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Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Russian People: What's WRONG with Them?

The Moscow Times reports another shameful outrage on the part of the people of Russia. It's just this sort of behavior that allows the West to justify simply writing off the Russian people as uncivilized and consign them to their fate as "Zaire with Permafrost." It's heartbreaking for those of us who dream of something better for Russia; we must confront the Russians with outrages of this kind and demand that they do better. They are becoming an embarassment to civilization itself.

The year has been rough for independent-minded media, and investigative journalists wondered at an awards ceremony Wednesday evening whether their often-perilous work was worth the effort.

If the ceremony was any indication, the answer appeared to be a resounding no. A mere 20 people showed up for the annual event, the Andrei Sakharov awards for journalism. They included an eight-member jury, five winners and three reporters assigned to cover the event.

Vadim Rechkalov, an investigative reporter with Moskovsky Komsomolets who received a runner-up prize, said he had won nearly every Russian journalism award but could not understand why corruption and human rights abuses continued to flourish.

"Nothing has changed, not even an iota -- not in the courts, not anywhere else," Rechkalov said. "It makes you wonder about the effectiveness of journalism" in Russia.

The ceremony opened with a moment of silence for investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose brazen shooting death in her Moscow apartment building in October shocked the West. Politkovskaya, who won the top prize in 2002 for her coverage of human rights abuses in Chechnya for Novaya Gazeta, received a posthumous lifetime achievement award Wednesday.

Such killings often serve as a rallying cry for journalists to push on in their investigations of abuse and corruption, said jury head Alexei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation. "When everything is awful, you discover that corporate solidarity has not died," he said.

The top prize of $5,000 went to Anna Lebedeva, Novaya Gazeta's correspondent in Rostov-on-Don, for a series of articles on human rights abuses. Four runners-up received $500 each. In all, the jury considered articles from 87 reporters in 49 cities.

In accepting the prize, Lebedeva lamented what she described as the thinning of ranks of independent investigative journalists. "I am often surrounded by colleagues, but there are fewer and fewer like-minded people around me," the 27-year veteran reporter said.

Lebedeva later said that abuses had mushroomed so much that "there are almost no human rights left."

Lebedeva has documented, among other things, the beatings of Sochi residents by OMON special forces last summer and the corruption that permitted the illegal construction of houses on wildlife reserves.

Lebedeva also wondered whether her reports made sense any more in a country where even President Vladimir Putin described the influence of Politkovskaya as "minimal" after her death.

But a look at this year's submissions to the Sakharov event shows reporters must soldier on, said jury member Elvira Goryukhina, who won the top prize in 2001 for Chechnya. "When you read all of the submissions, the first thought is: 'What a nightmare. What is happening in our country?'" she said.

Many articles covered Chechnya, but other main themes included housing reform, the environment and children's rights.

Goryukhina said she regretted that few people had had the chance to read the articles, given the dominance of state-controlled media. But, she added, "not everything is lost yet."

Another runner-up, Tamara Proskuryakova of Vologradskaya Pravda, vowed to press on. "I still like to believe that my scribbles help people believe that the truth still exists," she said.

Proskuryakova said tears had streamed down her cheeks as she wrote about corruption in local authorities' dealings with rural land in the Volgograd region.

Igor Nefyodov, who won last year's top prize for his post-Beslan coverage in Izvestia, praised the courage of provincial reporters, many of whom write about corruption in local government even though their publications are somehow controlled by the government. "I can honestly say that I don't know whether I could cover such topics," he said.

Tatyana Kuzmina of Orlovskiye Novosti shot back: "The issue is not only having the courage to write, but finding someone to print it."

Nefyodov has left Izvestia, which was taken over by state-controlled Gazprom in the fall of 2005.

This year, Kommersant, the country's last independent-minded national daily, was sold to metals magnate and Gazprom executive Alisher Usmanov. The sale highlighted a broader Kremlin-backed strategy of national media buyouts by loyal businessmen and Gazprom.

In other developments that rattled the journalism community this year, Boris Stomakhin, editor of Radikalnaya Politika, a Moscow-based monthly newspaper, was sentenced to an unprecedented five years in prison on Nov. 21 on charges of inciting ethnic hatred in reports about the conflict in Chechnya.

In October, Vladimir Rakhmankov, editor of the Internet magazine Kursiv, was fined 20,000 rubles ($750) for referring to Putin as "a phallic symbol."

In February, Pravo-Zashchita editor Stanislav Dmitriyevsky was given a suspended two-year sentence for publishing comments from Chechen rebel leaders who were calling for peace talks in 2004.

More than 200 journalists have been killed in Russia in the past 15 years, according to a group of journalists who plan to stage a rally on Pushkin Square on Saturday to commemorate the dead.

The organizers had initially asked Moscow city authorities to allow them stage a march. But the city said a march would violate the constitutional rights of Muscovites by impeding traffic.


talnik said...

Nobody showed up because they didn't want to be shot!

La Russophobe said...

Indeed. And the people elected the person (twice!) who created the risk that the would be shot.

Tea said...

It`s a shame that we here in Canada or America for that matter, don`t here very much about the Russian people. From my own experience I think them very interesting with a country steeped in history. Glad I found your blog to learn more.
I shall be back :)


La Russophobe said...

T&M: Welcome, and thanks! Indeed, they are quite interesting and it would be a tragedy to see them go the way of the dodo, which is what seems in the offing just now given their political choices.