Out of the Past
Forget glasnost and perestroika. Russia's harsh crackdown on the media is an unhappy echo of the Iron Curtain era.
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (email@example.com) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
POLICE AND SHARPSHOOTERS crouched on rooftops, their high-powered rifles aimed at a building that harbored "enemies of the state." Inside, a group of journalists huddled behind locked doors, mustering courage for a final stand to save the lone independent radio station in a remote, oil-rich region of Russia.
Earlier that week, Radio Titan's water supply, phones, electricity and transmitter had been switched off at the command of its tormentors. When orders to vacate the premises were issued, Altaf Galeyev, the station's founder, owner and president, and five veteran staffers refused to abandon their posts.
Instead, they turned to cellular telephones and loudspeakers mounted on top of their rented offices to continue reporting on "the government's heinous activities." For nine days they ate and slept in the newsroom, issuing appeals for listeners to help rescue the station.
At one point, 100 supporters responded to Radio Titan's SOS, keeping 'round-the-clock vigils and forming a human chain around a broadcast outlet that brought the Voice of America and Radio Liberty into their homes in the mountainous Russian heartland.
In the eerie still of his office, Galeyev fingered a handgun that he kept locked in a safe, protection against death threats that had become as routine as delivering news reports of government corruption.
At dusk, a cadre of 50 local police, militia and agents of the FSB (formerly known as the KGB) stormed the station, clubbing and arresting protesters, and herding Galeyev and his staff to jail. The silencing of Radio Titan signaled a death knell for independent media in Bashkortostan, a province where brutish oil barons rule with an iron hand. The attack occurred on May 27, 1998.
To Kremlin watchers, there was a larger and more foreboding message. Despite democratic reforms being the official dictum since the demise of the Soviet empire, independent journalism has remained high on the hit list, with media institutions being battered on three fronts. Regardless of where the attacks originate, this muzzling of dissenting voices has led to grim forecasts.
Some Russia experts predict that freedom of information could face extinction under President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official who is said to prize loyalty above all else. They point to an escalation in the use of "legal" weapons, such as tax police, to silence a dissident press; to changes in media doctrines that give the Kremlin stricter control; and to a sinister tolerance for the maiming or killing of media professionals. However, not all intimidation emanates from Putin's quarters.
In Russia, an investigative series on money laundering might draw fire from federal or local political powerbrokers, from Russian Mafia crime lords or members of the ruling elite, called oligarchs, who control vast fortunes built on "bandit capitalism." Outspoken entities like Radio Titan are forced to skirt the lethal triangle if they have any chance of surviving. Over the past three years, the situation has worsened.
"No matter how terrible it was for us [in May 1998], it is much worse for the media in Russia today," says Titan's founder, Galeyev, 46, who lives in self-imposed exile in Georgia in the United States. "There are too many powerful enemies."
Emma Gray investigates attacks on press freedom in Europe and Central Asia for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. She agrees that conditions are deteriorating. Members of the independent press "are being harassed and persecuted far more than any time since the Soviet era. There's a whole barrage of weaponry being used to silence critical voices," says Gray, who has worked in Moscow for Christian Science Monitor TV and Britain's ITN. Media haters, she says, are bringing the hammer down in more ominous ways.
DURING THE COMMUNIST ERA, it was no secret that the KGB bugged phones, tailed reporters and imprisoned some they deemed "a danger to the state." Today, news accounts describe how units of commandos in black ski masks and camouflage burst into newsrooms, brandishing automatic weapons. The "tax police" have the power to confiscate equipment, rifle through documents and make arrests. Tax-enforcement invasions and heavy-handed audits have become common punishment for media that criticize government policy.
Computer espionage is the tool du jour as professional hackers break into newsroom systems to spy on story content, delete "offensive" sections of the newspaper or transmit viruses designed to wipe out hard drives. Reminiscent of George Orwell's Big Brother, the state has created seven law-enforcement bodies to monitor e-mail and Internet use. Service providers are required to link their computers to the FSB, providing 'round-the-clock surveillance potential.
