February 14, 2008
Russia’s Vladimir Putin held his last press conference as president today in front of hundreds of journalists in the Kremlin’s Round Hall. But instead of giving him a Valentine–like one journalist did– reporters should have reminded Putin about a promise he made last year in the same room.
In 2007, Putin acknowledged the fact that journalists in Russia face serious threats and promised to protect them. For the first time, the president complimented deceased investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya as a “sharp critic of authorities,” adding, “and this is good”–words in sharp contrast to his initial reaction to her murder in October 2006, when he described Politkovskaya’s impact on political life as “minimal.”
Back then, the president’s remarks gave hope that Russia might begin to mend its record as the world’s third-deadliest country for journalists, and allow the press to carry out its role as a watchdog of power. But research by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that in the year since, Putin’s pledge to protect the press has been seriously undermined by his own actions and those of his government.
In March, a few weeks after the presidential press conference, prominent military correspondent Ivan Safronov of the business daily Kommersant plunged to his death from an upper-floor window in his Moscow apartment building. Despite numerous unanswered questions, authorities shelved the case as a suicide in September, saying that Safronov took his own life for unspecified “private reasons,” without ever mounting a thorough investigation into his journalism as a possible murder motive. Days before his “suicide,” Safronov had returned from a reporting trip to the United Arab Emirates, where he had obtained sensitive information about Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran that would be embarrassing for the Kremlin. He told colleagues he had been warned not to publish it. He did not leave a suicide note.
Another murder–that of U.S. editor of Forbes-Russia Paul Klebnikov–remains unsolved three-and-a-half years later, as one of two suspects in the killing went missing in March. Without a key defendant, the Moscow City Court trial has been indefinitely postponed. Justice is suspended in limbo.
In the months leading up to Russia’s December general election, authorities harassed media outlets and journalists who tried to cover rallies organized by Other Russia–the opposition coalition led by former chess champion Garry Kasparov and nationalist writer Eduard Limonov. In March, police detained nine journalists covering a Dissenters’ March in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. In April, police in St. Petersburg seized thousands of copies of an opposition paper meant for distribution in the capital ahead of an upcoming demonstration. And in May, police detained three foreign journalists at a Moscow airport as they prepared to fly to the city of Samara to report on a similar rally.
In a disturbing move that cemented a restrictive trend, Putin signed into law a second set of amendments to Russia’s criminal code in July. Ostensibly designed to counter extremism–including the growing nationalist and neo-Nazi movements–the package expanded the definition to include even public discussion of such activity and gave law enforcement broad authority to suspend noncompliant outlets. (Putin had signed a similar set of measures the year before, criminalizing criticism of public officials.) The law’s vague language invites authorities to interpret it as they please, contracting the boundaries of acceptable reporting. Analysts and press freedom advocates interviewed by CPJ compared the measures to “a cold shower on political journalism” and “a surgical scalpel” to be used selectively against power’s critics. The outcome of passing these measures is simple–it chills critical reporting and inspires self-censorship among journalists further still.
As for those willing to test the limits of the Kremlin’s tolerance, the consequences may be serious. Just ask political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky–his is the first case to be tried under the newly amended law on combating extremism. In September, Russian prosecutors brought charges against him in connection with his 2006 political diary Unloved Country–a collection of essays critical of Putin and his policies. The same month a court ordered the book to undergo a linguistic analysis to determine whether it carries extremist messages. Piontkovsky–currently a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington–faces up to five years in prison if convicted. He denies the accusation. At least two regional papers have been placed under similar investigations; one still faces a possible closure.
In another sign of the Kremlin’s lower-than-ever tolerance for opposing views, even the unshakeable radio station Ekho Moskvy–a broadcaster that for 17 years had enjoyed an extraordinary by Russian standards editorial independence–felt a shudder of apprehension in the run-up to the December 2 general vote. By midyear, the station had received a series of letters–15 in all–from various state agencies, including the Federal Security Service and the prosecutor-general’s office after it gave airtime to opposition leaders Kasparov and Limonov. The agencies warned Ekho that its programming was being investigated for “public calls to extremism.” Radio host Yulia Latynina, one of Russia’s sharpest political commentators, was under investigation as well, the letters said.
Putin may not be personally responsible for his government’s hostility, repressions and harassment toward the press, but one thing is certain–he has not lived up to his pledge to protect journalists and he is accountable for maintaining an environment increasingly intolerant of critics, including the media.
Sadly, against the past year’s backdrop, it came as no surprise when Putin told Time magazine in December: “…Ms. Politkovskaya did not play any meaningful role in Russian political life. She was no threat, no danger whatsoever. Her murder was a provocation against authorities, I believe.” And then, the newly named “Person of the Year” made another pledge: “Still, we’ll do whatever it takes to complete [her murder] investigation to the successful end.” We certainly hope that the president keeps that promise; his record, though, does not bode well.
President Putin’s seventh and final annual press conference as head of state gathered more that 1,300 journalists, including 200 international reporters, and lasted a record four hours and forty minutes, according to the Kremlin’s official Web site. Putin answered around 90 questions; not one of them was about press freedom.