“Freedom is better than lack of freedom,” declared President Dmitry Medvedev, President of the Russian Federation, in a speech delivered before the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum in February 2008, a few months before becoming president. “This principle must be the cornerstone of all our policies…. I mean freedom in all its forms—personal freedom, economic freedom and freedom of expression.” The speech was broadcast on state-controlled TV channels.
In the wake of attacks on two Russian journalists in early November 2010, the issue of press freedom has returned to the spotlight. In Russia, widespread impunity among the authorities is nothing new. The high-profile killings of two prominent Kremlin critics, Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, in 2006 and 2007 respectively, gained much international attention. Besides the largely known connections to the Russian leadership, such crimes are reflective of a more systemic phenomenon: the corruption of the Russian criminal justice system. The precarious situation of journalists—and anyone critical of the regime—in Russia today has been confirmed in recent reports by international non-governmental organizations such as Freedom House and Transparency International, and is widely acknowledged around the world. The least one can say is that, with regards to freedom of the press and expression and the separation of powers, Russia is not living up to the expectations President Medvedev expressed a few months before he became the third president of the Russian Federation.
The Russian law on freedom of information
According to Article 29 of the 1993 Russian Constitution, “Everyone has the right to seek, obtain, describe, produce or disseminate information using all legal means at its disposal. Restrictions on freedom of information are determined by the federal law.” As stated by Marina Savintseva, coordinator of the program “Access”—supported by Transparency International-Russia—citizens’ access to information is not guaranteed by any effective mechanism, making it difficult to live up to Constitutional provisions. It is clear that “The Russian law is very chaotic and the lack of a detailed government policy for development of the information sector makes the situation even more difficult.”
The Russian Mass Media Law is highly detailed and inclusive. A long list of information protected by state secrecy or regarded as “confidential” is contained within its many pages. Four major areas are covered: military, economy, science & technology, and foreign policy. The law is particularly restrictive when it comes to the premature dissemination of information that could be perceived as threatening state security or interfering with intelligence gathering, which includes on-going criminal investigations.
In terms of “confidential information”, it was President Yeltsin (1991-1999) who signed the presidential decree approving the list of confidential information, which includes information on legal processes and those covered by official secrecy and trade under the Civil Code, as well as information concerning inventions and know-how (to prevent it from being exported without appropriate safeguards). It also covers medical confidentiality, notaries, postal services, and telephone conversations.
However, in the wake of the “Color Revolutions”, there were several high-profile cases in which the Kremlin clamped down on the media and their access to “confidential information.” For example, Russian citizens should be very careful to talk with a foreign journalist. It could even be considered as treason under legislation passed in December 2008. The new law also criminalizes, with equal severity, the sharing of “sensitive information” with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This 2008 law is reminiscent of a by-gone era within Russia’s history.
Russian legislators state that this law aims to discourage any form of civil opposition, and it serves to silence the independent press and criticism. It can be compared to typical Soviet practice: dissenters are oppressed by blaming them of betrayal of national interests. The Kremlin justified its measures based on the need to support State Security Agencies more effectively in the face of their growing infiltration by foreign NGO agents and other vested interests. The law is the Kremlin’s tool to prevent “subversive” activities as practiced by Western intelligence services in “near abroad” countries, as has been the case in Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Belarus. The Kremlin fully understands the potential threat. It continues to take radical measures to prevent “Color Revolutions” from taking place in its backyard. When Russian leaders have to make a choice between democratization and the defense of the “empire” (or Russia’s “privileged interests”), the choice is very pragmatic. Holding the remnant of “empire” together encroaches on fundamental democratic rights. It can be described as wishful thinking on the part of the international community as to Medvedev’s pledge of support for positive changes in media-related legislation and freedom of information.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is proceeding with administrative reforms to computerize and modernize old state information systems. Supposedly, the purpose is to allow greater transparency and a more empowering civil society. All these benefits are laid out in the “Federal Law on Information, Computerization and Information Protection” of 1995.
However, in spite of the criticism of the perceived benefits there are those, including governmental officials, who question the actual intent. There are questions as to the effectiveness of the legislation in practice. According to the Secretary of the Ministry of Commerce and Economic Development, Andrei Sharonov, “The inefficiency of the state in its management of the reform has resulted in the practical implementation of a policy of sharing and protection of information with no priorities. Consequently, all the reform processes are disjointed with duplication of effort.”
Actual freedom of information in Russia
In early November 2008, two Russian journalists were assaulted while attempting to cover a story on the construction of a highway through the Khimki forest, north of Moscow. One of the journalists, Oleg Kashin, who covered political movements and protest activities for the respected newspaper Kommersant, is now in a drug-induced coma, or “under sedation,” as this is called in the medical field. The other, Anatoly Adamchuk, a reporter for Zhukovskiye Vesti (a local newspaper in the Moscow suburb of Zhukovsky), suffered severe concussion. In terms of this overt intimidation, President Dmitry Medvedev said that “the style of attack is not typical of those who want to steal a wallet. These acts were targeted; those involved should be arrested and punished.”
