On October 15, 2006, the journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in the lift of her central Moscow home. She was 48 years old. The perpetrators of her murder have still not been found. Exactly 15 years later, the editor of the newspaper where Anna worked, Dmitry Muratov, together with the Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, received the Nobel Peace Prize. According to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, this prize was awarded to the two journalists for their “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, a prerequisite for democracy and lasting peace.”
It is important to explain why the prize was awarded to a journalist relatively unknown outside Russia, and not to an active politician. Muratov is the third person in Russia to receive the Nobel Prize, after the two well-known figures, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov (1975) and Mikhail Gorbachev (1990), but the first in the newly constituted Russian Federation.
He is now placed alongside two people who made a decisive contribution to the fall of communism in the USSR, and in Eastern Europe in general. The chaos of the 1990s, which was no less deadly for independent journalism than the dictatorship itself, was followed by Putin’s “stability,” which, while it may have brought economic improvement for the majority of citizens, has not solved the problems for people who consider freedom of expression an indispensable right.
In the editorial office of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta there is a wall covered with photos of colleagues killed while working as journalists. One of these journalists was Anna Politkovskaya, who paid the highest price for seeking freedom of information, and is a symbol in Russia of this freedom. Muratov dedicated the prize to these journalists: “It’s not mine. I’m not the right beneficiary, there are real ones. It’s just that the Nobel Peace Prize isn’t awarded posthumously, it’s awarded to living people. Obviously, they decided to award it to someone living, having in mind Yury Shchekochikhin, Igor Domnikov, Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasia Baburova, Stanislav Markelov, and Natalya Estemirova.”
The Nobel Prize Foundation statement reads: “Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov has for decades defended freedom of speech in Russia under increasingly challenging conditions. In 1993, he was one of the founders of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Since 1995 he has been the newspaper’s editor-in-chief for a total of 24 years. Novaya Gazeta is the most independent newspaper in Russia today, with a fundamentally critical attitude toward those in power. The newspaper’s fact-based journalism and professional integrity have made it an important source of information on aspects of Russian society deserving censure, but rarely mentioned by other media.
Since its start-up in 1993, Novaya Gazeta has published critical articles on subjects ranging from corruption, police violence, unlawful arrests, electoral fraud and ‘troll factories,’ to the use of Russian military forces both within and outside Russia. Novaya Gazeta’s opponents have responded with harassment, threats, violence and murder. Since the newspaper’s inception, six of its journalists have been killed, including Anna Politkovskaya who wrote revealing articles on the war in Chechnya. Despite the killings and threats, editor-in-chief Muratov has refused to abandon the newspaper’s independent policy. He has consistently defended the right of journalists to write anything they want about whatever they want, as long as they comply with the professional and ethical standards of journalism.”
Who is Dmitry Muratov?
Muratov’s journalistic work combines three eras: the last days of the USSR, the post-Soviet period and the Putin era.
Born in 1961 in the city of Kuybischev (now Samara), Dmitry studied philology at the local university. He began working as a journalist in 1985, the year Gorbachev declared perestroika. In 1992, disagreeing with the new editorial line of Komsomolskaya Pravda, where he was working at the time, he left the newspaper and founded the journalistic association, “The Sixth Floor” (Шестой этаж). A year later, this association gave birth to Novaya Gazeta (Новая ежедневная газета). In 1994-95 Dmitry worked as a special correspondent in Chechnya. In 1995 he became editor of Novaya Gazeta.
According to the former Moscow correspondent of Deutschlandfunk, Sabine Adler, Muratov is the bravest newspaper editor there has ever been in Russia. No one except Novaya Gazeta dares to publish analyses of the situation in Chechnya, where, as she says, terror and lawlessness still prevail today. The publication of material on the actions of the paramilitary Wagner Group in Syria was also very brave, as well as dangerous; Muratov experienced this personally as evidenced by the threat indicated by the severed head of a sheep he found on the doorstep of his Moscow apartment.
Ina Ruck, who has been an editor and journalist for the morning TV show Ard in Moscow since 2018, believes that Novaya Gazeta has paid a high price for its stances. In the years of Putin’s rule, 37 journalists have been killed in Russia, and in such a situation one must have a lot of courage and determination to defend one’s positions. Muratov has such qualities.
