By Vincent Maresca
On December 18, U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump was a guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, where reporter Joe Scarborough posed a question mentioning that Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has praised, is “also a person that kills journalists and political opponents.”
A journalist in Russia is much more likely to be killed than imprisoned. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, journalists still face perils such as intimidation, kidnapping, and murder. According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, Russia has the fourth-highest death toll for journalists. However, when compared to other autocratic countries, China and Egypt have the highest incarceration rate of reporters, and a “handful of countries continue to use systematic imprisonment to silence criticism.”
The National Post reports that Associated Press CEO Gary Pruitt is calling for a new framework to increase the protection of journalists. He specifically addressed reporters based in the Middle East.
Despite the dangerous situation, journalism is partly free in Russia. Let me explain.
Reporters who work for the government-funded news network Russia Today (RT) have been free to express their opinions. Although they tended to favor the Kremlin, there are also those who have voiced opposition to Putin’s actions in the Ukraine with no reported retribution.
According to NBC News, RT anchor Abby Martin criticized the annexation of Crimea on air. CBC News reports that another RT reporter resigned because she could not “be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin.”
Vice News reports that a third RT correspondent, British citizen Sara Firth, left the news outlet over RT’s coverage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which crashed in Ukraine. Firth returned to England and is now a correspondent for the British news network Arise News.
After Putin came to power, there were several notable cases of legal justice for journalist victims.
One prominent case was the murder of Kremlin critic Natalia Politkovskaya in 2006. According to the New York Times, hired killers shot her to death in her apartment. An investigation opened shortly after Politkovskaya’s death and the case closed in 2012 with five arrests. In June 2014, a Russian court sentenced the five suspects, including the mastermind, to life in prison. However, some are still skeptical about the outcome of the investigation.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, founding member of a Russian human rights advocacy organization, told the New York Times that she considers the investigation a cover-up for the actual mastermind of the killing. On the other hand, Petros Garibyan, head investigator of the case, defended his team, saying that those responsible for the murder intimidated journalists “as well as society and the authorities.”
Following Politkovskaya’s death, President Putin spoke about her at a press conference in Dresden. He said that her death brought Russia “far greater injuries and damage than her publications.”
It is hard to believe that the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin persecutes journalists. All the targeted journalists had no prison record, and the government did not officially arrest them for their political views. There is dissention from reporters in the mainstream Russian media. Finally, in comparison to the pre-Putin administration, at least there are some instances of prosecution and investigation of murdered reporters. Perhaps within a generation there will be more trials and justice for the press.