By: Margaret Colbert.
The recent attack on journalist Oleg Kashin was a shocking example of the pressures and threats that journalists have been living with in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but unfortunately not a unique event in the context of recent Russian history. During the period between 1993 and 2009 over 300 journalists were murdered in Russia alone; incidents that have rarely produced prosecutions or convictions by the government. Considering what many critics of the Putin and Medvedev regimes have considered a stance on journalistic freedoms that approached complicity with the attacks on journalists publishing works critical of the government or its partners, President Medvedev’s condemnation of the attack on Kashin was noteworthy, causing some commentators to hope for a change in Russia’s hostile stance towards a free and critical press. Protests in the Moscow streets indicate that a Russian public, long apathetic about concerns relating to the existence of an open press, are now beginning to realize the suppressive environment that these attacks breed, and may be rejecting old attitudes of ambivalence in regards to strong-arm tactics used by the government and its agents to stifle dissent.
It is interesting that often, in states where press freedoms are heavily controlled or suppressed, there will often be little expressed concern on the part of the populace. It is no accident that measures of relative quality of life and measures of international standards of press freedom generally group states in a like manner. That is, if a state scores high on the quality of life index, it is likely to score high on the Press Freedoms Index (compiled by RSF), with the inverse being true as well. While it may not be possible to identify a direct or absolute correlation between an open press and a higher standard of living, in a climate where individuals and groups have a higher relative educational level, as well as a higher level of personal security and wealth, a press that identifies threats to these conditions is more likely to be broadly supported. In states where issues of personal security and income are still major concerns for the general populace, critical dissent can often seem like a secondary concern for those focused on issues of basic survival. A free and open press, in states like Russia, where high levels of corruption and violence have come to be expected from the government, suffers not only from direct government interference and suppression, but also from the general lack of support from a public that feels that democracy and its attendant press freedoms can be legitimately limited in the name of progress or stability.
It is heartening then, that attacks on individuals like Kashin, as well as high profile murders of journalists like Anna Politkovskaya in October of 2006, have seemed to hit a nerve among the Russian public. It is likely that this public disenchantment with the Russian government’s reactions may also have spurred the government to reopen the investigation related to the brutal 2008 attack on Khimkinskaya Pravda’s editor, Mikhail Beketov- though this encouraging development comes on the coattails of Beketov being found guilty of criminal slander against a political figure he criticized on air during a television interview in 2007. While the dichotomy of this response is disappointing, it may be that Russia is, slowly, moving towards a future where journalists and activists may face the clearly conveyed displeasure of the government in its various offices, without the threat to their personal security that has for too long been part and parcel of Moscow’s approach to stifling journalistic enterprise.
Photo: Mikhail Beketov (Agence France-Presse)