Although six of his collaborators were killed during the years he was editor, and despite the threats he has received, Muratov has remained at his post all this time. That Novaya Gazeta has become – and continues to be – one of the few media outlets in Russia that can truly be called “free” is due to him, and of course also to his colleagues.
The media landscape in Russia
To better understand the importance of Muratov’s work, one must look at the conditions under which independent media operate in Russia today. In addition to threats to journalists on a personal level, the so-called “foreign agent law” is the biggest obstacle to the function of the media. This law was passed in 2012 and sanctions “politically active” non-governmental organizations that receive financial support from abroad. As of November 2017, the media can also be declared “foreign agents.”
One could write a novel about the repeated changes made to the law, and its provisional conclusion would be the amendment passed in December 2020, which allows social movements and individuals carrying out “political activities” in the interest of a “foreign source” to be declared “agents.” They are obliged to include the annotation “foreign agent” in their publications. The media must also indicate this when quoting such persons or organizations. The laws are worded vaguely, and the label “agent,” which dates back to Stalin’s time, is often applied arbitrarily. Organizations so defined must also comply with very stringent regulations that make their work considerably more difficult.
How does this law work in practice? The experience of the “Foreign Agents Act” shows first of all that its implementation is not uniform and takes place selectively. On the one hand, this may be due to the different advocacy strategies of the NGOs concerned; on the other hand, it is also due to the deliberately vague wording of the law itself: the central concept of “politically active” is not comprehensively defined. Ambivalent laws effectively grant state bodies a high degree of discretion and open the door to selective law enforcement. Justice is increasingly becoming dependent on political influence. The very fact that there are unusually slow rulings in the courts on cases dealing with the law on agents has often been interpreted to mean that one should first expect an instruction “from above.”
Inspections of NGOs, wide-ranging and unannounced, began in 2013, some of which resulted in sanctions based on the law. The campaign against NGOs in the spring of 2014 received further impetus following an amendment to the law, authorizing the Ministry of Justice to include NGOs in the register of foreign agents on its own initiative. In August 2015, 85 were registered. Since many organizations have subsequently ceased to operate, the register now contains only 75 organizations.
As of November 2017, the media can also be defined as “foreign agents.” Again, the law is worded so vaguely that simply attending a journalists’ conference in a foreign country is enough to declare the entire news outlet an “agent.” Overall, these laws should serve to make it more difficult for politically active organizations to work, but they also function as a deterrent that nips “unwanted” political activity in the bud.
Not everyone in the opposition is happy with the Nobel Prize…
Unfortunately, not only state pressure, but also mutual accusations and personal quarrels in the liberal opposition hamper the situation of those who want to defend political freedoms and human rights, and very often make them politically insignificant, This was demonstrated by the last Duma elections: the only party in the liberal tradition, Yabloko, failed to pass the 5 percent threshold, having received only 1.34 percent of the votes.
One might have imagined that an accolade such as the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Russian opposition journalist would elicit a generally positive reaction in the country, especially among Muratov’s fellow fighters. But the satisfaction is not general. The liberal opposition in Russia is endemically fragmented, even over opposition to the government. Muratov himself is willing to work with Putin on common interests, for example, in the state-backed Krug Dobra (“Circle of Kindness”), a foundation that helps sick children. That is why the more radical opponents do not consider him one of them.
While some government officials and the official media have expressed their satisfaction with the decision, some opponents of the government have wondered why a newspaper like Novaya Gazeta, which is considered a bastion of press freedom, has not yet been declared a “foreign agent” like almost all more or less independent mass media, and whether it is therefore being rewarded for its “loyal opposition” to the regime. This is difficult to explain, considering that the relations between power and the mass media in Russia are described with expressions such as “general repression.” However, although the government does not tolerate truly independent media and journalists, it seems that it does not act so exclusively and makes some exceptions.