Selective criminal prosecution and libel suits, aimed at draining media coffers through heavy fines and exorbitant lawyers' fees, are used regularly to silence critics. "Troublesome" publications might draw bogus inspections by fire or sanitary departments as an excuse to shut them down.
In the most hideous form, attacks against journalists are carried out by hit men, who maim or assassinate those who expose "corporate banditry" or penetrate the fiefdoms of crime lords and autocrats. Some of the worst horrors have been recorded in the hinterlands, in places like Vladivostok, Smolensk and Ufa, the home of Radio Titan.
There is another disturbing sign. Human-rights activists warn that "spy-mania" once again may be taking hold in Russia. In a story for London's Guardian in February, correspondent Ian Traynor described a "series of alarming signals suggesting that the secret police are clawing back power and influence after a decade of disgrace and demoralization." The hunt is on, wrote Traynor, for enemies of the state. Recent developments bear him out.
In July, a Moscow newspaper reported that Putin's Security Council was considering "planting loyal people" in top administrative positions at influential publications. A 46-page "information security doctrine," adopted in June, has been widely interpreted as a tool for a Kremlin crackdown. In 1999, Mikhail Lesin, director of a newly created Ministry for the Press, Radio and Television Broadcasting, announced to reporters, "We [federal officials] have to protect the state from the media." Lesin has continued to demonize the press and was declared "enemy No. 1" in a survey of Russian journalists last year.
In January, Putin signed a new law transferring control of government subsidies for regional newspapers from local politicians to the press ministry in Moscow. A CPJ report noted that the law affects 2000 subsidized newspapers across Russia and will facilitate further central government control. This is particularly true in the provinces, where papers and broadcast stations are often dependent on local administrators for everything from floor space to computers, according to CPJ.
These telltale signs have led some to predict a return to the tyranny of a police state. Robert Coalson, a program director of Russia's National Press Institute, told Radio Free Europe that he sees the silencing of critical voices as a push to "bring the whole country‹including the media‹under greater central control." What he is witnessing, Coalson says, "seemed very much a return to a Soviet model."
In stronger language, Yelena Bonner, widow of Nobel Prize-winning dissident Andrei Sakharov, warned that "under Putin, we see a new stage in the introduction of modernized Stalinism." She cited control of the press by the state and by corrupt powerbrokers as evidence in an open letter to the media a year ago.
At a March conference in St. Petersburg sponsored by the Freedom Forum, speakers noted that Russian authorities have begun to equate independent journalism with espionage. Andrei Richter, director of the Moscow Media Law and Policy Center, described an "enemy within" atmosphere taking hold in Russia.
CPJ's Gray describes the escalation in violence she has seen against journalists as "absolutely frightening. It is an extremely serious situation," she says, reeling off examples from Moscow to the Caspian Sea.
A few of these incidents, especially those directly involving Putin, have grabbed international headlines. But most of the heroic journalism is being carried out in relative obscurity in poorly equipped newsrooms with little or no safety net.
MOST VISIBLE ARE NTV, until recently Russia's only independent national television network, and its flamboyant founder, Moscow tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. Gusinsky has been charged with fraud, including failure to make good on millions of dollars of loans from Gazprom, a state-owned gas company. For months, critics have warned that if NTV, labeled the "crown jewel" of Gusinsky's vast Media-Most empire, is taken over by Gazprom, it would give the politicos in the Kremlin de facto control over editorial content and strike a lethal blow to press freedom.
In April, front-page headlines told the grim story: Kremlin moves in on independent TV. Gazprom officials took over the network, installing their own management team despite protests from the station's leading journalists and some 20,000 supporters who had gathered in Moscow earlier in the week. The takeover came after a year of financial and legal struggle over the ownership of the Western-style NTV founded by Gusinsky seven years ago.
At times, the government's harassment was staggering. Tax police conducted 28 raids on NTV last year, some of them carried out by black-masked commandos brandishing automatic weapons. During that same period, the network was receiving praise in the West. A story by Agence France Presse called the network "one of the most independent and authoritative news sources in Russia."
