Before he even arrived in Moscow, President Barack Obama gave an exclusive interview to an independent Russian newspaper that has long been on the front lines of press freedom. Novaya Gazeta is known for its ground-breaking investigative reports–and the fact that four of its journalists have been killed in retaliation for their work.
The interview sent a message to Obama’s hosts, although the step was not as radical as some reports have suggested. In April, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian head of state to be interviewed by Novaya Gazeta. Predecessor Vladimir Putin, now the prime minister, had once dismissed the paper’s leading investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, as being “insignificant” and “well known only in the West.” The comments, widely seen as insensitive, came just three days after Politkovskaya was murdered in 2006.
This week, on the eve of the summit, Novaya Gazeta asked Obama about Russia’s failure to fully solve 17 journalist murders in Russia since 2000. The slain journalists include one American, Paul Klebnikov, who was editor of Forbes Russia. Novaya Gazeta asked President Obama whether pressing the “reset” button on U.S.-Russia relations, to borrow Vice President Joseph Biden’s phrase, would mean less U.S. attention to Russia’s commitment to human rights, including the prosecution of suspects who murder journalists?
Obama chose his words carefully. “Of course not,” he replied, going on to state that the two nations have “many common interests,” including controlling nuclear proliferation and defeating extremist elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I also believe,” Obama went on, “that Americans and Russians have a common interest in the development of the rule of law, the strengthening of democracy, and the protection of human rights.”
Obama then quoted from his own general statements on the topics from his January inaugural address and June speech in Cairo. “We will extend a hand [to dictators] willing to unclench [their] fist,” he reminded Novaya Gazeta. “All people yearn” for “the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed,” along with “confidence in the rule of law” under a transparent and accountable government. Not to ignore his host, President Obama then quoted Medvedev saying (more guardedly), “Freedom is better than the absence of freedom.”
Before the Moscow summit, CPJ sent President Obama a letter asking him to put on the agenda “the pressing issue of impunity in violent crimes against journalists in Russia.” CPJ asked Obama to remind Medvedev “of the commitment he made” at his own 2008 inauguration “to ensure that the lives and safety of all citizens are protected, to fight corruption, and to strengthen the rule of law. ” The Paris-based press freedom group, Reporters without Borders, also sent a letter before the summit to both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.