(October 18, 2021 / Israel Hayom) Last Monday’s edition of Novaya Gazeta was perhaps one of the most festive ever. It was the first edition following the announcement by the Nobel Prize Committee that transformed the newspaper’s editor, Dmitry Muratov, into an international star.
Muratov is only the third Russian to win a Nobel Peace Prize, joining the scientist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov (1975) and Mikhael Gorbachev (1990), the last leader of the Soviet Union. Surprisingly, however, the front page of the historic edition was devoted not to Muratov but to the joint winner of the prize, Filipino journalist Maria Ressa.
“You see that? You didn’t guess!” Muratov said over the telephone from Moscow during an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom. “We thought about that front page at the editorial meeting on Saturday morning and decided to go with it. For us, it’s a matter of principle: our faces aren’t the story, our workers aren’t the story—and especially not my face, either.
This neatly summarizes the Novaya Gazeta ethos: self-awareness, public service and an extreme sense of professional modesty. To never forget the basic principle that the journalist isn’t the story.
It is thus a tragic irony that over the years, the Novaya staff have become the news—six of them have paid for their principles with their lives.
Igor Domnikov was murdered in 2000 after he criticized a regional vice governor; in 2003 Yury Shchekochikhin was probably poisoned by radioactive materials; Anastasia Baburova and Stanislav Markelov, who investigated the extreme right in Russia, were murdered in the center of Moscow in 2009 by a Neo-Nazi activist and his girlfriend; that same year, Natalya Estemirova, an investigative journalist in Chechnya, was abducted and shot dead near the Kavkaz federal road in the Republic of Ingushetia; and, of course, Anna Politkovskaya, who was already a legendary journalist in her own lifetime and who was almost synonymous with the newspaper.
Despite being editor of Novaya Gazeta for 25 years (apart from a short break), Muratov is careful to clarify that, from his perspective, he is only the emissary.
“The prize was not given to us, and definitely not [to] myself, and therefore I relate to its award coolly,” he said. “I am extremely grateful to the Nobel Committee. Thanks to them it can be said openly that the fallen and the living won one of the most humanistic prizes in the world.”
Without doubt, Politkovskaya is the central figure in the burden of grief that the newspaper carries. Close to the entrance of the office at Potapovsky Alley 3 in Moscow is a large monument embossed with her face. The garden close to the entrance plaza carries her name. So does the annual prize that the newspaper awards to outstanding journalists.
Politkovskaya was a legend in her own lifetime. She was the first journalist to expose the horrors of the Second Chechen War—including and perhaps mainly those perpetrated by the Russian Army itself. In the incomprehensible hell that was the North Caucasus republic, Politkovskaya became the address for hundreds of Chechens whose authorities—both federal and local—didn’t care about the kidnapping, murder and rape of their loved ones.
In the newspaper’s editorial office in Moscow the staff knew she was in if the corridor leading to her office was packed with 30-40 Chechen adults—injured, exhausted, crying. In 2004 she interviewed Ramzan Kadyrov, then deputy prime minister and today the republic’s “sultan,” in which he menaced her.—”I was expecting them to shoot me in the back at any moment,” she said. Politkovskaya was also a known human rights activist, and since her name preceded her, she tried to negotiate – in vain—with the terrorist group that had taken control of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in October 2002. It is no surprise that, over the years, she accumulated many enemies in the corridors of power.
In 2004, while she was on a flight to independently negotiate at Beslan, where Islamist terrorists held more than 300 hostages at a school, she was poisoned, but survived.
In October 2006, however, Politkovskaya’s luck ran out. She was assassinated in the elevator of her apartment building. Her murder became a shadow clouding the Novaya Gazeta in particular, and the relationship between the Russian authorities and the free media in general.
The reason: in the 15 years sincer her murder, every effort has been made to cover up the affair, maybe because it became clear—only thanks to an investigation by the newspaper itself—that one of the organizers of the murder was the head of the Moscow police surveillance department, who assisted the assassins in exchange for a bribe.
The officer later pleaded guilty in the framework of a plea bargain, and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. The murderer—a Chechen youth—and his uncle, a senior figure in the underworld, were sentenced to life imprisonment. The uncle later died under unclear circumstances in jail. The big question remains open: who ordered the murder, which was a watershed moment in the annals of the newspaper and Russian journalism?
Following Politkovskaya’s assassination, Putin remarked that “her killing had caused greater damage to Russia than her writings.”
In the film “This is How They Murdered Anna,” which was released last week, Muratov says, “The unsolved murders of our colleagues made clear that one can deal with journalists as one wishes if for any reason their work is inconsistent with the interests of the authorities.”
The authorities, says Muratov in the film, care nothing for public opinion, “and also, for society itself it doesn’t matter what happens with journalists. This lack of punishment only increases the feeling of subjugation; it transforms [Russian] journalism to a profession that is incompatible with everyday life.”
Asked whether he believes the person who ordered the murder will ever be found, Muratov said, “It’s not a question of faith.”
“I can tell you that there is the official Kremlin position, according to which there is no expiry date [on the case]. That’s good. The investigatory committee told us that the investigation is ongoing. They didn’t even bother telling us who the investigator is. But we found the main witness in the case. And we will certainly discover him [whoever ordered the murder],” he said.
Even today, Novaya Gazeta is under threat. In March chemical materials were sprayed at the entrance to the paper. And after publishing another investigation about the horrors of the Chechen dictatorship, commanders of the Akhmat Kadyrov Battalion—for all intents and purposes the private army of the Chechen president—recorded a film explicitly threatening to the newspaper, accusing it of slander. The reason: a series of exposés about how members of the division are involved in torture in Chechnya.
