BY CAROLINE WRAY:
“I do believe in free speech but there is likely no or little benefit to be critical at this point,” reads one comment under Al Jazeera America’s story “Intimidated journalists in Russia hesitate to criticize Sochi Games.”
This statement seems to reflect the attitude of the Russian government towards freedom of the press over the last few years: they’re all for it, as long as it isn’t hindering their policies.
To be fair, Putin has been making headlines recently due to his decisions to release the members of Pussy Riot from prison and drop charges against the 30 Greenpeace activists. Most tellingly, he seems to want to tell us, he pardoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a major opposition leader, who had already spent a decade in prison on suspicious charges of fraud.
At the same time, there were 1,582 “media-related conflicts” in 2013 according to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a group committed to protecting freedom of speech in Russia. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Russia is ranked #9 in their impunity index, or countries where murders of journalists go unaccounted for judicially.
With the advent of blogging and the Internet, where journalists often attempt to report outside of governmental jurisdiction, the Russian government instituted cyber surveillance techniques. Oppositional blogger Sergei Reznik was recently sentenced to 18 months in prison to the condemnation of Reporters Without Borders.
The newsworthy story of Mikhail Beketov, a brave reporter who covered a story detailing questionable environmental activities in the Kimchi forest related to the creation of a highway connecting Moscow to St. Petersburg, lingers in the minds of journalists and non-journalists alike. Beketov was horrifically beaten and left for dead on the street next to his Moscow apartment in 2008. He suffered severe brain damage, lost four fingers, and his right leg. He remained in a wheelchair, unable to speak, until his recent death in April 2013, when he choked on a meal. The choking was due to a complication from his 2008 injuries.
During the final, very painful five years of Beketov’s life, he attempted to seek truth and justice. He accused then-mayor Vladimir Strelchenko of criminal activity in relation to the highway, was then counter-sued in libel, and due to his inability to speak, lost the case. He also sought trial for his own attack, although to even call the police department’s handling of his case an investigation is generous.
“The fact that the mastermind of this crime has never been punished, that means that they simply don’t want to look for him,” environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova told the New York Times in 2013. “They know exactly who did it.”
The case, along with countless other conflicts and punishments, is fresh in the minds of local journalists who choose to self-censor in order to self-preserve.
Local headlines about the Sochi Olympics include next to nothing about the widespread abuse and corruption that has gone into their preparation. The government has killed dozens of people, simply collateral damage on the path to a stable Games. But it is difficult to find a Russian headlines about Sochi that is not praiseful the infrastructure, organization, patriotism, or general spirit of the event.
A piece of Beketov’s skull was found lying on the ground following his attack. He passed away, choking on food and probably thinking of his still-uninvestigated case, his assailants eating their own meals in peace.
In the minds of the Russian media, perhaps the commenter was right; perhaps there really is “no benefit to be critical at this point.”
Caroline Wray ‘17 is in Jonathan Edwards College. She is a Globalist Notebook blogger on Russia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.