To Understand These Outrages, You Need a Russian History Lesson ; JOURNALISM ++ PRESS FREEDOM ++ as Another Moscow Journalist Dies a Violent Death, Oleg Panfilov Traces a Pattern That Long Predates the Rule of Vladimir Putin

By Panfilov, Oleg | The Independent (London, England), March 12, 2007 | Go to article overview
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To Understand These Outrages, You Need a Russian History Lesson ; JOURNALISM ++ PRESS FREEDOM ++ as Another Moscow Journalist Dies a Violent Death, Oleg Panfilov Traces a Pattern That Long Predates the Rule of Vladimir Putin


Panfilov, Oleg, The Independent (London, England)


As Russian prosecutors continued last week to investigate how Ivan Safronov, the respected defence correspondent of Kommersant newspaper, was found dead in the snow having apparently fallen from his high-rise apartment, it was another Moscow paper that made an apposite observation. "For some reason, it is those journalists who are disliked by the authorities who die in this country," noted the popular daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.

Safronov, 51, had repeatedly embarrassed the Russian government with his stories about its nuclear programme, and his newspaper colleagues have angrily rejected the suggestion that he took his own life.

"Of course he did not go of his own accord," wrote his deputy chief editor, Ilya Bulavinov.

The scepticism is hardly surprising, given the history of violent attacks on media professionals in Russia. Yet in the seven years that Vladimir Putin has been in power, he has presided over strange annual press conferences at which journalists gather en masse. According to Putin's press office, the most recent such event, which took place in Moscow on 1 February and was attended by at least 1,200 reporters, lasted three hours and 32 minutes - seven minutes longer than last year's. That allowed for questions from 65 of the journalists.

In the current environment, there aren't many Russian journalists who would pluck up the courage to complain at not getting a crack. Some that asked difficult questions in the past were subsequently harassed.

Anna Politkovskaya, the award-winning Novaya Gazeta journalist shot dead by a hitman outside her apartment last October, would not have gone to this press conference, nor would she have wanted to put a question to Putin, having long stopped believing what officials told her. If you published all of President Putin's comments on freedom of expression, the collective text would run to hundreds of pages.

This kind of "freedom of expression", Russian style, has a long history behind it. In 1702, Peter the Great published the first Russian state newspaper. In 1804, Tsar Alexander the First enacted a censorship law. Ever since, the liberal press has been in a state of perpetual conflict with Russian rulers, from Tsars to Bolsheviks.

It is 20 years since Mikhail Gorbachev spread the concept of glasnost (openness) and a new chapter in Russian history apparently opened. Communist propagandists suddenly became liberal journalists and independent newspapers emerged.

But with no history of fighting to win freedom to express themselves, Russia's journalists have set about creating their new media with one eye fixed on the Kremlin, for fear it would object.

Boris Yeltsin's nine years in office saw the emergence of new radio stations, TV companies, and the internet. Russian journalists - aided by their foreign colleagues - were actually able to bring a halt to the tragedy of the first war in Chechnya (1994-1996).

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To Understand These Outrages, You Need a Russian History Lesson ; JOURNALISM ++ PRESS FREEDOM ++ as Another Moscow Journalist Dies a Violent Death, Oleg Panfilov Traces a Pattern That Long Predates the Rule of Vladimir Putin
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