Can the worst of times for media and political freedoms in post-Soviet Russia also be the best of times for watchdog reporting?
Elizaveta Osetinskyaya, the editor of Forbes Russia, the most prominent business magazine in that country, seemed to think so. It’s a paradox, she said. The Russian media is confronting some of the most formidable political and financial challenges it has faced since the fall of communism. Yet she thinks investigative reporting has never been more vibrant nor its quality better. “Nowadays you can’t hide anything,” she said,” the declarations of officials, their assets overseas, you cannot even hide your offshore accounts.”
“Second,” she continued, “Western [media] brands came to Russia in the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s, bringing high standards and technologies for investigative journalism. I started as a journalist in 1995. A lot of investigative pieces at that time came from leaks from oligarchs. This is not the way I would prefer to find information myself. Nowadays that is more possible than before. Third, despite more restrictive laws, there are now more clear and transparent rules [for businesses and for officials], such as international standards of accounting. Now we have a lot of databases. We have information about tenders. You can find a lot of information about the schemes of private companies. Fourth, there are a lot of independent bloggers who help us do our jobs.”
Osetinskaya was speaking at Columbia’s Harriman Institute, which brought in brought in five of Russia’s leading muckrakers in a forum last week. Put five Russian investigative journalists together in a room and you’re bound to have fireworks. The consensus: Vladimir Putin is bad news for for the Russian press. Since his election to a third term last year, the State Duma has recriminalized defamation and passed new laws that would authorize state censorship of critical websites. There is now far less tolerance for critical reporting than there was during the previous president, Dmitry Medvedev. At the same time, violent assaults on journalists continue.
So it was no surprise that others didn’t quite share Osetinskaya’s optimism. Elena Milashina has been for 16 years an investigative journalist for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where she continues the work of her slain colleague Anna Politkovsyaka, reporting on Chechnya and also investigating attacks on journalists. Last year, Milashina was attacked and beaten up by unknown men while on her way home. The beatings were so severe, she suffered a concussion, 14 blood clots and a broken tooth.
In a chilling account in this month’s issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, freelance journalist Matthieu Aikins recounts how hackers in the employ of the Libyan government were able to access the email accounts of foreign journalists. It wasn’t that difficult – nothing that a hacker of average skills in say, Manila or Bucharest, couldn’t do. Among other things, Libyan authorities got a spreadsheet from a CNN email account; it had a list of names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of the network’s underground sources in Tripoli.
In the past few years, the surveillance capacities of intelligence bodies around the world have multiplied beyond imagination, thanks in part to surveillance technologies developed in the U.S. and Western Europe. But even without those technologies, governments in many countries have been able to count on the cooperation of telecoms companies who willingly release data on subscribers in exchange for leniency on their licensing and other requirements. Read the rest of this entry »
We live in a new world of news, writes Frank Smyth, senior security adviser to the Committee to Protect Journalists. ”News organizations that publish primarily or entirely online are now in the thick of front-line, in-depth journalism.”
“With the attention,” he continues in an introduction to CPJ’s extremely helpful Journalist Security Guide, “has come risk.”
Around the world, a new breed of news online-only news organizations has emerged. They do some of the most exciting and innovative watchdogging work. They are small, feisty, independent. They don’t compete in the breaking news arena but focus on holding the powerful to account. The Internet has given them a platform for disseminating their work and engaging their audiences. It has amplified their voices and given them influence and clout. But they are also vulnerable. Without the resources of large news organizations, they are mostly left on their own to fend off legal and security threats. Read the rest of this entry »
The story was told in the signature literary style of El Faro, an independent online-only news site published in El Salvador. It was on the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, which has left a trail of murder and mayhem in Central America, Mexico and the U.S. It began like this:
El Muchacho received a call on his cell phone Friday morning. It came from the jail in Ciudad Barrios, to explain the new instructions from the Mara Salvatrucha: they would have to “calm down.” In the gang’s language, that amounted to saying that until further notice, there should be no killings and no new extortions.
We had arranged to meet El Muchacho at a shopping center. He’s in his 30s, and very slender. He’s the palabrero (leader) of a clica (cell) of the MS-13 gang. Orders received from the jail cannot be questioned, so he got his cell members together and gave them the message. “We’re on vacation,” he jokes, laughing as he says it.
The report went on to reveal a secret deal in which local gangs would pull back on killings in exchange for concessions from the government, including more lenient treatment for gang members currently in jail. The revelations shook El Salvador, a country reeling from gang violence as it emerged in the last few years as the new pathway for narcotics to enter the U.S.