"Its reports have focused on corruption in Russia's security services, have been more critical in its reports of the 10-month campaign in Chechnya, and are believed to have irritated President Vladimir Putin through NTV's satirical programs," AFP reporter Francoise Dehove wrote last July.
After the takeover, the international media spotlight continued to follow the plight of NTV's journalists.
Across town in Moscow, another media power struggle is playing out.
Less heralded than their NTV comrades is a cadre of chain-smoking reporters in rumpled suits who pound out exposés in the cramped offices of Novaya Gazeta, a biweekly, Moscow-based newspaper with shallow coffers and a recently bloodied past. Last summer, a giant portrait of a fallen colleague, ringed in black and decorated with red carnations, hung outside the newsroom, underscoring the danger.
In what some argue may have been a case of mistaken identity, special-projects editor Igor Domnikov, 42, died on July 16, weeks after being beaten by a hammer-wielding assailant. The paper's editors speculate that the killer really was after reporter Oleg Sultanov, who had received numerous death threats for his crusading stories. The two lived in the same apartment building and bore a resemblance to each other.
Since then, Sultanov has filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General's office charging LUKOIL, Russia's largest oil company and the target of his hard-hitting investigations, with making threats against him. Sultanov believes his phone is tapped and that he is under constant surveillance.
A few months after Domnikov's death, another investigative reporter, Oleg Lurye, 37, was jumped by four men as he returned home in the middle of the night. He was beaten and his face slashed with a razor. Earlier that day, Lurye had appeared on NTV to discuss his investigations of high-ranking Kremlin officials.
"The whole system is corrupt; everything can be bought and sold. We have no clean bureaucrats. That means every journalist who is writing the truth about Russia is at risk, and the corruption we had under [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin has simply continued under Putin," Lurye told AJR through a translator.
Novaya Gazeta stands as a beacon in a country where it is estimated that 80 percent of the newspapers are under state control, with many of the remaining 20 percent devoted to specialties, such as sports. About 90 percent of all TV and radio transmitters are under the thumb of the government, as are most printing houses.
There is reason for guarded optimism. Novaya Gazeta's circulation has risen to around 1.6 million nationwide. A staff of 100 covers Moscow; another 100 journalists work in outlying regions. The feisty publication, printed in 15 locations throughout the federation, has drawn the attention of the Freedom Forum, CPJ and other high-profile media advocates.
There also are harsh realities. Since the paper, which is largely employee owned, opened in 1993, libel suits and other charges have resulted in 40 trials and exorbitant legal fees. There have been seven major tax inspections in 24 months. Once, hackers broke into the computer system and destroyed an edition detailing the sources of Putin's and Yeltsin's campaign financing. At times, advertisers have been intimidated into withdrawing support.
Last year, editors received a written warning from the Ministry of Press and Information after publishing an interview with Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov. In Russia, two such hand-slappings and a newspaper can be shut down. Editor in Chief Dmitry Muravov says the attacks do not surprise him, given the provocative topics his reporters cover.
In a profile of Novaya Gazeta earlier this year, Kathy Lally of the Baltimore Sun told how reporter Anna Politkovskaya was documenting the mistreatment and misery of Chechen refugees when other reporters considered it too dangerous; how Vyacheslav Izmailov had managed to free numerous hostages from Chechnya through his coverage; how the paper was first to report that the Yeltsin administration had given the Russian Orthodox Church the right to sell alcohol and tobacco without paying taxes.
Why do journalists continue under such dire circumstances? "Why do people continue to breathe?" Muravov responds. "That is the reason that we continue this work. This is our profession; this is what we must do."
The danger may be greater in the provinces and ethnic regions, where persecution of critical voices tends to draw little attention from public, police or international media. There were few accounts, for instance, of the gangland-style murder of Sergei Novikov, 36, the director of the only independent radio station in Smolensk. Novikov had been digging into alleged corruption of state officials and had aired some of his findings on NTV just before a gunman pumped four bullets into his body on July 26.
