A Difficult Journey From Repression to Democracy

Ann Cooper
Nieman Reports
Summer 2006 Issue

Brave journalists who challenge authoritarian regimes often ‘enter a postauthoritarian era full of compromises and new repressions.

In August 1991 I witnessed some of the more courageous and world-shaking journalistic acts of the 20th century. On a mild summer morning, the masterminds of a hard-line Communist coup put Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest. To ensure control over information, they shut down all but the most loyal newspapers and deployed tanks and soldiers to surround Moscow’s state broadcasting facilities. Then they ordered radio and television announcers to report that they took action in order to combat the “mortal danger” to the motherland posed by Gorbachev’s failed policies.

For a few hours, events played out like a theatrical revival of the heartbreaking Soviet crackdowns in Hungary and Czechoslovakia decades earlier. But soon a few journalists — some veterans of Soviet rule, others weaned on Gorbachev’s glasnost — stood up to fight. Editors of banned newspapers combined efforts to put out a daily called the “Common Newspaper” in defiance of the coup. A brash young reporter confronted the putsch leaders at a press conference, dismissing their phony propaganda and informing the nation, via live television, that a coup was underway. Hours later, television officials, their studios still encircled by tanks, snuck another electrifying report onto the air: the image of Boris Yeltsin, atop an armored vehicle, in dramatic defiance of the Communist takeover.

In the rejoicing that followed the coup’s collapse a few days later, journalists were among the heroes thanked by a deliriously grateful public. Their bold reporting had emboldened others; the Yeltsin image in particular telegraphed a message of hope in a time of despair.

I reported on these events for National Public Radio (NPR), having been NPR’s Moscow bureau chief for five years. When I left Moscow one month after the failed coup, it was clear the Soviet Union was dead. Less clear was what would follow, though had I been asked at the time, I am sure I would have predicted that a vibrant, independent media would grow and thrive, and its existence would help shape some form of post-Communist democracy.

Roadblocks Along the Way

Now, 15 years later, both Russian democracy and Russia’s independent media are in tatters. And as director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), where I work in defense of courageous colleagues every day, I have come to believe that many of the difficulties encountered by media in post-Communist Russia were quite predictable. CPJ’s files are full of tales of brave journalists challenging dictatorship, helping push countries toward democratic reform, only to enter a postauthoritarian era full of compromises and new repressions.

Shortly after I arrived at CPJ in 1998, the Nigerian military strongman Sani Abacha died suddenly. Heroic editors who had gone to jail or been forced underground for challenging Abacha’s corrupt rule were now free — and more than ready to build a national forum for vibrant debate. Instead, they watched newsstand sales plummet as a politics-weary public demanded more sports and entertainment. And they soon learned that even under an elected government some Nigerian police and security agents were eager to beat or harass journalists for their critical reporting.

CPJ has documented similar stories about the independent press corps that survived such dictatorships as Suharto’s in Indonesia and Slobodan Milosevic’s in Yugoslavia. These journalists, often at the forefront in demanding change under authoritarian rule, could be just as tough on new rulers at the first sign of corruption or human rights abuses. Like the Nigerians, they learned that just because elected leaders say they respect press freedom doesn’t mean they really do.

In 1991, I had not yet learned this lesson. Nor did I imagine that the press corps hailed for heroism in August of that year would be derided for corruption just a few years later. When Communist rule collapsed, many of the Soviet Union’s thousands of media outlets were privatized. Without the party’s financial subsidies, though, economic survival was difficult. Some media companies were rescued by rich oligarchs, but the exchange was that these new bosses often turned them into mouthpieces for their own political ends. Other news media made serious ethical compromises in order to survive: Selling news space to those willing to pay for favorable coverage became a routine business practice.

By 2000, when a new president, Vladimir Putin, launched fresh restrictions on the press, the audience for Russian news media saw journalists as so comprised that they were not deemed worthy of defending. That made it easy for Putin to bring all national news broadcasting under Kremlin control and to effectively bar independent reporting on the country’s most sensitive issues — in particular, the war in Chechnya.

Increasingly, opposition voices cry into a wilderness in Russia. A handful of newspapers with limited circulation might carry their messages. But under Kremlin pressure, few other media outlets dare run even basic campaign platform debates, rendering elections in Russia no longer free and fair. “We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum,” warns Anna Politkovskaya, perhaps the scrappiest journalist now working in Russia.

Russia today is not a dictatorship, but neither is it a democracy. Its media are not Soviet, but neither are they free. What both need desperately is a new generation of courageous journalists — reporters like Politkovskaya, who has been arrested, poisoned and targeted with death threats for her dogged coverage of human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Brave voices like hers must survive to tell the truth, just as her predecessors did back in August of 1991.

Ann Cooper served as executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists from 1998 until June 2006. She left to head the broadcast department at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.