November Featured Cases: Sprawling Censorship in Russia
To mark the UN’s International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, PEN America’s Eurasia Programs Coordinator Polina Kovaleva provides an update on free expression challenges in her native Russia.
October 7 marked 10 years since Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was shot dead at her apartment building in central Moscow. In 2009, her friend and human rights campaigner Natalia Estemirova was abducted and killed in the Chechen capital of Grozny. “Together, they were a super team who investigated the most heart-wrenching and dangerous cases in war-torn Chechnya,” her daughter, Lana Estemirova, wrote in The Guardian recently.
The murders of Politkovskaya and Estemirova stand as examples of pervasive impunity in cases of attacks on journalists and writers in Russia and worldwide. After a decade, it is still unclear who ordered Politkovskaya’s murder despite the sentencing of five men to prison. It has been seven years since the investigation into Estemirova’s killing began, and it is still ongoing without a conclusive result.
Impunity for crimes against journalists is only one manifestation of endangered freedom of expression in Russia. Government restrictions on various forms of expression continue to expand and now, in addition to mass media, also encroach upon scholarship, art, and theater, as detailed in the PEN America report Discourse in Danger: Attacks on Free Expression in Putin’s Russia. There is significant reason for concern about the use of prevalent pro-government media channels to discourage criticism of the government and demands for accountability – and to turn citizens against each other. Today, we see many examples of how the Putin regime has created an unhealthy civic environment. In 2015, young journalist from Novaya Gazeta Elena Kostyuchenko recounted how her mother thought she was a traitor because she criticized Russia in her reporting. Just this year, renowned writer Ludmilla Ulitskaya was attacked by hooligans spraying her with a green antiseptic and hurling eggs while disrupting a high-school essay awards ceremony. And in May, casual social media user Andrei Bubeev was arrested for a just a repost on VKontakte, Russia’s equivalent to Facebook.
Even those not directly reporting on mass media can be threatened and even attacked. Grigory Pasko, Director of the Community of Investigative Journalists—an organization that teaches investigative techniques to reporters and bloggers across Russia—was recently assaulted in Barnaul, the capital of Russia’s southern Siberian republic of Altai, where he came to deliver a course. Prior to the incident, local media had actively reposted an article threatening Pasko from the Barnaul edition of the nationalist website Monavista.
“All we have left is the internet, where information is still freely available,” Anna Politkovskaya once said. But recent cases against bloggers indicate a narrowing of the online space that had once offered some room for open debate. There is even greater concern after Parliament’s June adoption of the so-called Yarovaya Law, presented as counter-terrorism legislation but which human rights activists see as further threatening free expression in Russia. The popular blogger Alexey Kungurov from the Siberian city of Tyumen was jailed in June pending trial for a blogpost about Russian operations in Syria. Authorities claimed the post contained “public justification of terrorism.”
Likewise, well-known blogger and internet pioneer in Russia Anton Nosik was charged under extremism laws after publishing a controversial blogpost expressing support for Russian bombing of Syria, which he compared to Nazi Germany. On October 3, Nosik avoided prison but was fined 500,000 rubles ($8,000 USD) for inciting enmity. In his speech in the Moscow court, he said, “While Russian troops are actively involved in the military operation in Aleppo, in the capital of Russia I am on trial for supporting the actions of these same troops.”
As penalties increase, public discourse against free speech becomes more aggressive, and intolerance is normalized, the level of injustice acceptable by public has shifted. Harsh sentences, like two years imprisonment for a single repost, are now seen as slaps on the wrist in light of larger encroachments on free speech.
For writers and journalists here comes self-censorship, which further limits people’s access to independent information sources already much constrained by official action.
Take action to call for justice for Anna Politkovskaya and others in Russia at risk for their expressions of free speech. Sign the petition here to demand change from President Putin!