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.
Last month, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London and the Al Jazeera program, People and Power, released the provocatively titled investigation, “Putin: The Richest Man on Earth?”
The report examined Putin’s assets and allegations that he had amassed vast amounts of wealth. The Bureau employed a tried and tested way of uncovering the hidden assets of politicians: its reporters used asset declarations as a starting point and then unearthed proof that other, hidden, and more substantial assets had been acquired through questionable means. This method has been used with some success elsewhere, notably in the Philippines, where journalistic investigation into the assets of the president led to his ouster and by prosecutors in the ongoing trial of the Supreme Court chief justice, who was found to have had millions of dollars in undeclared bank accounts. In Thailand, reporters have used then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s asset declarations to show that he had violated divestment laws, an exposé that came close to forcing him out of office in 2001. Up to now, Thaksin is still facing lawsuits alleging he had falsified his asset disclosures. Read the rest of this entry »