Can the Russian press ever be free?


“Slava, bring me some condoms!” Repin yelled back. Condoms were scarce in the USSR, and both men had a proud reputation as a womanizer.

“What color would you like condoms to be, Lyonya?” cried Golovanov.


– You are right, Lyonya, cried Golovanov. “Green makes you look younger.”

It was the most mundane conversation Muratov had ever heard.

Today, he often uses a similar intonation of strong, performative familiarity, often mixed with profanity, which invites the interlocutor to share knowledge. (When the Nobel Committee tried to reach him, Muratov was talking to one of the Novaya Gazeta journalists, Elena Milashina. Later, when I asked him what it was, he exclaimed, “Masha! Masha! How not to fight with Milashina? How can you ever have a calm discussion with Milashina? I have no idea; I barely know Milashina.) That’s the intonation of that conversation overheard of 1987, when the story suddenly happened, and the newspapers wrote it down, and everyone read it, and everything they reported mattered. . “The eighties and nineties it was a black and white show where everyone was smoking and we were called ‘journalists’,” he told me. “It was my life. Now I’m studying new things, taking English and coding lessons, but I’m still here, in the days of the war in Chechnya, Afghanistan, the Karabakh war, the taking of the TV tower from Vilnius, I’m still here, right there. We were a few glasses of whiskey in the conversation.

In 1992, a year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, several dozen journalists, including Muratov, left Komsomolskaya Pravda to start something new. April 1, 1993 Novaya Yezhednevnaya Gazeta (the New daily journal) published its first issue. At the time, President Boris Yeltsin was grappling with Parliament. The first page featured a miniature manifesto, titled “Some questions for ourselves. The first question was, ‘Which side are you on? The answer:’ Neither… We need new people, with hands clean enough to be political and mind enough clear and sober to know how to do it.The fact that they did not exist before does not mean that they do not exist at all.

The following year Russian troops launched an offensive in the breakaway Chechen republic and Muratov went to report on the war. Hundreds of other Russian and foreign journalists too. Reporters risked their lives documenting the brutality of a military carpet bombarding its fellow citizens; they have published long papers on the origins and mechanics of the humanitarian catastrophe. But the war continued and life elsewhere in Russia continued as before. It was the end of the era where everything mattered and the beginning of the era of cynicism. Russians, like much of the rest of the world, still live in this era – now labeled “post-truth” – but Muratov refused to accept it. In 1995, he became editor-in-chief of Novaya Yezhednevnaya Gazeta.

Yeltsin, who remained president until the end of 1999, allowed a number of independent media to flourish. When Putin took over from Yeltsin, this unprecedented press freedom was all but wiped out. Most of the Russian media organizations created in the 1990s have long since closed; others have been absorbed into the state propaganda apparatus. One of the exceptions is the Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station, which frequently criticizes the government, praises dissidents like opposition politician Alexey Navalny, and mainly appeals to older liberals. Another is Novaya Gazeta, which, other than being removed from its name by “daily,” has undergone remarkably little change.

After other media stopped covering Chechnya – because it was too dangerous and seemed futile –Novaya Gazeta remained on history, documenting the death toll, the disintegration of civilian life, disappearances and hostage-taking and, from 2000, the rise of the dictatorship of the Kadyrov dynasty. Senior journalist covering Chechnya, Anna Politkovskaya, survived apparent poisoning in 2004; in 2006, she was shot dead in her apartment building in Moscow. Elena Milashina picked up the pace, and broke many stories: in 2017, she denounced the arrests and extrajudicial executions of gay men in Chechnya. Novaya Gazeta also aggressively investigated the war in Ukraine. In 2014 and 2015, Special Envoy Elena Kostyuchenko documented the Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine, which the Kremlin denied. And after a Malaysian airliner was shot down over an area of ​​eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists in 2014, Novaya Gazeta journalists spent months re-enacting the tragedy.

Caricature by Liana Finck

It’s not quite precise to describe Novaya Gazeta like a newspaper. This is not what, say, the Times or even the leftist investigative magazine Mother Jones would be in more difficult circumstances. Rather imagine the Voice of the village the eighties crossed with a society of mutual aid, but directed, sometimes, like Occupy Wall Street. Novaya Gazeta is a community and a humanitarian institution, and it’s very messy.

