The death throes of free speech in Russia

 

As the world’s attention remains fixed on Ukraine, less attention is paid to the final nails being hammered into the coffin containing the corpse of Russia’s free and independent press. And while the annexation of Crimea and the west’s shamefully half-hearted response (slapping sanctions on a mere handful of Russian officials and exempting Vladimir Putin and his closest confidantes) certainly deserve their column inches, journalistic independence and free speech finally died in Russia, without a shot being fired. It is only right that we acknowledge this backward step, too.

A couple of excellent columns published over the past weekend aimed to do exactly that – Julia Ioffe writing at the New Republic and David Remick at The New Yorker. Both articles come highly recommended and paint a compelling, sad story.

In his piece, Remnick mourns the backwards steps under Putin which have now erased each and every gain made for freedom of expression under the Gorbachev glasnost era, with particular reference to the Russian government’s recent interference with popular news site Lenta.ru:

In recent years, when Russian liberals have tried to sound optimistic, they have invariably said, Well, at least they haven’t cracked down on the Internet the way the Chinese have. Lenta.ru is one Web site, not the entire Russian-language Web, to be sure, but today’s firing is still an important and ominous step. Lenta.ru was getting more than thirteen million unique visitors a month, and was far more direct and critically minded than anything on state television or in most print publications. Some staff writers and editors have said that they will leave rather than work with [new editor] Goreslavsky. They have no doubt that responsibility for today’s firing lay with Putin and his circle.

Seventy-nine staffers at Lenta.ru issued a statement of angry protest, reading, “Over the past couple of years, the space of free journalism in Russia has dramatically decreased. Some publications are directly controlled by the Kremlin, others through curators, and others by editors who fear losing their jobs. Some media outlets have been closed and others will be closed in the coming months. The problem is not that we have nowhere to run. The problem is that you have nothing more to read.”

Remnick notes that in today’s world and with modern technology, the domestic Russian media can be bought, manipulated and coerced very easily by Putin, with no need for recourse to any of the Soviet-era’s more heavy-handed techniques:

In each individual case, the degree of censorship and pressure is hardly Stalinist in degree. Putin’s media strategy is more sophisticated than that. (The book-publishing industry has remained quite free and unchanged in recent years.) The sophistication of it is that Putin exerts just enough control (blacklisting certain known dissident voices from state television, for example), and punishes just enough of his opponents, to set markers—boundaries of the permissible. Sometimes those boundaries are crossed, but a general tone has been set.

This is precisely the problem, and perhaps the reason why the assault on the Russian free press is getting much less attention than it deserves. In the modern age, the sheer number of cable television channels, newspapers and online news sites can easily give the impression of a vibrant, raucous and effective media, easily reflecting the views of the entire population and holding the leadership to account. However, because of concentration of ownership and endemic corruption, the appearance diversity or independence is merely an illusion – everyone toes the party line.

Julia Ioffe’s New Republic piece sees even more danger, with Russia’s authoritarian attempts to control speech and thought now reaching the internet:

Yesterday, the Kremlin went full-China on the Internet, the holy of holies of the Russian opposition. Using some flimsy legal pretexts, it banned access to various oppositional news sites, to the website of Moscow’s biggest radio station, and to the blog of Alexey Navalny, who is currently under house arrest. Last week, the owner of Dozhd announced that, due to the clampdown, the channel is going to close in a couple months.

Within the span of a couple months, the Kremlin, by hook and by crook, has cleared all the media underbrush. There’s suddenly not much left of the independent media, even of what little of it there was left after Putin’s first two terms at the wheel.

Some of the personal anecdotes recounted by Julia Ioffe are even more disturbing:

Then came the day a Moscow acquaintance announced on Facebook that her daughter, a first-grader, came home from school in a panic because the teacher had told the class that America was about to invade Russia. But then television host and attack dog Dmitry Kiselev went after the “radicals” in Kiev in a special broadcast dedicated to Ukraine, saying that the transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954 was “a historical crime” and blaming the dissolution of Yugoslavia on the West. “What is Yugoslavia now? A pimple on the body of Europe.”

The Russian Writer’s Union then felt the need to write an open letter to the Kremlin throwing their wholehearted support behind Russia’s annexation of Crimea:

… the Russian Writers’ Union, which is as Soviet as it sounds, declared that, “in these worrying times, when the fate not only of Russia and Ukraine, but of all European civilization, is being decided, we want to express our support of your firm and responsible position.” They also blamed “the destructive forces of the West.”

Whatever one might think of the press in the United Kingdom or United States, one cannot imagine them banding together like this to explicitly praise the leader. It is certainly true that President George W. Bush received ridiculous levels of hagiography and unquestioningly supportive coverage from the western press in the run-up to the second Iraq war, the profession as a whole did not feel the need to pledge their fealty with one voice. And though they were largely banished from the main networks, there was strong and vocal opposition. Not so in Russia today.

If there is any glimmer of hope to be had in this sorry situation, it is the fact that a sizeable number of Russians – despite their almost total erasing from the domestic news – have grown heartily sick of their country’s backward slide, and are making their views known as best they can.

