By Maria Lipman
Journalists and others who speak out against government abuses are on their own. If they are attacked or encounter legal trouble, they can hardly count on public support.
Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
Freedom of the press as an element of democratic policy is inseparable from political freedom and the mindset of the public. Media alone cannot make a difference if political authority is monopolized by leadership and the public remains fragmented and apathetic.
Not all Russian media are controlled by the state. While mass-audience outlets—first and foremost state TV channels—have been turned into propaganda tools, a number of smaller-audience outlets—print, Web, radio, even minor television media—pursue relatively independent editorial lines. Some of them do their best to expose abuse of authority by government officials; others focus more on critical analysis and angry opinion.
The Kremlin does not seek to stifle every voice, and it does not need to: In a tightly controlled political environment, independent media have no influence on policy-making and thus present no challenge to the government. Russian political opposition has been radically marginalized, and democratic checks and balances have been reduced to a façade. As long as there is no political freedom, the media function is reduced to the mere reporting of news, and the mission of public accountability cannot be accomplished.
The controlled political environment and the encroachment of the state on the public sphere—media included—are in themselves a problem. The atomization and passivity of Russian society make matters worse. The experiences of countries such as Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic or Ukraine under Leonid Kuchma demonstrate that when people are driven and organized, opposition forces can make a difference, constraints on the media notwithstanding. But in Russia, even the advanced and critically minded audiences of alternative news outlets do not take action and do not seem to mind that the government keeps them from participating in national affairs.
There is virtually no experience with and no desire for social organization, and thus no public solidarity. The state traditionally dominates society, and the people do not regard themselves as a force that might try to hold the government to account. The result is ubiquitous abuse of authority, pervasive corruption, and contempt for the law.
The journalists, lawyers, or public activists who stand up to violations of justice and human rights or the abuse of office by government officials are on their own. Their effort is hardly appreciated by their fellow countrymen. If they get in trouble with government authorities, they can hardly count on public support or legal protection.
Russia has an abominable record of physical assaults and assassinations of journalists. And almost invariably, the assassins and the contractors of these murders are not caught or prosecuted. There’s no doubt that journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya or Yuri Shchekochikhin, to mention just two cases out of too many, were slain because their disclosures got in the way of those with authority and wealth. In the past year alone, an alarming number of new names have been added to the sinister record of murdered or badly injured journalists, human rights advocates, and lawyers: Stanislav Markelov, Anastasiya Baburova, Mikhail Beketov, Vadim Rogozhin.
While there’s no evidence that in any of the contract killings the assassins acted on orders from the Kremlin, the Russian government, which repeatedly manipulated court rulings in pursuit of political interests, bears responsibility for the lawless environment in which the perpetrators of these crimes act with impunity. Once justice has been corrupted by the executive branch, criminals and their sponsors can also buy protection from prosecution. Public indifference is part of the problem. A law-governed state will not take root in Russia until and unless there’s an organized public demand for rule of law and accountability.
Maria Lipman, a Moscow-based journalist, has written extensively on Russian public affairs. She is editor-in-chief of Pro et Contra magazine, published by the Carnegie Moscow Center.
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