Of course, it can also be assumed that there is a “privileged opposition” in Russia, protected by the government, which uses it as a showcase for freedom. The Kremlin’s reaction to the decision to award the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to Muratov seems to confirm this. The official Ria Novosti news agency reported that the Kremlin congratulated Muratov on the award. Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Putin, said that Muratov is a courageous journalist devoted to his ideals and always works in accordance with those ideals. But some consider these congratulations cynical, since the government itself does not respect freedom of the press and the “ideals” Peskov praises.
Andrey Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, who has known Muratov for a long time, explains that Novaya Gazeta and the radio station Echo Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) with its director Aleksej Venediktov, one of the best known and fiercest critics of the government, can not only continue to exist, but also work relatively freely, because both Muratov and Venediktov have such political clout and are so well known – at least in Russia – that not only their personal freedom is protected, but also that of the newspaper and radio station with which they are involved.
Muratov and Venediktov have earned the respect of those in power, because they are considered – and in fact are – very important in the Russian journalistic and political scene. They have been at the center of Russia’s political and journalistic life throughout the post-Soviet period and have managed to survive, which, unfortunately, is not a given for their profession. They have used – and continue to use – with those in power a language that can in no way be ignored. Proof of their influence was the case of Ivan Golunov, the investigative journalist arrested and whose release they managed to obtain. This was one of the few cases in which civil society in Russia proved stronger than the police apparatus, to the extent that the policemen who illegally arrested Golunov were punished.
There are also points of contention between these two well-known journalists and the political opposition centering on Navalny. During the last parliamentary elections in September 2021, Venediktov strongly supported online voting, and thus drew harsh criticism from many opposition politicians. Muratov explicitly came to his defense, and thus came into conflict with Leonid Volkov, the candidate supported by Navalny. According to Muratov, the fact that a shrinking liberal opposition was attacking Venediktov and Echo Moskvy would be suicidal and would help the government discredit this almost last bastion of press freedom in Russia. Venediktov himself spoke of the Nobel Prize awarded to Muratov as fully deserved: “This is a victory for press freedom, and it is important for the whole country, regardless of what one thinks of Novaya Gazeta and Muratov personally. This decision is not a manifestation of Russophobia, but a confirmation that freedom of the press and free journalism exist in Russia despite everything.”
Although the Nobel Foundation’s decisions regarding the award of the Peace Prize in recent years have sometimes been disputed, this year’s decision seems to be balanced and wise. Some people wonder why the prize was not awarded to a politician – male or female – such as Navalny in Russia or Tikhanovskaya in Belarus. We could answer that it was a wise decision not to award a political figure a prize intended to promote humanitarian approaches, all the more so if it is a young and rather controversial political figure. This is the case with Navalny, who has indulged in some nationalist statements, and is generally not very predictable.
The Nobel Peace Prize is not intended to promote young politicians, but to honor merit. In this sense, Novaya Gazeta along with its editor was a good choice, especially at a time when the anniversary of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya was a reminder of the role that this newspaper has played for decades in the struggle not only for freedom of the press, but also for the defense of human rights in Russia. The fact that this struggle was necessary in the last years of the USSR, in the time of Yeltsin, and that it still is, makes the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to an individual who has devoted his whole life to this struggle a decision that may also be important for the future of Russia.
We cannot expect the award of the Nobel Prize to a famous journalist to end the persecution of other journalists who are not so well known. The government has demonstrated this clearly. Shortly after it became known that Muratov would receive the prize, other journalists in Russia were declared “foreign agents.” And the editor of the newspaper, which, as we said above, is one of the few independent media outlets that are not declared “foreign agents,” said after receiving the news of the prize, “We will try to help those who have been designated foreign agents, those who have been persecuted and driven out of Russia.”
It cannot be doubted that the members of the Nobel Foundation did not know all these details and the difficult relations within the liberal opposition. What is important, however, is that they have drawn the attention of the world to people who, like Muratov, defend values such as freedom and human rights and who are able to put their principles and values above their ambitions and feelings. This award is intended to be a signal not only to the Russian Government, but above all to those journalists who have the same ideals as Muratov, and to encourage them to unite for a common goal, instead of fighting over trivial issues.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no.12 art. 5, 1221: 10.32009/22072446.1221.5
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