December 12 2006
The bi-weekly Novaya Gazeta has earned a reputation for its investigations which regularly put the spotlight on corruption and authoritarianism in the Russian administration and report on the most sensitive issues in Russian society. This newspaper which is so critical of the government carried numerous reports by Anna Politkovskaya on Chechnya and Russian society. Politkovskaya, who joined the paper in 1999, also probed cases of censorship assault on journalists. Novaya Gazeta has paid a high price for its stand. Two other journalistic staff have been murdered: journalist Igor Domnikov in 2000 and Yuri Shchekochikhin, editor and Duma member, in 2003. The founders of the “New Newspaper” set themselves the objective of being independent and extending their circulation throughout Russia. This has now been achieved; since Novaya Gazeta is distributed all over the country and its sales have reached around 500,000 copies, including regional editions. One of its goals is to step up its production from two to three issues a week. Novaya Gazeta was founded in April 1993 by journalists who formerly worked for Komsomolskaya Pravda. It launched its website version in 1996 ( http://novayagazeta.ru). Novaya Gazeta is one of the flagships of the news press in a Russian media landscape made up mostly of state-run papers providing electoral and consumer news. The privately-owned newspaper in which the staff holds 51% of the shares, saw two political figures take over 49% of its capital in June 2006. They were the former Soviet president and originator of glasnost (openness), Mikhail Gorbachev, and Alexander Lebedev, wealthy businessman and member of the Duma. Novaya Gazeta is currently carrying out its own investigation into Anna Politkovskaya’s murder.
A Russian press under ever greater control
Even if Russia cannot be compared to regimes which systematically ban independent media, press freedom is under serious threat. On one hand Russian society is beset by escalating violence which affects journalists. Twenty-one have been killed because of their work since Vladimir Putin was first elected president of the Russian Federation in March 2000. The vast majority of these cases have not been solved contributing to impunity for the murderers of journalists. The recent wave of killings of officials, businessmen and celebrities (murder of the government of the central bank, the Litvinenko case and so on..) illustrate this climate of violence. Three journalists have been killed in 2006: Ilia Zimin (NTV), Yevgeni Gerassimenko (Saratovski Rasklad) and Anna Politkovskaya (Novaya Gazeta). Elsewhere, news reporting is hampered by a lack of pluralism, particularly in the broadcast media. Russians who mostly get their news from the television have only two federal channels to chose from, both of which are controlled by the Kremlin: ORT and Rossia, watched in more than 98% of homes. Media purchases by state-controlled gas giant Gazprom, also give rise to concern since it is reportedly becoming the country’s biggest media group. It recently announced its aim of buying the country’s top-selling daily, Komsomolskaya Pravda, which boasts 2.1 million readers. The company already owns the leading private TV channel NTV, after which purchase the satirical programme the “Kukli” disappeared from the screen; the Izvestias and the radio Echos of Moscow. In the regions, the concentration of power has put the media under mounting pressure and journalists have fewer resources to fight this state of affairs. In 2002 and 2003, successive editors of the newspaper Togliattinskoye Obosrenie were murdered and in 2006, the weekly Permsky Obozrevatel (Perm Observer), the only independent newspaper in the Perm region in the Urals, suffered persecution from the local authorities. The situation in Chechnya remains dire. The Caucasus republic is a news black hole. The murder of Anna Politkovskaya only adds to this already serious situation, since she was one of very few journalists to regularly cover the conflict in Chechnya and its consequences.
The other 2006 nominees in the “media” category were:
1/ Democratic Voice of Burma, Burma
The Norwegian-based radio Democratic Voice of Burma was founded in 1992 by a group of pro-democracy students who escaped the 1988 massacres. In 2005 it launched Burma’s first independent TV channel. Although DVB TV only broadcasts for two hours a week throughout Burmese territory, it infuriates the generals in Rangoon, who have been used to exercising tight control over news put out by the media. The radio broadcasts more than two hours of programmes daily and in seven ethnic minority languages and is one of very few news sources to escape the junta’s relentless advance censorship.
2/ Uthayan, Sri Lanka
The highly popular Jaffna-based daily Uthayan has for nearly 20 years managed to keep a relatively independent editorial line despite the war in the north of Sri Lanka. At least five staff on the paper were killed in 2006, two of them murdered in a raid on its premises on the eve of World Press Freedom Day. In September, the printers of the Colombo edition was torched by unidentified attackers, while in Jaffna armed men have twice forced staff to print their press releases. The pro-government Tamil militia, responsible for most of the attacks, takes advantage of the passivity of the army which dislikes the daily. In the 1990s, the offices were the target of a military bombardment.
3/ An-Nahar, Lebanon
Founded on 4 August 1933, An-Nahar is Lebanon’s leading Arabic-language daily. The moderate and liberal paper is today seen as a publication of reference, read by the Lebanese intelligentsia as much as by students and company bosses. The recent Israeli-Lebanese conflict, which hit a number of media and left one journalist dead, spared An-Nahar. But the newspaper suffered sad losses in 2005, losing within a few months its editorialist and its publisher. Samir Kassir, editorialist on the daily for ten years, was killed by a car bomb explosion on 2 June 2005.