December 10, 2010 at 15:00

In Russia, free speech is a matter of state control

In Russia, free speech is a matter of state control Photo: AP

Here's what the world looks like in a country where the government controls the media:

One evening, the main television channel uses prime time to broadcast a concert across vast Russia, paying tribute to the much-feared tax collectors. Another day, media overseers charge a respected newspaper with extremism - for straightforward reporting on neo-Nazi groups.

The late-November concert in honor of the 20th anniversary of the tax inspectorate is a merry affair. Famous entertainers joke and sing. A chorus of tax collectors joins in, glowing in stage lights, gold braid dripping from the shoulders of their military-style uniforms, a song of money on their lips - hardly the intimidating agents capable of bringing down a suddenly inconvenient billionaire or ruining a small-business man without the right friends.

The state does not offer such an admiring audience for crusading journalists such as Dmitri Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta and recipient of the warning for promoting extremist views. One more such warning, and the paper can be shut down.

The offending article was a follow-up to a January 2009 double slaying. Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old intern for the paper who had been writing about youthful fascist movements, was shot in the back of head after she left a news conference and headed to a busy subway station with Stanislav Markelov, a human rights lawyer and journalist. He took the first shot. Both died.

Earlier this year, Novaya Gazeta examined the organization, membership and pronouncements of neo-Nazi groups, mostly quoting from their Web sites. Muratov thought the article - conventional by Western standards - would set off a government investigation of fascists. "Instead, we got a warning against extremism," he said.

The paper recently lost its appeal of the warning, which had arrived in March. Muratov is preparing another appeal, to Russia's Constitutional Court, and even the European Court of Human Rights.

"If we don't write about neo-Nazis and corruption, then what will we write about?" he asked. "A star who has had another facelift?"

The thought is clearly ludicrous for Muratov, a burly push-up-the-sleeves-of-a-well-worn-sweater editor who supervises 60 journalists impatient to shed light in dark corners, even though something of a standing death threat hangs over them. Six Novaya journalists have been killed or died under unexplained circumstances. The most well known, Anna Politkovskaya, a war correspondent and human rights defender, was shot to death in her apartment building in 2006.

The air of intimidation creates a deficiency of free speech, said Alexander Lebedev, a billionaire former KGB agent who owns 49 percent of Novaya Gazeta along with Mikhail Gorbachev.

"Novaya Gazeta takes the place of public opinion," Lebedev said. And the three-day-a-week paper excels, he said, because of Muratov. "He's a great man, he's very honest, he's very brave, and he's a very talented editor."

Sending a message

Lebedev is a banker who wants to be seen as a publisher and investigative journalist - he owns both the Evening Standard and the Independent in London. Despite his past, he said, he never liked restrictions on his travel and speech.

His National Reserve Bank in Moscow was raided early last month by about 100 commandos carrying semiautomatic weapons and wearing black ski masks. The raid came just after Novaya Gazeta had published a long, exclusive interview with Mikhail Khodorkovsky,an oil tycoon who ran afoul of the government and has been in jail on tax and fraud charges since 2003.

"It was about intimidation, and nothing else," said Lebedev, who said the raid was ostensibly connected to the Russian Capital Bank, which the NRB took over in 2008 after it failed and handed back to the government after discovering that $200 million was missing. Documents were seized, he said, even though he had freely offered access. The raid has frightened customers, he said, and cost him $100 million in deposits.

"It's definitely a message," he said, "but from whom? Could it be a message from corrupt officials working on their own, or someone else?"

Muratov wonders the same. Kremlin property department officials recently won a libel judgment after the paper published allegations of corruption in Kremlin-financed construction projects. The suit appeared at odds with the president's frequent complaints about endemic corruption - President Dmitry Medvedev even mentioned millions stolen in state purchasing transactions during his state of the nation speech last week.

Andrei Richter, director of the Media Law and Policy Institute, said the government dislikes Novaya Gazeta but needs it, as well as outspoken radio station Ekho Moskvy, as evidence of freedom of speech for visiting dignitaries.

"Closing it would be quite a scandal," he said, "but the government doesn't mind warning the newspaper. It's a cold shower."

A loyal following

Muratov speaks of his newspaper's battles with the patience acquired by Russians during centuries in the embrace of indifferent if not hostile authorities. He begins to lose that patience when he talks about television, where most Russians get their news and where state oversight is particularly vigilant.

Novaya Gazeta published the second part of a series this week on the slayings of four children and eight adults in a village in the southern region of Krasnodar, accusing high-level officials of tolerating years of gang terrorism. That evening, TV news broadcast theories about a plane crash two days earlier that had killed two people, reports on Medvedev visiting Poland and on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the Far East, scolding officials on the high price of airline tickets.

Novaya Gazeta is tiny compared with the national television audience. It says it has 350,000 subscribers and 1.5 million readers. But it attracts a loyal and idealistic following.

Nikita Girin, 20, an intern about to be employed full time, remembers seeing Novaya Gazeta for the first time at age 16 in his home town of Ryazan.

"When I opened it and started reading," he said, "I realized I knew nothing about my country. After that, I knew I wanted to change things, if only in people's heads."

Danger has hardly scared him off. "I know I might be beaten, but I can't use that as an excuse - that would make me passive. If you are going to work honestly, you have to be ready to be beaten up."

Muratov works on. Behind him stands a photo of Anna Politkovskaya, looking over his shoulder, smiling and determined.

Tags: Corruption, National reserve bank, Novaya Gazeta

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