Rachel Denber: Russia is a very difficult place for a journalist
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Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch – on the situation in the Russian media
149th out of 180: this is the place that Russia took this year in the Press Freedom Index, according to the estimates of the international organization Reporters Without Borders. Russia dropped to this place (from 148th) last year. Then “Reporters Without Grants” called Russia together with Turkey “heavyweights of the region who continue to harass the independent media.”.
The United States has been calling on Russia for years to end human rights abuses and harassment of independent journalists.
Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch for Europe and Central Asia, shared with the Voice of America correspondent her thoughts on what makes the work of journalists in Russia especially difficult, what dangers reporters face, and how the current situation promotes disinformation.
Margot Gontard: How do you assess the current state of media freedom in Russia??
Rachel Denber: The situation with freedom of the media in Russia is now extremely difficult. Russia is a very difficult place to be a journalist. There are excellent reporters and investigative journalists. But the environment for press freedom has been deteriorating since the mid-2000s, and has declined particularly sharply (press freedom) since 2011. The space for media freedom is shrinking. Pluralism is clearly declining. There are media outlets that continue to function, publish materials criticizing the authorities, but they are always on the verge of being exposed to serious threats and fines. There are publications that were quite independent, but were gradually taken over by people friendly to the Kremlin, and they (the media) have changed beyond recognition. Like Izvestia many years ago. Like Lenta.ru after 2014. I have been following Russian-related topics for over 25 years and have seen a very disturbing development. There are other publications that retain some independence. Like, for example, Novaya Gazeta. They still continue to publish materials, often quite critical. But in a sense, they are under the sword of Damocles, because there is always a risk that some of the publications will cause such dissatisfaction with the authorities that this sword will fall on them. They are constantly threatened – by the publication and, in particular, by journalist Elena Milashina.
M.G .: There has been a similar threat recently. Could you tell us more about this?
R.D .: There was a publication by Elena Milashina that people in Chechnya are simply afraid to say that they may be sick with coronavirus, because of the fear of reprisals, because of the incredible stigmatization around all this. The material criticized the actions of the authorities, Kadyrov flew into a rage and, in fact, made it clear that if the Russian authorities did not do something about this, if they did not shut down the publication, then he would do it. It was a very clear threat, but the Kremlin only brushed it off, saying that it was just emotions..
M.G .: What are the challenges for freedom of speech in Russia today, in your view??
R.D .: I think that the current legislation is especially undermining freedom of the media in Russia. It’s like a minefield of laws that stifle freedom of speech and the media. You never know when your actions will fall under the category of extremist laws, or fake news, or personal abuse. It’s literally a minefield. In addition, Russia has created concepts such as “foreign agent” and “foreign media”, which create an additional level of bureaucracy and problems not only for the media, but also for bloggers. And if suddenly your actions fall under this law, then it threatens with various fines. So it looks a lot like a minefield.
M.G .: Could this situation discourage young people from going into journalism? ?
R.D .: This can serve as a demotivator. Can turn people away from journalism. It can be downright dangerous. Now in Russia it is very difficult to be a journalist who, at the same time, is objective and criticizes the authorities. You have to think about your safety, your family. About parents, brother, sister, especially if you are outside Moscow, St. Petersburg. People start to think: if you publish something containing criticism of local authorities, how will it affect your sister’s attempts to get into university? Or your parents’ job?
M.G. Increasing state control over the media, less and less independent journalism – does this contribute to the spread of disinformation??
R.D .: These things are undoubtedly related, because the less independent journalism in Russia, the more space remains for state media, propaganda, disinformation..
M.G .: Do you expect the situation to change in the future?
R.D .: I think we shouldn’t lose hope. For example, last summer virtually the entire journalistic community and many others defended Ivan Golunov against ridiculous drug trafficking accusations. And this, of course, had a huge impact on his future. He was released from custody and cleared of all charges. It was absolutely unprecedented. In a way, this is a unique case, but it also offers some hope..