A day later, in Vladivostok, Irina Grebneva, editor of the weekly Arsenyevskiye Vesti, was arrested and held for five days in one of the region's seediest prisons. Denied visits from her lawyer, the veteran reporter refused to eat or drink until she was released. Her colleagues believed the arrest was retaliation for publishing telephone transcripts that linked top officials in Russia's Far East to vote rigging. Over the past eight years, Arsenyevskiye Vesti has been sued about 30 times and repeatedly denied access to state printing services.
There was little notice, too, when Iskandr Khatloni, a journalist who worked for the Tajik service of Radio Liberty, was killed by blows from an ax in Moscow last September. Radio Liberty noted that Khatloni had been transmitting stories about the Russian military's human-rights abuses in Chechnya when he was murdered.
It is not surprising that these attacks would spark more outrage from international media watchdogs than from Russia's state-subsidized press. Editors at these hometown newspapers and broadcast outlets could argue, with some validity, that Russian audiences have little interest in the plight of dissenting journalists, making coverage a low priority. Until recently.
In early April, a crowd of protesters, estimated at about 20,000 by police, demonstrated in Pushkin Square to support freedom of the press and NTV. News reports call it the "largest public display of support for democratic liberties [in Russia] in the post-Communist era." Before the Moscow rally, little had been heard from a public accustomed to having their freedom trampled on.
SOME RESEARCHERS TURN TO the history of the former U.S.S.R. for insight into why there has been so little public outcry over the bullying of independent media, especially in the afterglow of glasnost and perestroika. Yuri Vdovin, vice president of Citizen Watch, a human-rights organization in St. Petersburg, points out that there has been no tradition of a free press in Russia.
Rather, "Citizens, the politicians and some journalists themselves still regard and accept reporting as a propaganda tool for the state. It is a mysterious phenomenon, but the majority of people do seem to respect the present authorities," says Vdovin, who has chaired commissions on media freedom. "They do not understand the role of free expression here."
That, he believes, could explain why average citizens tend to be suspicious, hostile or indifferent to the plight of a fledgling Fourth Estate.
A report by the Moscow-based Glasnost Defense Foundation speculates that since the democracy movement was born in the process of perestroika and based on models borrowed from the West after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia's freedoms have never been recognized by the public as necessary conditions for pro-democracy reform.
Russia was defined in the report as a country where the historical and political environment never has been conducive to the development of an unfettered information system.
In a piece titled "Managing the Messenger," Robert Coalson explored another explanation for public apathy. Putin's drive to centralize control of political life and the media has met with little opposition because the Russian people "are largely fed up with the irresponsibility and corruption that permeated Yeltsin-era Russia. Neither oligarchs nor local autocrats are very popular, so there is little public resistance to having Putin take them down a notch."
Coalson cited surveys that show Russians trusting state-controlled newspapers more than private. A national poll taken right after the Kursk disaster found that 38 percent of Russians believe "increased state control of media would be good for Russia." Another 25 percent said such control would not matter either way.
During interviews in Russia last September, local journalists often pointed to two high-profile news events--the sinking in August of the nuclear submarine Kursk with the loss of all 118 men on board (see "Smoke Screen") and the information blockade of the bloody Chechen conflict--as symbols of the government's ongoing closed-door secrecy and public tolerance of it.
The disinformation and stall-tactics surrounding the Kursk drew ire from relatives who demanded to know the fate of those trapped on board, and there was some public outrage over the government's mishandling of the situation. But the majority of Russians, contends Vdovin, merely threw up their hands and said, "We are being lied to. So what?" To them, he adds, it was not that unusual, and they saw little they could do about it.
