The decline of freedom in Russia

Oksana Chelysheva
5 February 2007

Did you read about the death of press freedom in Russia the other day?

Well, probably not. Independent journalism doesn't expire in a dramatic single moment. It's more like a series of small blows, leading not to complete demise but suffocation and a life-sucking loss of morale.

Another significant punch was landed on 23 January 2007, when Russia's supreme court in Moscow closed down the Russia-Chechen Friendship Society  (RCFS), the non-governmental organisation and home for independent journalism on Chechnya that I help run in Nizhny Novgorod.

The closure means that, for a while at least, we're not going to be acting as a clearing-house for journalism dealing with Chechnya. The Russian media is hardly awash with reports about the human-rights horrors of the Caucasus. This means there will be even fewer.

What's really going on here is that we have become the latest victims in an ongoing campaign of President Vladimir Putin's government to stifle all independent political activity.

Oksana Chelysheva is a Russian journalist who works for the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society. Along with her colleague Stanislav Dmitrievsky, she received the Amnesty International UK media award for "human-rights journalism under threat" in 2006

Also by Oksana Chelysheva:

"Civil society under siege: the case of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society" (Chechnya Weekly, [Jamestown Foundation], 7/21, 25 May 2006)

This is clearer when seen against the background of two events in the last five months. On 7 October 2006, the outspoken journalist and commentator Anna Politkovskaya was killed. A woman of about my own age, coming back from the supermarket with grocery-bags under her arms, she was gunned down in the lift of her own apartment-block in Moscow. Why? We still don't know - not least because the Russian authorities appear to have made virtually no progress in discovering and prosecuting her murderer.

Then, on 23 November, the wasted figure of former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko died from polonium-210 poisoning in London, creating a further murder mystery. It is still far from clear what lay behind this bizarre John le Carré-style affair, but one thing is certain: a second trenchant critic of the Russian government had fallen silent.

It might seem that these are two unrelated killings. But, recalling that Alexander Litvinenko appears to have been poisoned by tea laced with polonium-210, it's chilling to remember that Anna Politkovskaya had also been the target of poisoned tea during a plane journey in 2004, while travelling to the Caucasus to report on the Beslan siege. She survived then after emergency medical treatment, but the poisoning itself and the "Chechen link" between the murders is disturbing.

Litvinenko had publicly blamed the Kremlin for the massive apartment-block bombings that triggered the second major Russian offensive in Chechnya in 1999. Similarly, Politkovskaya had repeatedly lambasted Russia's armed forces in Chechnya for their "war crimes", denouncing President Putin himself for "crushing liberty". Both wrote books expanding on their views.

A slow death

I am not saying that the Russian president ordered these killings, nor even that he was involved. I am, though, registering shock and dismay at the lack of interest Putin's government has in safeguarding independent journalism and freedom of speech. Six days after Politovskaya's death, a regional Russian court ruled that our RCFS organisation was illegal because it was led by a man convicted of "extremist" activities. The RCFS's executive director - my friend and colleague Stanislav Dmitrievsky - had indeed been convicted in February 2006 on "race-hate" charges.

Also in openDemocracy on Russian journalism, human rights, and civil society:

Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: the G8 and after"
(19 July 2006)

Shaun Walker, "Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional"
(9 October 2006)

Tanya Lokshina, "Putin, Chechnya…and Politkovskaya"
(12 October 2006)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "In Russia, death solves all problems"
(3 November 2006)

Ivan Krastev, "'Sovereign democracy', Russian-style"
(16 November 2006)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "Alexander Litvinenko: the poison of power"
(20 November 2006)

This is ironic. Classic, ugly, skinheaded racial violence is certainly virulent in Russia, but Stanislav's actual "crime" had actually been to publish pro-peace articles by Chechen separatist leaders. One of them had been by Ahmed Zakayev, the Chechen envoy and former culture minister who has been granted political asylum in Britain.

Whatever he is, Stanislav is no extremist, simply a journalist reporting views on Chechnya deeply uncomfortable to the Russian authorities. His two-year suspended sentence was, one imagines, meant to throw him off balance. But it also meant that, under a controversial new NGO law, the authorities could close us all down because we were run by a "criminal".

The fiscal and legal assaults on Russia's oligarchs, notably those made against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his now forcibly disbanded Yukos oil empire, make clear that the Kremlin will drag those who oppose it through the courts until they are neutered and exhausted, if not totally crushed. This seems to be the tactic with us.

The skirmishes have their farcical side. When we arrived for our Moscow court hearing in January, the high turnout from international observers seemed temporarily to rattle the authorities. With representatives from the European Commission, officials from the embassies of countries like Germany, the United States and Sweden, and monitors from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch all in attendance, the normally punctual court felt it necessary to postpone the hearing for three hours.

Whether the court administrators thought the observers might evaporate in the meantime is not clear. But when they did not, the courtroom was suddenly too small to accommodate them anyway. Then when a mystifyingly large group of unknown people were asked by our camp why they had come to the court that day, they gave the game away. It transpired that they were actually local law-school students who had been ordered to attend simply to fill up the courtroom so that international observers would be squeezed out.

If it is not something worse, this, then, appears to be the fate of awkward-squad journalists in Putin's Russia. The likes of Stanislav and I, already the recipients of anonymous leaflets proclaiming our status as "pro-Chechen vermin", are cast as ready-made criminals in show trials for the edification of law students.

It's all part of the slow death of independent journalism in Russia.

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