Muratov, 59, is part of a group of journalists who founded Novaya Gazeta in 1993 with the aim of exposing corruption, illegal detentions, torture, fraudulent elections and human stories. An emphasis was placed on the suffering of patients with incurable rare diseases, who found it nearly impossible to get funding for medicines.
Over the years, the newspaper—seventy-six percent of whose shares are held by the staff, with the remainder being divided between businessman Alexander Lebedev and Gorbachev— exposed outrageous scandals in Russia: from the money laundering of 20 billion dollars to the rape and murder of a young Chechen woman by a colonel in the Russian army, from the failures of the authorities during operations to free hostages to the persecution of homosexuals in Chechnya.
The newspaper and its staff have won more than 40 professional and international prizes, including the U.S. State Department International Women of Courage award—and now the Nobel Prize. (Muratov related that on Friday morning he had screened the calls from the Nobel Committee in Oslo as was in the midst of a heated professional argument with Yelena Milashina, the paper’s head of investigations and recipient of the The Women of Courage award. “I saw three calls from Oslo, I thought it was an unwanted call and I continued to talk,” he said.)
According to the Nobel Committee, despite the oppression and the murder of its journalists, Muratov “has refused to abandon the newspaper’s independent policy. He has consistently defended the right of journalists to write anything they want about whatever they want, as long as they comply with the professional and ethical standards of journalism.” The committee also lauded the paper’s efforts “to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
The need for such efforts was thrown into even sharper relief over the past year as the Russian government tightened its chokehold on the rest of the country’s independent media, most of which were classified with a stroke of a pen as “foreign agents.” This status limits organizations’ financial options and is more or less a death sentence.
It’s no surprise that, in the eyes of many, the awarding of the Nobel Prize to a Russian journalist—and on the day after the anniversary of Politkovskaya’s murder (Oct. 7)—is seen as a sign of protest against the Kremlin and of support for the free media in the country.
While Novaya is also seen as a candidate for the government blacklist, it is somewhat protected by the fact that six of its journalists were murdered for doing their job, and now because its editor-in-chief is a Nobel laureate. Still, earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that while Muratov was not considered a foreign agent, no achievement would help him escape said definition if he broke the law.
Muratov himself jokes that, if they are required to carry the fictitious “Mark of Cain” of “foreign agent” and attach the disclaimer required by the law to the newspaper’s articles, he will be happy to add the words “Nobel laureate” to the official formulation of “This material is presented by a foreign agent.”
“We will use the prize to fight on behalf of the Russian media, who they are trying to suppress. We will try to help people who have become ‘foreign agents,’ and are being persecuted and expelled from the country,” he said.
Q: You said that a portion of the prize money will be used to support persecuted journalists.
A: Yes, we discussed this in the editorial meeting. We’ve divided up the money that we haven’t received yet. In relation to our colleagues who are being illegally censored and illegally persecuted, there will be two things. One of them is still a secret. The other is that the money from the prize will increase the amount awarded to winners of the Politkovskaya Prize. This prize is awarded to a journalist chosen by the prize committee.
Q: How do you explain the increased pressure on Russian journalists? The number of “foreign agents” has tripled in the last year.
A: I have an unpopular theory. The issue is this: In our parliament we don’t have legislators who represent people with different positions about the future of the country. And people like that, with a different point of view, number 10-15 million, maybe 20 million. It’s the minority. Because there are no legislators to represent this minority, the independent media will represent them. The small and independent media, which increased, expressed different positions. But because the authorities stopped cooperating with this minority, they tried to liquidate their independent media, so that the positions of the representatives of this minority won’t be expressed in public.
Q: One of your colleagues recently said: “In Russia, journalism that doesn’t defend human rights is not journalism at all.”
A: I support her, of course. You have to understand, the controversy over whether journalism is just observation or an intervention in life has continued for over 100 years. We are totally convinced that journalism is intervention in life. That before taking a picture of an injured child you dress his wounds. That’s our position.
Q: So a journalist in Russia is more than a journalist? He’s a public figure?
A: I don’t know; I don’t like the expression “public figure.” Simply put, the journalist has to change the world for the better. And for the sake of this he needs not only to write but also to change the world. It’s true, it contradicts objectivity, it contradicts the perspective of the observant journalist. But I can tell you that this newspaper participates in events and we will help sick children with serious illnesses, and we will demand that people who poisoned the Arctic Ocean will pay a fine.
Q: What does “for the better” mean? How do you decide what issues will improve the world and what to be involved in?
A: Everything that’s connected to human rights, the rights of human beings to live, to breathe clean air, for pure water, for the same living conditions that we call human—that’s the whole criterion.”
(The humanistic approach has been a part of the newspaper since its founding; it isn’t coincidental that most of its staff are active in this area. But to Muratov, this approach has another clear anchor: “It’s the humanistic tradition of Russian literature. For example, in his travel diary to the island of Sakhalin, Chekhov writes that he isn’t merely conducting a survey of the population, but is also a nobleman who aids those who toil in backbreaking labor. That’s us. That’s our story.”)
Q: Do you see yourselves as continuing in the tradition of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy?
A: Yes, that’s the line—and essentially even more than that: we share a common field. Look, until now we have placed—and maybe we are outdated in this regard … do you remember what the title was of the Nobel Prize speech given by Andrei Sakharov? “Peace, progress and human rights.” That was the main thesis of the speech. Progress and human rights. There is a point of view that thinks it is possible to have progress without protecting human rights, and that’s the totalitarian version, while we think that progress and human rights cannot be disentangled.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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