Novaya Gazeta also continues a particular Soviet tradition: the newspaper as a court of law. The Soviet citizen lived surrounded by walls of impenetrable bureaucracy – there was no recourse for injustices, large or small, except when a letter to a newspaper caught the attention of a journalist and did not arouse objections from the censor . One story could lead to change: An abusive teacher would be fired, for example, or a dangerous building would be repaired. TO Novaya Gazeta, such stories are pillars. In the late 1990s, when Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya, leaving behind some fifteen hundred soldiers – no one knew how many had died or were being held captive – the newspaper regularly published articles by an officer of the army, Major Vyacheslav Izmailov, who organized research groups and wrote about them. For years, families came Novaya Gazeta ask Izmailov to find their sons. In 2000, the newspaper opened a hotline to collect word of mouth reports of soldier deaths in order to verify official statistics on military losses in Chechnya. The project then expanded to include survivors, then changed to require servicemen to help the injured and their families. People lined up outside Anna Politkovskaya’s office to ask for help with their missing or injured relatives. In 2002, when a group of Chechens took more than nine hundred people hostage in a Moscow theater, Politkovskaya intervened as a negotiator and persuaded the hostage takers to allow the delivery of water and juice. to their captives. In 2004, when another group took over a thousand children and adults hostage at a school in Beslan, southern Russia, Politkovskaya went there to negotiate, but was poisoned. along the way. “This newspaper was created to help people,” Milashina told me. “Not mankind but people – not by educating them, but by giving them real help.”

Muratov “is a parachutist”, Dmitry Bykov, poet and journalist affiliated with Novaya Gazeta for twenty-two years, told me. “He values ​​friendship above all else, and he’s always ready to parachute. He was also a parachutist in the military.” Bykov must have found a loophole in Muratov’s NDA

Unlike most publications, in Russia and elsewhere, Novaya Gazeta does not belong to a wealthy individual, a company or a foundation; it belongs collectively to its staff. When the newspaper started, Milashina said, “there were not yet any rich people who wanted to invest in the media.” One of the early supporters, Gorbachev, bought computers for the newspaper; According to legend, he drew the funds from his own Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 1990. In 2006, facing an acute financial crisis, the newspaper sold a minority stake to Alexander Lebedev, a billionaire who had served in the KGB. a few years, Lebedev, who was divesting in Russia, returned the shares to Novaya Gazeta collective.

In the Soviet Union, all publications were (on paper) collective and the editors were (nominally) elected. In truth, the Soviet media were microcosms of the totalitarian state. Overtime, Novaya Gazeta has become a functioning democracy: the editor-in-chief, the editorial board and a newly created ethics board are all elected. Any staff member can call a general meeting to express a grievance. A few years ago, in a radio appearance, Muratov praised a writer from another media for a story about the protests and memory in Beslan; Elena Kostyuchenko had also covered the story, but Muratov did not recognize her work. Kostyuchenko and his colleagues called a group meeting. Muratov heard it. He covered and smoothed out a bit – he quoted French sociologist Jean Baudrillard – then conceded: “Something fragile has been violated. If Lena feels it, then this is what happened. I sincerely apologize. I certainly didn’t mean to hurt you. Can we put this behind us? (The meeting was filmed by documentary filmmaker Askold Kurov, who included the footage in a film he made on Novaya Gazeta.) Kostyuchenko, a slim, bird-like woman in profile, nodded without looking at Muratov. The meeting ended. Two women comforted Kostyuchenko as she cried.

Shortly afterwards, Ilya Azar, the journalist Muratov had hired at Kostyuchenko’s expense, joined Novaya Gazeta and ran for the editor. Azar printed flyers declaring that, with Muratov still at the helm, the newspaper’s idea of ​​democracy was “like Putin’s, if not worse.” He obtained thirteen votes against seventy-four for Muratov. (A third candidate, the newspaper’s longtime managing director Sergei Kozheurov, got fifty-one.) Azar and Kostyuchenko now share an office.

Novaya Gazeta tolerance for internal dissent meant that even its most famous journalist, Politkovskaya, faced skepticism from his colleagues. “I didn’t like the tone of his writing – it was too personal and a bit hysterical,” Dmitry Bykov told me; they “barely spoke to each other in the last years” of her life. (At the start of the two thousand, Bykov also vehemently disagreed with Muratov – and many Novaya Gazeta from writers – distrust and criticism of Putin, but, he said, “it had no impact on my relationship with Muratov. “)

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