I became interested in politics in my college years, which coincided with mid-2000s. I’ve read a lot of the Western — mainly American — press, and the recurring topic of Vladimir Putin being a villain because of journalists being killed in Russia kept infuriating me for some reason. That topic still is there, for example, as David Kramer in the Washington Post puts it, “Since returning to the presidency in May 2012 after a four-year stint as prime minister, Putin has launched the worst crackdown on human rights in Russia in decades. Critics, journalists and opposition figures are regularly harassed and arrested — even killed“. Clearly, that’s how some Americans think.
Anyway, back to journalists in Russia. A telling article appeared last year at Politfact, where Linda Qui tried to make an expert opinion on “Does Vladimir Putin kill journalists?” It leads to an interesting question, why did the topic of media freedom in Russia become a point in the U.S. presidential debate, with Trump defending Putin? Is there some story missing? What’s wrong with that and other articles, which matter-of-factly claim that “The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reports 96 journalists killed in Russia between 1991 and 2009, and 56 of these killings were attributed by the Committee to Protect Journalists to be ‘work-related.’” With a bit of patience from you, I will try to answer these and other questions.
First, let’s try to answer a question, did anything extraordinary take place in Russia during Putin’s terms as either a President or a Prime minister? How does the situation in Russia compare to that in other countries? To show the place of Russia in the world we use the approach originally proposed by Gordon Hahn in his 2009 article “Repression of journalism in Russia in comparative perspective“. The idea is that the ratio of the number of journalists killed to a country’s population provides a better estimate of risks experienced by journalists of the said country, than the plain number of killed journalists.
It’s not hard to do so using the database provided by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization documenting cases of journalists killed in relation to their work (so, if a journalist dies in a traffic accident while heading to a picnic it doesn’t count). In Figure 1 you can see the number of journalists killed in various countries since 2000, per 100 million population per year. In other words, it’s annual average of the number of killed journalists divided by each country’s population. There we’ve used 2007 population data provided by the World Bank; the year 2007 chosen as a midpoint between 2000 and 2016, and it’s not really important because we don’t expect a country’s population to change rapidly. Also, in order not to cram the figure with data points we do not show countries with less than three journalists killed since 2000.
Figure 1. The ratio of the number of killed journalists to the country’s population (in units of 100M people) and to the timespan between Jan 1, 2000 and Aug 19, 2016 (measured in years). The data for numbers of killed journalists and countries’ population courtesy of the CPJ and World Bank, respectfully
So, what do we see in the Figure 1? While the (annual average) ratio of killed journalists to a country’s population is an order of magnitude higher in Russia (1.09) than the same value in countries like the U.S. (0.1), the value for Russia is also more than an order of magnitude less than that in the worst offenders like Iraq (36.2). Close neighbours of Russia include countries like Mexico (1.59), Ukraine (1.16), Brazil (0.98), Egypt (0.89), France (0.84) and Turkey (0.61). Nothing spectacularly good with safety of journalists in these countries, but they are also the states the United States has no qualms dealing with.
Anyway, that’s not supposed to be an exercise in whataboutism, so let’s zoom in the Figure 1 and try to compare Russia with the rest of the post-Soviet countries. The U.S. official propaganda posits that some post-Soviet countries (like Georgia and Ukraine) have chosen the path of freedom and democracy, while some (like Russia) became authoritarian. In the Figure 2 we can see the data previously shown in Figure 1, but now only for post-Soviet countries.
Figure 2. The same data as in Figure 1, now shown only for post-Soviet states. The item “PSUexR” describes all post-Soviet Union countries excluding Russia
Note that in Figure 2 we show also countries (like Latvia or Belarus) where only one or two journalists were killed since 2000. This is justified because our focus now is on the post-Soviet states. However it could also lead to a bias related to measuring single events. For example, we wouldn’t expect Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) to be culturally different, however because of the one journalist killed in Latvia we might have an impression that Latvia is somehow fundamentally worse than, say, Lithuania. So, if we are going to compare Russia to the rest of the post-Soviet space we must find a way to also account for the countries with a clean record (like Tajikistan). For that purpose we show in Figure 2 a data point named “PSUexR” (post-Soviet Union except for Russia) — the annual average ratio of journalists killed in post-Soviet states other than Russia to the total population of those states. It’s evident that the value for the post-Soviet states excluding Russia is roughly the same (actually 17% less) than the value for Russia. But when we have orders-of-magnitude differences between various states, 17% does not make news. Rather than that, it proves the point that Russia is culturally homogenious with the rest of the post-Soviet space. With Russia having roughly a half of the post-Soviet population, what is the reason for the U.S. to single out Russia as the worst human rights offender?
