Pressing for Change: Journalistic Freedom in Russia

Article excerpt

Following his decisive electoral victory in March 2008, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev vigorously affirmed his intent to protect freedom of the press in the Russian Federation, arguing that independent media provided a crucial channel of communication between society and the state. The fulfillment of his promise will depend critically upon the new president's willingness to break with the policies of his powerful predecessor, Vladimir Putin, and an entrenched tradition of stifled civil liberties.

The voice of the Russian press has long been tweaked, tuned, and muted to accommodate state interest. In the Reporters without Borders' 2008 Worldwide Press Freedom Index, which ranks 173 countries, Russia came in at a deplorable 141. Dissenting opinions and criticisms of government officials and policies are severely restricted in the state-controlled media, while the number of independent media outlets is steadily shrinking. Indeed, the consequences for opposition journalism extend far beyond mere censorship. Though Russia's constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of the press, dissenting journalists have good reason to fear for their lives. Since 1992,49 journalists have been murdered in Russia. Domestic and international outrage has followed the ever-rising reporter death toll. The October 2006 murder of outspoken journalist and vocal anti-Kremlin champion Anna Politkovskaya incited global indignation; two and a half years later, her murder remains unsolved. The recent murders of a reporter and a human rights lawyer, both killed in January 2009, serve as a reminder that Medvedev's promises to protect the independence of the media are far from fulfilled.

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For decades, international organizations and human rights groups have called on Russia's political leadership to amend and enforce legislation on freedom of press. The vagueness and over breadth of Russia's anti-defamation laws, provisions against insulting comments, and anti-extremisim statutes, have often led to the prosecution of legitimate journalistic activity. Without an appropriately narrow definition, almost any anti-government speech can be deemed "extremist," opening the door to intimidation and violence.

Thus far, however, international pressure to expand civil liberties has produced very little constructive change. In a February 2009 press conference, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso voiced the EU's concern over the murders of journalists and of human rights leaders in the Russian Federation. In lieu of addressing the issue, Prime Minister Putin responded with a scathing attack on human rights in the EU. This type of aggressive response has traditionally fared quite well in garnering public approval domestically. In fact, Putin and his predecessors have historically benefited from presenting a hard-line stance against the West; and haughty denial of accusations has typically translated to smart political strategy.

But Putin's ability to negate problems while maintaining his popularity was heavily tied to Russia's economic success. …