Tortured History Influence Russian Journalists’ Debate on Free Speech

Russian banking reporter Ana Keampets often receives threats on her life from the powerful men she covers. And she has one of the safer beats in St. Petersburg.

“I’ve gotten phone calls from men warning me to be careful going home,” she said. Keampets said she has tempered her risk taking since giving birth a year ago, although she remains committed to journalism. Banking, she said, is less risky than covering the government.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 84 journalists have been murdered or have gone missing in Russia since 1992, a rate which is among the worst in the world.

There is a debate in Russia, even among journalists, as to just how free speech should be. This debate is as much philosophical as practical. Russians journalists have to navigate a dangerous system in which powerful players, both government officials and rich businessmen, often try to control what they write and say. This sometimes ends in murder.

Many old time journalists worry the reins on free speech in modern Russian have been loosened too much. Anatoly Puyu, the Dean of St. Petersburg University’s School of Journalism, is representative. “I think there is too much freedom of speech,” said Puyu. “We should limit it. It borders on irresponsibility.”

Puyu is a middle-aged man who spent most of his life in Russia and who studied philosophy during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the years of chaos that followed. He, like many Russians, fears government instability more than some level of oppression.

Next to him, his younger colleagues trumpeted the values of exposing the truth and using modern forms of communication.

Today, Journalists are more free than they have ever been in Russia. They now have a constitutional right to free speech that is similar, but less inclusive, than that provided in the U.S. First Amendment.

But while the rules for what can be printed and aired have changed, the fear of retribution hasn’t. For most of Russian history, government officials would close down offending media outlets or execute journalists. Now, they are assassinated and the killers are often unidentified. In addition to government interests, wealthy and influential private citizens may be responsible.

In 2006, a journalist named Anna Politkovskaya, who consistently exposed the difficulties and corruption in Russia’s war effort in Crimea, was assassinated in Moscow. Her killers have never been fully identified or found.

But while such dramatic incidents of violence do exist, free speech is generally expanding.

The attitude of those in and near the profession differ greatly on this issue, with age being a major factor in how they decide. Sergey Bolshakov, a department head at the school, spoke glowingly of Politkovskaya, calling her a “free spirit who told the truth openly.”

He did, however, go on to imply that students were not instructed to be like her. “We teach our students to go right up to the line, [established in the constitution] but not to cross it. Journalism is dangerous work,” he said.

Puyu agreed on that point, but doesn’t feel that the government is responsible for this form of censorship. “I think we need to look at each individual case,” he said. He did not comment on Politkovskaya’s death.

Andrey Ershov, the St. Petersburg bureau chief of Kammersant, or ‘Businessman,’ implied that he didn’t fear government censorship.

Kammersant is one of the few independent publications in Russia today. Most newspapers, and all television stations, receive government grants and will alter the truth according to the government’s interest, says Ershov.

Ershov used an example involving the St. Petersburg governor to show how free the press had become. He recently published an article about the governor’s declining popularity, despite requests from the federal government that he didn’t. His higher-ups gave the okay, and now the governor may have to step down at the end of her term.

Ershov also publicly criticized a project publicly supported by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He calculated himself that a $2 billion public works project in China bought much than a similar project in St. Petersburg.

But Politkovskaya crossed a dangerous boundary. Her work threatened the legitimacy of the government’s war in Chechnya, exposing corruption and lies told by officials. She braved a new path that other journalists continue to travel, despite the risks.