Mikhail Voitenko is only the latest journalist to join a nearly decade-long exodus from Russia. It took him a few hours to pack and leave for Turkey. He did not know how much time he had before an unidentified caller carried out a threat, writes Oleg Panfilov on Transitions Online.
Like many Russian writers Voitenko was not a journalist by profession. A retired sailor, he took over a website that gained prominence not only among sailors, but also among journalists and experts for a series of articles about Somali pirates. Last year, the Ukrainian government even asked him to act as a negotiator after pirates hijacked the MV Faina, a Ukrainian cargo ship loaded with tanks and heavy weapons. Voitenko’s website, Maritime Bulletin, was especially popular with sailors, who could freely discuss issues in its forum.
But then he began writing about the curious case of the Arctic Sea, a Russian cargo ship that disappeared for a couple of weeks this summer with a load of lumber on board. It turned up near the Cape Verde, and Russia has charged several people with hijacking the ship. But questions persist about what really might have been on board and what really might have happened to the ship. Whatever the real story, Voitenko said asking those questions had gotten him a threatening late-night phone call warning him to leave the country.
The list of journalists leaving Russia gets longer almost every month. Ten years back, it was mainly Russian reporters who received attractive job offers abroad who contemplated emigration. In the 1990s journalists had no major political problems that made them fear for their lives. But the government’s attitude changed drastically after Vladimir Putin came to power. The new president signed an information security doctrine to beef up state propaganda by giving it an advantage over the independent media.
The revival of the Soviet tradition of using the press as a tool to promote an ideology coincided with a surge in crimes against journalists, including murders and physical assaults, and criminal prosecution, threats, and closures of independent media outlets under various pretexts. Many reporters felt themselves facing a real threat to their lives. In the last three years, seven Russian journalists were imprisoned on defamation and extremism charges. Boris Stomakhin, a strident defender of Chechnya’s bid for independence, remains behind bars after a 2006 conviction for inciting ethnic strife.
Putin, who seeks to stifle any manifestations of dissent in the already shackled media, is not the only one responsible for the harassment of journalists. The new president encouraged the restoration of a Soviet-style bureaucracy dominated by officials prepared to defy the law. They know that they can break laws if their actions can contribute to “the resurgence of Russia” and be perceived as a sign of loyalty to Putin and now also to President Dmitry Medvedev. It is enough to publicly express support for the president and the prime minister for an official to get a license to intimidate journalists, including by using threats and physical force.
Back to bad old days
Russian journalists found themselves in trouble immediately after the Soviet tradition was restored, as if officials were let off the leash after Boris Yeltsin’s rule from 1991 to 1999. In one of the first incidents, the Belgorod provincial governor brought a criminal defamation charge against Olga Kitova of Belgorodskaya Pravda for a series of stories exposing corruption.
One day in 2001, ten riot police officers knocked on Kitova’s apartment door. Apparently a large group of burly commandos was required to take the 154 cm tall journalist under arrest. She denounced the arrest as illegal and was later confronted with a charge of beating up the officers. The incident shocked observers from international organizations. A few months later, Kitova was invited to move to Germany.
In 2002, Sergei Zolovkin in Sochi narrowly escaped assassination after publishing several articles about corruption in the local government. Several months later he left his country for Germany as well. Fatima Tlisova, a journalist from the North Caucasian republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, was beaten and received threats on several occasions. Now she lives in the United States. Yuri Bagrov, a former Radio Liberty correspondent in the North Caucasus, was given political asylum in the United States. In December 2004, the validity of his Russian passport had been rejected by local authorities and a municipal court in North Ossetia. However, few observers doubted that he was targeted for working for a radio station that authorities, in an echo of Soviet times, call “slanderous.” The station views developments in the country from a different perspective than state propaganda.
Many Chechen journalists, especially those who supported separatist authorities in the 1990s, also fled to the West. In European countries, exiled journalists launched websites to disseminate uncensored news about developments in Chechnya. Some of them attempted to settle down in former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan, Belarus, or Ukraine, but were forced to leave after receiving threats from Russian secret services.
In fact, many journalists have fled former Soviet countries in fear of persecution. In the early 1990s, many reporters escaped from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Ayaz Akhmedov, editor of the satirical magazine Chashme in Azerbaijan, was one of the first journalists forced to seek asylum in Norway. Many journalists moved to Sweden and Norway from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Some of them founded Tsentralnaya Azia, a Russian-language magazine published in Sweden from 1995 to 1997.
Exiled journalists, many with ties to the political opposition, launched many periodicals, such as the Uzbek magazine Harakkat in the United States and newspaper Birlik in Turkey, the Tajik newspapers Charogi Ruz and Payom in Moscow and Paiki Piruzi in Tehran, and the Jajoon magazine in Pakistan. The Voice of Free Tajikistan radio station operated in Afghanistan from 1993 to 1997.
Most journalists who left Russia and other post-Soviet countries citing harassment quit their profession because they did not speak the language in the country where they settled or were unable to adapt to a new professional environment. Some journalists were lucky to launch websites and obtain funding for their operation, or to found a newspaper or a magazine together with their compatriots. Few made themselves useful under new conditions.
There are three categories of journalists settling down abroad. Political migrants fleeing their country in fear of reprisals are one of them.
Some journalists, especially prominent ones, chose countries of destination based on employment opportunities. Many went to Ukraine. Aleksandr Kosvintsev, from the Siberian city of Kemerovo, was given political asylum in Ukraine. Andrey Shantarovich, an editor from Belarus, published a newspaper in Kharkiv for several years.
Savik Shuster, former host of the Freedom of Speech show on Russia’s NTV network, revived the program in Ukraine. Although Shuster is a Canadian citizen he is associated with Russia and had many fans there. Prominent TV anchor Yevgeny Kisilyov also became prominent in Ukraine.
Apart from big names, other reporters, cameramen, editors, and filmmakers settled down in Ukraine because they would not accept Russian propaganda and censorship. This is a generation of journalists that matured during perestroika and nine years of relative freedom under Boris Yeltsin.
They left because of a lack of freedom. Their exact number is unknown – maybe several dozen or maybe many more, as quite a number of Russian-language periodicals and radio and TV stations operate in European capitals. Those who find a job like this are lucky because it gives them an opportunity to apply for permanent residence and even citizenship.
Finally, the third category is journalists who radically changed their lives. They do not speak foreign languages and they can work only the way they learned during the perestroika era. Some of them cannot produce work that is up to modern journalistic requirements. But they cannot live in a country where freedoms are suppressed. A sense of freedom they found after the collapse of the Soviet Union keeps them from going back to the USSR.
They are different but they have not learned how to be free. They were learning to be free. That was enough to make the crucial decision to leave a country where freedoms are restricted.
* Oleg Panfilov is the director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations in Moscow