Natasa Kovacevic. Originally published in Spring 2009.
Following his decisive electoral victory in March 2008, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev vigorously affirmed his intent to protect freedom of the press in the Russian Federation, arguing that independent media provided a crucial channel of communication between society and the state. The fulfillment of his promise will depend critically upon the new president’s willingness to break with the policies of his powerful predecessor, Vladimir Putin, and an entrenched tradition of stifled civil liberties.
The voice of the Russian press has long been tweaked, tuned, and muted to accommodate state interest. In the reporters without Borders’ 2008 Worldwide Press Freedom Index, which ranks 173 countries, Russia came in at a deplorable 141. Dissenting opinions and criticisms of government officials and policies are severely restricted in the state-controlled media, while the number of independent media outlets is steadily shrinking. Indeed, the consequences for opposition journalism extend far beyond mere censorship. Though Russia’s constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of the press, dissenting journalists have good reason to fear for their lives. Since 1992, 49 journalists have been murdered in Russia. Domestic and international outrage has followed the ever-rising reporter death toll. The October 2006 murder of outspoken journalist and vocal anti-Kremlin champion Anna Politkovskaya incited global indignation; two and a half years later, her murder remains unsolved. The recent murders of a reporter and a human rights lawyer, both killed in January 2009, serve as a reminder that Medvedev’s promises to protect the independence of the media are far from fulfilled.
For decades, international organizations and human rights groups have called on Russia’s political leadership to amend and enforce legislation on freedom of press. The vagueness and overbreadth of Russia’s anti-defamation laws, provisions against insulting comments, and anti-extremism statutes, have often led to the prosecution of legitimate journalistic activity. Without an appropriately narrow definition, almost any anti-government speech can be deemed “extremist,” opening the door to intimidation and violence.
Thus far, however, international pressure to expand civil liberties has produced very little constructive change. In a February 2009 press conference, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso voiced the EU’s concern over the murders of journalists and of human rights leaders in the Russian Federation. In lieu of addressing the issue, Prime Minister Putin responded with a scathing attack on human rights in the EU. This type of aggressive response has traditionally fared quite well in garnering public approval domestically. In fact, Putin and his predecessors have historically benefited from presenting a hard-line stance against the west; and haughty denial of accusations has typically translated to smart political strategy.
But Putin’s ability to negate problems while maintaining his popularity was heavily tied to Russia’s economic success. While the economy boomed, the Russian population seemed willing to overlook restrictions on civil liberties, including limited free speech and press. But as Russia begins to feel the full impact of the global financial crisis, the former president’s legacy has fallen into question. Putin’s regime had steadily maintained Russia’s immunity against the global recession—a claim that has since been entirely debunked. In fact, Russia was hit with three devastating bullets: plummeting oil prices, falling demand for its exports, and enormous capital flight. With dismal prospects for GDP growth and soaring unemployment, heavy blame has fallen on Putin for mishandling the crisis.
As public discontent grows in the face of a troubled economy, it appears that Medvedev—often dismissed as a powerless figurehead—is finally beginning to assert independent leadership. Grasping an opportunity to distance himself from Putin’s policies and rhetoric, Medvedev has taken tentative steps toward reform. His primary objective is economic revival, but with that has come a renewed focus on civil liberties, including freedom of speech and press.
In the legislative sphere, Medvedev took a bold step in nullifying a bill to expand the definition of treason, thereby preventing the possible criminalization of all anti-government speech. This widely popular move was accompanied by an increased tolerance of public protest; the president has allowed peaceful public demonstrations which were previously punishable by arrest under Putin. Moreover, Medvedev has openly spoken out about the journalist murders in a much more sympathetic tone than Putin.
In his public addresses, the president has recently begun releasing televised speeches about the economic slump, stressing the importance of accurately portraying the crisis. His team of liberal economists has unabashedly criticized Putin and his vehemently nationalistic old guard for misrepresenting the true state of the economy. While vocally praising the independent media as the most reliable source of information, this ‘new guard’ has decried the statist, allegedly patriotic voices that deliberately gloss over unpleasant truths. Medvedev himself has revealed some sobering realities about the recession, including an unemployment rate that is actually three times as high as had previously been claimed.
In word and deed, Medvedev appears to be gradually distancing himself from Putin’s aggressive, nationalistic example—a trend that could potentially lead to greater freedoms of speech and press. Following through with his promises of liberal reform could inspire both trust and approval—valuable commodities among an underpaid and underemployed electorate. Indeed, according to a February 2009 national survey, 73 percent of Russians trust Medvedev, a significant increase from 56 percent in 2006. In an uncertain economic climate, embracing reform in practice as well as in principle would be a wise strategy for a leader anxious to assert his political autonomy.