The most accepted theory about the motive for the attacks centers on the investigation both journalists were carrying out, namely the nature of the highway construction projects in northern Moscow, their environmental impact, and the dubious legality of the tenders for these public contracts.
According to April 2010 data provided by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Russia was the fourth most dangerous country in the world to work in as a journalist. Fifty-two journalists have been murdered since 1992, 19 of those murders have taken place since 2000, and 18 of these remain unsolved to this day. These incidents have put Russia eighth on the CPJ’s Impunity Index, an evaluation which compares the number of murders of journalists in various countries with the number of these murders going without investigation or prosecution. With regard to freedom of information, Russia has been ranked by international organizations as being on a par with countries such as Myanmar, Cuba, and North Korea.
Such an assessment is also confirmed by Freedom House, which ranked Russia as “not free” in its Freedom in the World 2010 survey. The organization’s freedom index uses a scale from one (“free country”) to seven (“non-free country”), and Russia scored a dismal six for political rights and five for civil liberties. Russia has not fared better as regards to press freedom, being classified as “non-free,” having obtained a score of eighty-one on a scale from zero (free country) to one hundred (not free). This assessment takes into account the political, economic, and legal environment in which the press does its job.
In terms of recent attacks on Russian journalists, Freedom House executive director, David J. Kramer, said in November 2010 that “This ongoing pattern of violence against journalists in Russia is perpetuated, if not outright encouraged by the utter lack of accountability in bringing the perpetrators to justice,” said David J. Kramer, executive director of Freedom House. “President Medvedev’s welcome condemnation of this weekend’s attack on Kashin will ring hollow, however, without serious follow through in the justice sector. Absent accountability and rule of law, the current environment is unlikely to change and Russia will continue to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.”
Since 1999, that is, under Putin’s and Medvedev’s administrations, 24 journalists have been killed in Russia (three in 2009 only), most of whom dealt with controversial issues, such as organized crime or corruption in the state apparatus. Despite the opening of prosecution proceedings, investigations have rarely resulted in the identification of those responsible, as in the case of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, the political opponent Alexander Litvinenko in 2007, and the human rights activist in Chechnya Natalya Estemyrova in 2009.
According to surveys conducted by non-governmental organizations, the fragility of press freedom is compounded by astronomical levels of corruption in the judicial system and the Russian government as a whole, which makes the criminal prosecution of journalists’ attackers and murderers more difficult. For Transparency International, Russia is country handicapped by a continued trend of endemic corruption in the government, police and judiciary administrations. The corruption perception index (CPI) is a score that fixes the perception of a country’s corruption in the public sector and politics, based on interviews and research carried out by business persons and institutions operating in different countries. It is mainly a poll of polls. Each state is ranked according to an index ranging from zero (highest perceived corruption) to ten (lack of perceived corruption). In 2010, Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore obtained the best scope, 9.3, followed by Finland and Sweden with 9.2. Somalia came at the bottom of the list (1.1), after Myanmar and Afghanistan (1.4) Russia made it only to the 154th position on the 178-country survey, with an integrity score of 2.1., on a par with countries such as Cambodia, the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Laos, Papua New Guinea and Tajikistan. Russia’s worsening of the corruption perception situation is confirmed by the fact that for the previous year it took the 146th position, with an index of 2.2.
The 2009 Freedom House report remains very critical of the Kremlin’s entire policy on media freedoms, summing up the country’s media predicament with these words: “Although the constitution provides for freedom of speech, the authorities continue to put pressure on the dwindling number of media outlets that are still critical of the Kremlin. Since 2003, the government has controlled, directly or through state-owned companies, all of the national television networks.”
Over the two terms of Putin’s presidency (2000-2008), the Kremlin undertook efforts to increase government control over the media. The first battles were waged against NTV television channel and later against TV-6 and TVS, which are now both directly under the control of Russia’s state-owned gas company Gazprom. These TV channels devoted 75% of their broadcasting time to the United Russia Party (Edinstvo) during the 2008 presidential election campaign, while Russian authorities concurrently blocked the BBC Russian Service (part of BBC World Service) access to the airwaves.
The worsening atmosphere prevailing outside the state-controlled media is exemplified by the increasing number of private security guards contracted to protect Novaya Gazeta journalists (Anna Politkovskaya was murdered while working for that newspaper) against possible violence organized either by state authorities or private business interests.
Russia’s media freedom situation is not what the Constitution implies it should be. The constitutional provisions, while at first sight promoting media freedom, actually give the state great leeway to restrict it. This, combined with extrajudicial action on the part of the Russian authorities, made possible by endemic corruption in the judiciary and government itself, ensures that Russia has one of the least free media in the world, a situation which is ever worsening.