Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Freedom of Expression without Freedom of the Press

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Freedom of Expression without Freedom of the Press

Article excerpt

One week after journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in Moscow, the Russian polling agency Levada Center asked her compatriots whether they had been aware of her work before the murder. (1) Six percent said they had read her articles in which she investigated atrocities in Chechnya and other grim aspects of Russian life. Of this small group of readers, very few chose to join the rally the day after Politkovskaya's death at the hands of a contract killer. (2)

President Vladimir Putin did not immediately make a public statement on the assassination of Politkovskaya, nor did he face questions about her death from Russian reporters. While Putin's Kremlin had long ruled out "unfriendly" questioning of top figures in the Russian leadership by domestic media, Putin was forced to address the questionable circumstances surrounding Politkovskaya's death a few days later when he traveled to Germany. Asked by a Suddeutsche Zeitung reporter, the Russian president noted that Anna's "political influence ... was insignificant inside the country and, chances are, she was more notable in human rights circles and in mass media circles in the West.... For current authorities in general and Chechen authorities in particular, Politkovskaya's murder did more damage than her articles." (3) Putin's German hostess, Chancellor Angela Merkel, may have connected Politkovskaya's murder to problems of press freedom in Russia, but Putin would not. He was more concerned about the damage done to government authorities, not to freedoms. (4)

Cynicism is Putin's signature style, but in this case his remarks were, sadly, correct. Politkovskaya was not broadly appreciated by her compatriots, nor was she a role model for young journalists. Her writings did not have much public impact. Outside of a limited constituency concerned about democratic norms and civil liberties, it did not occur to people to hold Putin, or the government in general, accountable for Politkovskaya's death or for the blunt violations of human rights she chronicled, even indirectly. It is not that people are scared; rather, it appears that they do not care. Putin may be cynical, but so are the majority of Russians, and the most common reaction to reports of blatant abuse of government authority is "what else is new?" (5)

If the killing and harassment of journalists is the most obvious evidence of serious problems with press freedom in Russia, public indifference and cynicism aggravate the situation further. Another major constraint on media freedom is the Kremlin's tight control over politics, policy making, and national television. In this environment, the existing independent media remain irrelevant as tools of public accountability.


With an apathetic and atomized public, the Kremlin hardly needs to physically eliminate critical reporters who still try to expose the unsavory practices of government officials. (6) It is still not known who killed Anna Politkovskaya, but the contractor of her assassination is not likely to be found in the Kremlin.

Freedom House has labeled Russia as "not free" since 2005, but this ranking may be misleading. (7) It would be wrong to regard Russia as a hard authoritarian regime that, much like the USSR, persecutes its citizens for disseminating unwelcome information. While today's Russia may in fact have some elements of a police state, it is mainly a deeply corrupt one in which power and property are closely entangled and the public institutions of law and order are gravely compromised. (8) But if the Kremlin should not be held directly responsible for masterminding murders, it certainly bears responsibility for the atmosphere of lawlessness in which contracted assassinations are commonly practiced as a way to get rid of adversaries or competitors. Journalists encroaching on powerful interests are not the only victims; the same method has also been used to settle scores with rivals in business, banking, and occasionally in local politics. …

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