Now I digress, but very soon I will return to that point.
…When I’ve shown initial versions of Figure 1 to people in the Internet somebody asked me, why are journalists important? Why should we care about safety of journalists beyond what we care for ordinary folks? It’s a better question than it seems to be, but its true meaning didn’t dawn on me for a long time.
Indeed, we might expect to see some correlation between the risk for a journalist to be killed and the amount of crime in a country. And while it’s only a theory, we could test it for Russia! What happens, for example, if we show on the same plot the number of killed journalists and the overall number of murders? Clearly these values are orders of magnitude apart, so in Figure 3 the scale for the number of killed journalists (blue squares) is on the left axis, while the scale for the overall number of murders (red circles) is displayed on the right axis.
Figure 3. The number of journalists killed each year for their work in Russia (blue squares, the scale shown on the left axis), and the number of homicide cases each year in Russia (red circles, the scale is shown on the right axis and is measured in thousands of cases). The data for homicide cases courtesy of Rosstat
How does our theory work out for the data displayed in Figure 3? Since 2000, after reaching a peak in 2002, the number of homicide cases keeps declining each year. The same dynamics can be observed for the number of journalists killed each year. But wait… what the hell has happened from years 1993 to 1996? It looks like journalists were killed in droves (and yes, they were), so why is the focus of the U.S. press and officials on the relatively benign Putin’s years, rather than the mid-1990s?
My guess is that it’s a diversion tactics. Rather than exposing the ugly truth hidden in mid-1990s, the press is squarely putting the blame on Putin for what has happened in 2000s. However, this piece is not a Putin apology, so let’s instead remember what has happened in Russia in mid-1990s, as well as why and how is that related to Clinton administration.
This brings us right to the 1993 constitutional crisis, when 7 journalists were killed within a single day. The nature of the conflict? Disagreements between the Government which pushed for neoliberal reforms and the Parliament (Supreme Soviet) which vehemently opposed them. The Government led by President Yeltsin had full support of the Clinton administration. As U.S. diplomat Wayne Merry remembers, “Washington saw the confrontation as a morality play, of good guys versus bad guys. This is false.” Naturally, after crushing the dissent Yeltsin received words of support from Clinton. As Ambassador-at-Large and close friend of Clinton, Strobe Talbott, recalls in his memoirs, “Yeltsin deserved — and received — credit for <…> keeping in check the forces of revanchism among communist and nationalist deputies in the Supreme Soviet.” Was it really so? According to Wayne Merry, the dissent “included a very wide spectrum of people who ranged from the most ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic, vicious people you could imagine to many of the most, I would say, liberal, progressive, pro-Western, democratizing individuals in the country.…” As Russian journalist Vladimir Glinskiy, a defender of the White House, reflects, “What would have happened in the case of our victory? Nothing dramatic at all. The Supreme Soviet would just negotiate the allocation of authority with Yeltsin. But the Supreme Soviet would ‘negotiate’ that, and won’t arrange shootings and gallows.”
The 1993 crisis reinforced Yeltsin and paved the way for more. The 1995-1996 peak of the number of killed journalists in Figure 3 coincides with the timeline of the First Chechen war, but a significant number of journalists “contributed” to the statistics for their work of exposing crime and corruption. Needless to say, all that time Yeltsin remained “good old Boris” for Clinton. According to Strobe Talbott, “What little we did know about Chechnya and Dudayev inclined us to accept Moscow’s version that it was dealing with an ugly mixture of secessionism and criminality.” And while he regrets the “error of not being more critical of the war by coming up with a faulty justification for Russian policy” he doesn’t have a word of compassion for journalists killed in Russia in 1990s. Why so? It’s stupid to regret something that was official U.S. policy.
…Hopefully I’ve provided enough rationale to explain something that crosses my mind each time I read another U.S. article exposing human rights abuses under Putin. A gut feeling that something about it is patently false.