Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Putin's War on the Free Russian Press

Anna Politkovskaya

As has been mentioned in previous posts, Putin's Russia has made no qualms about resorting to illegal and often brutal measures to silence their opposition. While systemic changes can be used to dilute or silence the influence of the political opposition, it is the media that often presents the most urgent and legitimate threat to autocratic regimes.
Putin's Regime has of course been no exception. They have intimidated watchdogs such as Amnesty International, forcing them to register as "foreign agents". This has resulted in massively increased scrutiny of NGO's and civil society organizations, including of domestic civil society groups. But most importantly, and what I'd like to cover here, are the stories of two extremely brave and noble media sources: Anna Politkovskaya and TVRain, both of whom have made indispensable contributions in helping to maintain and reconstitute the Russian free press following crackdowns and repression.
Anna Politkovskaya was a Russian journalist and human rights activist who made her name reporting independently on the Second Chechen War. She published articles from Chechnya at a furious pace, taking a line that was highly critical of the pro-Russian regime in Chechnya as well as the way the war was being waged, which included massacres, bombing and shelling of civilian homes, and chemical warfare. She was virulently critical of president Putin in her work, fully aware of the danger she was in for her outspoken views. She received nearly constant death threats from the time she began reporting on the Chechen war to her murder in October 2006. On the seventh of that month, Politkovskaya was found dead in a lift, shot once in the shoulder, then again in the head at point-blank range. Conspiracy theories abound as to why this happened and who carried it out, but this is the clear take-away: outspoken critics of the Kremlin in Putin's Russia can be murdered with impunity.
TV Rain is a liberal, independent Russian TV station focused on news, politics and business that has frequently taken positions critical of the Kremlin. In fact, in recent years they have served in more of a watchdog role, frequently and primarily publishing articles and headlines critical of Kremlin policy on a wide range of issues. Their efforts have been immeasurably valuable to Russian society and political discourse, but they have also incurred the wrath of the Kremlin. Their problems began in 2011 when they became the first Russian television network to offer coverage of the protests that erupted in major Russian cities, after videos that clearly demonstrated fraud in that year's parliamentary elections were posted online. In response to TVRain's coverage, the Kremlin carried out an audit of their coverage and subjected them to significant undue scrutiny.
More consequences came earlier this year, when TVRain published an online poll, asking if the city of Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) should have surrendered while it was under siege by the Nazis during WWII, during which millions of Russian citizens suffered and died. This topic is taboo in Russia, as any questioning of Stalin's tactics or elements of the Russian strategy in general is inseparable from larger questions about Stalin's terror and the horrors of the war itself. The repercussions of this act, in addition to their previous affront to Putin's regime, have been felt as the year has worn on. They have been evicted twice from their studios this year, the second time just yesterday (Dec. 8, 2014). They are now broadcasting from a private apartment in Moscow, with fears of harsher government retaliation a looming concern.
These two giants in the free Russian media have all but been erased, with Politkovskaya murdered and TVRain's viewership a fraction of its former size. While the latter continues to fight on to air the Kremlin's dirty laundry, the consensus as to the health of Russia's independent media hasn't been this pessimistic since the days of the Soviet Union.