The danger in being a journalist in Russia today

An interview with Russian journalist Elena Milashina.

Elena Milashina is a leading investigative journalist at Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's few remaining independent, outspoken newspapers.

A small, Moscow-based paper, Novaya Gazeta is famous for its alarming number of murdered journalists.

Elena Milashina at the Moscow offices of Novaya Gazeta. (Courtesy Novaya Gazeta)

Over nine years, five people have been killed, among them the internationally recognized Anna Politkovskaya. She was gunned down in 2006 in the elevator in her apartment building while investigating atrocities committed in Chechnya by Russian forces.

More recently, in July of this year, another colleague, Natalya Estemirova, was abducted from her home in Grozny, Chechnya, and murdered.

She, too, was collecting information on extrajudicial executions and torture by pro-Russian forces in Chechnya.

Milashina, 32, has now taken up the work of Politkovskaya and Estemirova, venturing into the dangerous topic of Chechnya, Russia's separatist-minded republic.

She first joined the newspaper at 19 in 1996 during the heady days of press freedom under the late Boris Yeltsin.

Milashina was in Toronto last week where she was being honoured by Human Rights Watch as one of four recipients of the Alison Des Forges award for extraordinary activism.

While here, she spoke with CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon.

Question: You've said it is very difficult to be a journalist in Russia today and that freedom of expression doesn't really exist. How bad is it?

Milashina: When I started to work as a journalist back in 1996, it was a time when state television channels were getting money from the government and were criticizing the government on the war in Chechnya, on economic reforms, and on corruption.

Right now we can't even criticize freedom of the press in Russia because we don't have it.

Most people in Russia get their information from television and it is totally controlled by the government.

This year, over the past ten months, six human rights activists, journalists and opposition politicians were murdered. They were all critics of the Russian government [and killed] for being brave enough to talk openly.

If you are brave enough to talk or write openly, you will be a target.

Crime scene. A security officer guards the site where a suicide bomber blew herself up beside a police car in downtown Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, in September 2009. (Reuters)

What topics are now taboo in Russia?

You can't discuss on television what is going on in Chechnya or in the Northern Caucasus. You can't discuss what happened in 2008 in Georgia in the war over South Ossetia.

Tell me about the impact on the journalistic community when Anna Politkovskaya was killed?

She was one of the last critics of the [pro-Russian] Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. When she was killed, everyone understood that it was because of her job.

When she was murdered, many journalists stopped going to Chechnya, or started to write [positive] accounts of how the president of Chechnya was rebuilding the capital and what a good job he was doing.

Natalya Estemirova, a high-profile human rights worker and journalist for Novaya Gazeta, was murdered in July this year in Grozny, How did this affect you?

For me it was a great loss. And a great shock. But it hasn't caused people to challenge the Russian government.

The Canadian and U.S. government can help us by opening their eyes to what's happening in Russia. Human rights abuses have increased this year. Many people have been killed and nobody is punished.

If your government continues to believe that all is well in Russia, it is a terrible mistake.

Have you had death threats?

Yes, I do have threats. In Beslan, I escaped being beaten. But my friends were attacked. My editors have [tried to] stop me from going to Chechnya because of threats. But I don't listen to my editors because there are lots of people who need my help.

When it's so dangerous, why do you continue?

Sometimes it is harder to stop than to continue. To stop for me would mean to betray my friends, to be unhappy for the rest of my life, to stop helping people.

Mourners bury Natalya Estemirova, a prominent human rights activist and journalist, in Koshkeldy, Chechnya, in July 2009. Elena Milashina was staying at Estemirova's house when she was abducted and murdered. (Reuters)

[When I think of what happened to Natalya Estemirova] I want revenge. I want to punish the killers in the only way I can. The only way I can is to continue to write about them.

You have been quoted as saying that despite the dangers you can't step out of the profession.

Yes, had I known back in 1996 that this was the "contract", I would probably have refused to sign it. But now I can't get out.

Our newspaper is like a big family. It makes me sometimes very crazy angry, but also really happy when I come to work. When I am away, the one thing I really miss is my desk.

Can you describe your editorial meetings at Novaya Gazeta?

I was at an editorial meeting of the New York Times recently. It was in a fancy building. Our place is modest. My work place is a great mess. It's the way Russian journalists behave.

We smoke, drink, and talk and laugh and argue with each other.

When we have a meeting, it's a great noise. Everyone is arguing, trying to sell their story, arguing with the editor-in-chief, and he is screaming "that's good," or "that's awful!"

It's more alive than at the New York Times. Maybe we should be more calm, but sometimes it is great to work in this kind of environment.

When you have to work hard, like on a really big story like Beslan [where pro-Chechen gunmen held over 1,000 people hostage at a school in 2004], and I had to stay nights at work, people stayed with me and they did a great job.

We all work together and it makes us close. 

What are you trying to accomplish? You take incredible risks. Are you hoping that your work will indirectly push the official agenda, or bring about policy changes down the road?

I do what I have to do. Whatever happens, will happen.

It's not that I expect something back from my job, changes or even thanks. It's my job. It's what I have to do.

You've covered the whole Putin period and what you see as a downward slide in journalism and human rights. Do you expect changes from President Dmitri Medvedev?

Medvedev is just the person Putin chose to be in power instead of him for a little while. He is not independent.

But when [he came to power], many people in Russia and in the world asked this question and have hope that Medvedev can change the situation. All these people, all these dreams can change the situation in Russia.

This can support him and make him independent.