ANNA SHAROGRADSKAYA OF RUSSIA'S National Press Institute praises native journalists for their frontline coverage of the first Chechen war from 1994 to '96. The press has been widely credited with turning public opinion against the conflict through gripping accounts of the destruction, death and human misery. ###
Today, that kind of eyewitness reporting would be impossible. "They [journalists] would be killed, arrested or just disappear, usually not at the hands of the Chechens, but of the Russian military," contends Sharogradskaya. When the second round of fighting ignited in the fall of 1999, the government labeled it an "anti-terrorist action" and provided limited access almost exclusively to state-controlled media. All independent travel in Chechnya was banned.
"Now the information we get [about Chechnya] is filtered and untrustworthy. Journalists are being manipulated," says Sharogradskaya. The strict control has had one obvious effect--opinion polls show solid support for the second conflict.
Without official credentials or military help, many independent voices have been scared off, especially after 21 media professionals were held for ransom by Chechens in 1997. For Kremlin propagandists, it was fodder for exploiting fears and keeping journalists from recording what some human-rights workers have labeled the Russian military's "reign of terror."
Andrei Babitsky was among those who would not be intimidated. The correspondent for Radio Liberty, which is funded by the U.S. government, slipped behind front lines for highly detailed accounts of the carnage. He also filed reports on military setbacks for Russian troops. In January 2000, as he left the Chechen capital of Grozny, he was arrested, beaten and held in prison for six weeks incommunicado, fueling rumors that he had been murdered.
Putin branded the correspondent "unpatriotic" for reporting from the rebel side and told reporters, "What Babitsky did is much more dangerous than shooting a gun." The high pitch of international protest has been credited with speeding his release. Chechnya still remains forbidden territory.
Radio Liberty was a key factor for another Russian journalist who risked his life for press freedom.
Decades earlier, with the Iron Curtain locked in place, an 11-year-old boy was stirred by broadcasts from Voice of America, the BBC and Radio Liberty delivered by Cold War "enemies" to his home in the southern Ural mountains. The democratic values he embraced secretly as a child would lead Altaf Galeyev to face off with gun-toting thugs in Bashkortostan, a region of Russia rated by the Glasnost Defense Foundation as one of the harshest climates for independent media.
"My love for freedom was formed by the programs of these Western radio stations," Galeyev said in a recent interview. That passion led him in 1991 to start Radio Titan, a station that for seven years was under fire from local strongmen who controlled a fiefdom in the oil-rich region.
Mouthpieces for the state labeled Radio Titan's staff "psychologically unfit" and accused them of crimes, like drug trafficking and "organizing mass disorder." Once, a fake video was aired on state TV of police finding packets of white powder in the station's offices. When Titan broadcast public opinion about the Chechen war in 1994, its transmitter, located in a state radio center, was switched off for three-and-a-half months. Another time, phones went dead because, according to authorities, underground cables had been "accidentally" cut.
After the May 1998 assault, Galeyev, who had been accused of being a CIA collaborator, spent 11 months in prison, sharing cellblocks with murderers and facing threats of commitment to an asylum. Once, he said, guards raped an inmate in front of him, promising that if he did not renounce his beliefs, he would suffer the same.
Galeyev credits outcries from the Glasnost Defense Foundation, CPJ and other high-profile media advocates with securing his release while he was awaiting trial. Without the international spotlight, "I would have died in prison," he says. After being freed, he planned a daring escape from Russia to avoid facing a court system he didn't trust.
Problems for him and his loved ones continue. After the VOA broadcast an interview with him in the U.S., security agents in Ufa pounded on his mother's apartment door at 2 a.m. and demanded to search the premises. The next day they ransacked the apartment of his 18-year-old son, who reports to his father that he is regularly harassed by the police. "By terrorizing them, it's a sign for me to stop speaking out," Galeyev says.
He agonizes over how to get his son to this country and worries that he will never again work as a journalist. Given the chance, would he reopen Radio Titan?
"Yes, and once more yes," he gushes in halting English. "All my life I have been against a system that suppresses and humiliates people. Radio Titan did all it could to promote democratic values in that region."
Then Galeyev pauses. There is a deep sigh and a recognition of the jolting reality. His name remains on a wanted list. He is a fugitive in his homeland with little hope of return.