About ten years ago Anna Politkovskaya, a well-known Russian journalist, writer and human rights’ activist, died in her apartment building in Moscow, shot four times in a lift. After a long and highly charged trial-and-retrial, we still do not know who the instigators of Politkovskaya’s assassination are, though six people have been convicted of the murder. In her books and articles (she was one of the best reporters of Novaya Gazeta), Politkovskaya reported on the situation in Chechnya during the Second Chechen War and on the deterioration of the quality of Russian democracy, especially as far as human rights protection, transparency and good governance were concerned. She defined contemporary Russia ‘a failing democracy’ and she admonished her fellow citizens about the concrete risks of ‘hurtling back into a Soviet abyss’, thanks to the ‘information vacuum’ that the Russian power system was able to produce. Her investigative works as well as her popularity in the West – she won several important awards from human rights and international journalism and her books were translated in several languages – were certainly worrisome for the Russian government as well as for several crucial state agencies. In Russia, however, her influence was quite limited beyond human rights activists’ circles, as Vladimir Putin noticed after her brutal assassination.
The truth about the death of Anna Politkovskaya is likely to remain unknown. Nonetheless, remembering her story in 2016 is an occasion to reflect on the precariousness of our basic freedoms and particularly as far as freedom of expression is concerned, even within democratic contexts. The 1948 Declaration of Human Rights established that ‘(e)veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. A brief remark: the right to freedom of opinion and expression embraces freedom of (journalistic) investigation as well as freedom of (academic) research. The freedom of the press is a related, yet conceptually different freedom, since it concerns the possibility for media companies to communicate and express without any interference from political or religious authorities.
According to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2015 and 2016 Reports on Russia, the current situation is far from being idyllic: in 2014, ‘(o)ngoing insurgencies, corrupt officials, and crime within Russia continued to pose a danger to journalists who reported on them, and the remaining independent media outlets in the country came under growing pressure from the authorities’. The international exposure due to the Sochi Winter Olympics and the impact of Russian foreign policy with the deployment of military personnel in Ukraine played an important role in the 2014 turn of the screw on independent media as well as on the control over media for propaganda purposes. Throughout 2015, ‘(b)oth Russian and foreign journalists often encounter(ed) physical intimidation or official obstruction while reporting in the field’. At the moment, ‘(t)he Russian state controls, either directly or through proxies, all five of the major national television networks, as well as national radio networks, important national newspapers, and national news agencies. The state also controls more than 60 percent of the country’s estimated 45,000 regional and local newspapers and other periodicals. State-run television is the main news source for most Russians and serves as the key propaganda tool of the government’.
It has to be stressed that freedom of information is provided for in article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, according to which ‘(e)veryone shall have the right to seek, get, transfer, produce and disseminate information by any lawful means’. As Politkovskaya rightly pointed out, Russian democracy still needs adjectives. Though measuring freedom is problematic and Freedom House’s – like any other freedom indices – should be read carefully, on the whole there is sufficient evidence that the country’s democratization process has known many ups and downs and currently rights on paper do not always correspond to enjoyed rights. The case of Russia is not exceptional, though: according to Freedom House, even at the heart of Europe, in some established democracies – e.g. Italy and Greece – there are warning signs of a deteriorating freedom of the press; moreover, from a global perspective, in 2015 press freedom declined to its lowest point in 12 years. In its 2015/2016 Yearly Report, Amnesty International ‘(a)t least 113 countries arbitrarily restricted freedom of expression and the press’ last year.
Remembering Politkovskaya, we are reminded of the precariousness of our freedom of opinion and expression as well as of the crucial importance of press freedom for the quality of stable democratic systems as well as for the consolidation of democracy in processes of transition from authoritarian government. This is no news. In 1737 Benjamin Franklin, who at the time worked as a journalist, wrote an article, “On Freedom of Speech and the Press”, on the Pennsylvania Gazette, where he claimed that ’(f)reedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins’.