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Journalism in Russia: Resistance from all sides

It wasn’t the bucket of feces, the endless death threats or being followed in a car that told her journalism was too dangerous. It was her car being set ablaze that finally forced prominent Russian journalist Yulia Latynina to leave her country last September. “I left because I was horrified by people’s lack of responsibility,” she said in an op-ed for The Moscow Times last fall. Lack of responsibility indeed. Journalism in Russia is among the more dangerous professions for Russian citizens who, on all sides, are bombarded by resistance.

When another Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, died in 2006, the international community recognized there was a problem. Gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building, Politkovskaya was researching possible government ties to terrorism.

She has come to symbolize what The Guardian calls the “[killing] of free media in Russia.” After Politkovskaya’s murder, everyone knew what dangers confronted notions of free speech, especially the kind directed toward the government.

The modern iteration of this quasi government-sanctioned war on journalism partly owes to the vicious early-2000s second war in Chechnya. Journalism there was suppressed by the heavy hand of the Kremlin, using the tools of restricted access, intimidation and in some cases physical violence. There were many mysterious deaths, and many blatant ones, too, that never got resolved.

Politkovskaya falls into that second category. Her killers were sentenced to life in prison in 2014, but whoever paid for the obvious assassination still remains unknown in 2018, 12 years after her death.

But we mustn’t place all the blame on government oppression. When you look at violence associated with journalism in Russia you see a shocking number of attacks, threats and killings perpetrated by other citizens. If governmental aggression towards free media comes from above, then this comes from below.

In October of 2017 a man pepper sprayed a guard, went up 14 floors in an elevator, and stabbed the head operator of the Ekho Moskvy radio station in the neck. She lived. Two months later a journalist in southern Rostov region, Vyacheslav Prudnikov, was shot during a meeting with local government officials. The attacker cried, “You criticize local authorities too much, we’ll kill you.” He also lived.

The common thread between these stories and many others, including Politkovskaya’s, is not the elevators. In some way these cases are responses to what is envisioned as a breach of values and codes of conduct. As is the Russian way, historically, these things tend to emerge as intense bouts of political expression. The increasing Westernization of the country in the post-USSR era has met an equally resurgent front of latent Soviet resistance. Some people are still stuck in the Soviet mindset that contradicts the values expounded by these western-looking news outlets. That friction between forces sometimes causes an explosion, and we get attacks on journalists.

A journalist I met in Russia told me that at state news outlets, when writing veers too far from the agenda, they repeat the motto “that’s not our angle.” That’s about the nicest way journalists can be confronted with the harsh reality that free speech is a revolutionary profession in a deeply status quo country. Usually, they experience it first-hand in opposition from conservative populations and all levels of government. The misconception is that it all comes from this latter group, but that lessens the issue. Journalism in Russia is suspended in an environment more dangerous that merely the government can create. It’s attacked on both sides, from the government above and a few individuals below.

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