Nadezhda Azhgikhina: Combating Impunity in the Digital Age

posted 12 Nov 2013, 02:11 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 12 Nov 2013, 02:16 ]
11 November 2013

Nadezdha Azghikhina is Secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists and was elected Vice President of the European Federation of Journalists in May this year. She has been a leading activist for journalists' rights nationally and internationally over the past decade, making her name leading campaigns on gender rights, press freedom and impunity. In the article below Nadezhda reflects on 20 years of struggle. 

My colleague Marc Steinbok, photographer for Ogonyok magazine, was wounded reporting from the shoot out around Ostankino national TV station that had become a focus of the coup and sporadic fighting in the first week of October 1993. A stray bullet broke his leg and smashed away a chunk of his bone. We had been on many joint missions and prepared many publications from all former USSR before I came to visit him in the Moscow central emergency hospital where I found him lying on one of a dozen beds, each occupied by young wounded men, similarly struck down by gunfire during those bloody events. 

Marc was lucky to survive and even receive some compensation from his magazine for the injuries and trauma. Other reporters were not so lucky, were found killed in the centre of Moscow after the shooting around the Russian Parliament and TV station finally subsided. At the time, as we sat that evening surveying the smoking Russian White House from the hospital window, we had little idea that the 1993 coup would mark the starting point for a long and bloody list of killings of media workers across Russia. I just felt that something wrong and awful had happened, and it was our duty to ensure it didn’t again.

Peering out from behind the bars of the closed and censored USSR, during the Perestroika period, we young journalists felt an incredible urge for freedom. While we were all ready to make sacrifices for that prize, none of us could not imagine in our worst nightmares that in a free Russia journalists could be killed for their work. Media professionals could be censored in USSR, fired, jailed or even exiled – but not killed. We also believed – and our Western counterparts with whom we were shared this belief – that the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War would herald in a new era of free expression and independent talented journalism would inevitably flourish across Europe and Central Asia. East and West, we would create a bright liberated information space stretching undimmed from the Atlantic to the Pacific. We failed utterly to anticipate and foresee how corrupt authorities and criminal gangs would develop new forms of censorship and pressure to bring our dream so violently to heel. 

The Russian Union of Journalists’ list of deceased colleagues started in 1993 and today contains 348 names of men and women, young and not so young, from mainstream broadcasters to small independent publications. They have been shot covering conflicts, like Nadezhda Chaikova or Tamerlan Kazikhanov, or gunned down in front of their apartments in the capital city like Vlad Listiev or Anna Politkovskaya, they’ve been blown up by letter bombs like Dmitry Kholodov, they’ve suffered mysterious deaths like Valentin Katkavtsev or Yury Shchekochikhin. Most of those deaths have not been investigated properly and the perpetrators remain unpunished. While some cases, like Kholodov and Politkovskaya, are well known, many are not, but each and every case of unsolved killings helps promote the culture of impunity that has emerged across Russia during last 20 years. And Russia is not alone. 

Journalists face new forms of pressure and censorship in all of Europe’s post-communist countries, in many diverse often blunt and brutal, sometimes highly sophisticated and insidious forms. Extreme acts of violence leading to vicious assaults or killings are the most visible ‘tip of the iceberg’. Thousands of media professionals face different forms of legal pressure, court cases, threats, jailings, unfair dismissals and other forms of censorship in transition countries for their work. 

The 21st Century has also revealed how fragile freedom of expression and basic democratic values are all over the world, and also in the older and traditionally stable democracies. The War on Terror has given birth to a raft of anti-terror / anti-extremism laws that limited press freedom, media independence and privacy and basic human rights in many countries, while equipping the authorities with virtually unlimited powers of surveillance and access to our most confidential and private dealings. Ensuring public security has become the official justification for such unprecedented snooping into the work of our colleagues. 

Those who would censor journalists are everywhere, and everywhere we journalists must be vigilant. Regardless of the traditional notions of rights and democracy, the digital era has created a whole new box of tools and the rule book has gone missing. 

Last summer in Istanbul, at the conference devoted to 105th anniversary of the official ending of censorship in Turkey, we demanded the release of 64 imprisoned journalists. The discussion and the atmosphere reminded me in so many details of Russia, or Azerbaijan, Belarus or Ukraine, while colleagues from the Balkans said the same about Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia.… We carry the burden of so many similar problems, that we must know and learn from each other more, and join together in support for each other. 

New technologies and the digital revolution has given us new tools and multiple options for journalist investigation and reporting, but at the same time the digital age has created new challenges for quality and responsible journalism and a search for its basic values. The financial crisis and globalization have also challenged the very future of journalism, the value of journalists’ work and their status in societies everywhere. 

The European journalist landscape is very diverse. Traditionally colleagues discuss North and South, but Europe includes Turkey, the Balkans, Central and East Europe, and the former USSR counties that all have so many things in common. They bring together the whole picture of their problems and their experience in combating censorship and overcoming old and new challenges. 

This new commonality provides European journalists with a unique opportunity to elaborate a new strategy for the promotion and development of traditional democratic principles and values in journalism. 

The EFJ started a vibrant co-operation with newcomers several years ago in Turkey and Russia. The EFJ launched its Free Turkish Journalists campaign and adoption programme for jailed journalists, involving a broad solidarity campaign across many Western countries and dozens of missions to attend trials, that has brought comfort, solidarity and results to the victims. I met several Turkish journalists released through the impact of international pressure.

The Russian IFJ-EFJ impunity campaign started shortly after the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006, and is one of the more visible examples of the importance of combining global solidarity with local and national initiatives. The campaign, officially launched at the IFJ’s Moscow Congress, saw the launch of the Partial Justice investigation and report devoted to the killings of journalists. The project then developed a broader strategy building two data-bases on deaths and other violations of journalists’ rights, an extensive safety training programme for the Caucasus and an end-impunity campaign in support of the victims’ families.

The RUJ has done a great deal for the children and families of killed journalists, and co-operated in combating impunity. International solidarity actions, joint work on monitoring, analysis and campaigning is vital to create a strong platform for combating impunity. Unions participating in the EFJ-IFJ End-Impunity project have elaborated a strong new network that is developing new initiatives, and is helping the integration of newcomers into the EFJ. The project has developed a comprehensive picture of the situation of journalists’ rights and union activism in the region. We have all understood the value and need for us to work ever closer and to integrate our work for a truly effective impact. 

Solidarity is our main weapon, for the only way to combat violence against journalists and censorship is with the truth. Solidarity will help us overcome new and old challenges, and to protect basic values of our profession. EFJ campaigns such as Stand Up for Journalism and the Ethical Journalism Initiative and Journalism as a Public Good give practical programmes for our work and combating of all forms of violence and censorship, the struggle for dignity and the freedom of journalism. 

Nadezhda Azhgikhina, RUJ Executive Secretary, Vice President of EFJ