The BBC reports that up to 50,000 people attended a pro-Democracy “Hands Off Ukraine” rally in central Moscow. And apparently caught off guard, Putin’s regime did not thwart the march, and mustered only 15,000 of their own supporters in a counter-demonstration:

Earlier in Moscow, tens of thousands rallied against Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the biggest such protest in two years. As many as 50,000 attended the rally, with protesters shouting: “Hands off Ukraine.”

One man told the BBC he felt Russia was turning back to the days of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Nearby, some 15,000 supporters of President Vladimir Putin came out to support the Crimean referendum. Many of them wore identical red outfits and carried Russian and Soviet flags.

But displays such as this are likely to become far fewer as the number of truly – or even partially – independent news outlets willing to provide a non-Kremlin perspective on the world dwindles to nothing.

Regrettably, the paranoid propagandists at the Kremlin are now also being encouraged to a degree by some in the west. The usually-admirable Ron Paul, for example, clearly shows the limitations of applying libertarian philosophy to its ultimate limits, and of citing moral equivalency between Russian meddling in Ukraine and unauthorised Western invasions to argue that the West has no legitimate basis to condemn Russia’s actions. Because the United States and Britain did wrong in the past, goes this argument, Russia must be allowed to do wrong now:

Paul said Crimeans should be allowed to break away from Kiev.

“I think everyone should have right to express themselves,” he said. “It is messy, that is for sure, because two big governments are very much involved in trying to tell the Ukranians what to do.”

However he said Russia had a more justifiable basis for being involved in Crimea than the US, and no government should prevent locals on the peninsula from determining their future.

This deference toward Russia maintaining a geopolitical sphere of influence whereby it is allowed to meddle and assert special interests in the politics of its neighbours would be slightly more defensible coming from Ron Paul if he did not castigate the United States for doing the same thing when it comes to influencing America’s Latin American neighbours:

PAUL: Well, I think free trade is the answer. Free trade is an answer to a lot of conflicts around the world, so I’m always promoting free trade. And you might add Cuba, too. I think we would be a lot better off trading with Cuba.

But as far as us having an obligation, a military or a financial obligation to go down and dictate to them what government they should have, I don’t like that idea. I would try to set a standard here where countries would want to emulate us. Unfortunately, sometimes we slip up on our standards and we go around the world and we try to force ourselves on others.

If free trade and an absence of foreign meddling is truly the stance favoured by Ron Paul he should be vigorously denouncing the aggressive actions taken by Russia, not seeking to justify them by finding tenuous comparisons in recent US and western foreign policy. Ukraine had a clear choice – closer engagement with the European Union or re-embracing Russia. Until Vladimir Putin began interfering in Ukraine’s internal politics and encouraging President Yanukovych to abandon the EU deal in exchange for sweeteners from Russia, Ukraine leant towards Europe. The EU may have its imperfections, but it represents a much more liberal option than anything Putin’s Russia represents, and if anyone has subverted the will of the Ukrainian people and deserves Ron Paul’s disapproval today it is Vladimir Putin.

And while Ron Paul has led from the front in the important public debate about the nature and extent of the US surveillance state, and any curtailments on free speech in America, there is no acknowledgement from him of the grave and far more routine impositions on free speech that take place in Russia. That’s not to say that every criticism of America needs to be counterbalanced with a corresponding flaw in the rest of the world, but it is certainly the case that jumping into the debate on Ukraine without acknowledging this elephant in the room significantly detracts from his argument.

When it comes to counterarguments and balance in media coverage, Russia makes America and Britain’s own tribulations look like nothing by comparison. And while it is unfortunate that some people – particular those from the left/libertarian part of the spectrum – have felt the need to use the Ukrainian crisis as an “I told you so” moment or to burnish their own non-interventionist credentials, this is nothing more than posturing for a domestic audience. It does nothing to help the people of Ukraine or Russia.

While it is Ukraine that is currently being deprived of its territory in Crimea, the usurping Russians are also being robbed. Their loss, taking place with far less comment, is that of their independent press and free speech. And without a free domestic press to even go through the motions of scrutinising Vladimir Putin’s leadership, today’s Russia – in full paranoid, expansionist, Soviet-nostalgic mode – is not going to stop at Ukraine.

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2 thoughts on “The death throes of free speech in Russia

  1. thelyniezian March 20, 2014 / 2:33 PM

    I wonder if perhaps Ron Paul thinks that perhaps it is not so much his business to have any say on what goes on beyond America’s borders that does not necessarily threaten its interests.

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    • Semi-Partisan Sam March 20, 2014 / 11:59 PM

      I think that is an entirely fair viewpoint, if applied consistently. And Ron Paul does tend to apply his principles consistently which is why so many people (this blog included) admire him.

      However, I don’t believe that the isolationist stance – the logical result of following libertarianism through to its conclusion – is the right way forward. Sometimes global consternation at and condemnation of another country is appropriate.

      In the case of Russia, I am most saddened by the backward slide away from the promise of real democracy, and the steadily advancing Putin shadow. Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s book “Mafia State” describes this deterioration very well. It may not strictly be our business, but I think we are right to condemn Russia.

      And I personally feel that the existing sanctions are timid, cowardly and do not go far enough – they offer no disincentive to Russia to stop behaving as they have been.

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