeit version of Microsoft software.

Last week, Dmitrii Muratov -- the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta's national edition -- was in New York to receive the Committee to Protect Journalist's International Press Freedom Award. I had the honor and personal pleasure of presenting CPJ's award to him.
 
My husband Stephen Cohen and I first met Dmitrii -- a tenacious and brave editor -- in 1993. He and a few other colleagues had gathered in the basement cafeteria of Moscow News -- then a bold paper of the glasnost era -- to plan the launch of Novaya Gazeta. Survival of a different kind was on their minds at that time; they were beginning the paper with two computers, one printer, two rooms and no money for salaries!

An initial boost of financial support came from former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who contributed part of his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize Award to pay for more computers and salaries. By 1996, Novaya's circulation had risen to 70,000 from its initial run of 10,000; today it's national circulation is close to 600,000 and 100,000 visit its website every week.

I knew in 1993 that Dmitrii was a bold and creative editor. What I did not foresee was that he would become one of the last defenders of press freedom in Russia.
 
Anna Politkovskaya
 
 
The newspaper, which continues to publish against great odds, has paid a heavy price for its crusading investigations into high-level corruption, human rights violations, brutality in Chechnya and abuses of power. Three of its most courageous reporters --Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaya -- have been murdered for their unflinching investigations

One by one, newspapers and television networks have yielded to Kremlin pressure and surrendered their independence. Nonetheless, as Russia has descended from the media freedoms of Gorbachev's "glasnost" to today's conformity and compliance, Dmitrii Muratov and Novaya Gazeta's reporters and editors have continued -- despite the financial, political, physical threats and pressures -- to remain independent and publish.

In his remarks at the Committee to Protect Journalist's dinner in NY last week (the English translation is posted below), Muratov spoke powerfully, and personally, of his fight for press freedom -- and for justice on behalf of his slain colleagues:

Ladies and Gentlemen, Esteemed Colleagues:

Igor Domnikov was murdered for investigating corruption. Yuri Shchekochikhin, my best friend, deputy, and a nationally famous journalist was murdered. Anna Politkovskaya was murdered. Three of the most important people in my life. And it's me who gets to stand here in a tuxedo and receive an award. It's not normal. I feel no joy. I never will.

If she were alive, Politkovskaya would have had some of her favorite red wine with me. With Domnikov and Shchekochikhin -- I would have had lots of vodka. And we would've been happy. But now we cannot be. And I won't ever be.

So why do this? Why continue to publish a paper that endangers people's lives?

Because our million readers share the values of democracy. Real democracy -- not its imitation. This is not fashionable in Russia today. This could damage one's career and reputation. Because today there is only one official god -- the State and its interests. As opposed to society and individual rights.

The state, alas, became a corporate business -- the business of special security forces.

And that business -- like special security forces -- needs silence, not press freedom.

On November 9, one of our regional editions was shut down -- Novaya Gazeta in Samara. The pretext: Police found unlicensed Microsoft software in its computers during a search.

The paper is no longer. All of its documents and equipment were seized ahead of parliamentary elections, now just two weeks away.

Our paper is denied advertising for political reasons. American companies and institutions are allowed to advertise in other Russian papers, not us. I call on advertisers to work directly with Novaya Gazeta.

Support us and our smart, highly intelligent, thinking readership. My paper needs your support.

On the anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya's death we turned on her cell phone. There were thousands of calls on the phone. The readers appealed to us to continue her work; to not be silent.

We will not be silent.

But we can allow ourselves a moment of silence for our murdered journalists. I am asking you to honor them right now.

[A moment of silence]
A granddaughter was born to Anna Politkovskaya this year. Her name is Anna Victoria. Life goes on.

Let all who care about a free press and a democratic society work to ensure that Novaya Gazeta survives and thrives as an independent, oppositionist force -- and that the journalists' killers be brought to justice.




Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editor and publisher of The Nation magazine.

Copyright ©2007 The Nation

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Released: 26 November 2007
Word Count: 1,053
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Released: 26 November 2007
Word Count: 1,052
Rights & Permissions Contact: Agence Global, 1.336.686.9002, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  
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