In honor of World Press Day on Monday, the Paris-based press watchdog Reporters Without Borders released its annual list of “Predators of Press Freedom.” The list singles out forty politicians, government officials, religious leaders, militias and criminal organizations that, in their words, “cannot stand the press, treat it as an enemy and directly attack journalists.” The forty predators hail from countries that the organization accuses of censoring, persecuting, kidnapping, torturing, and, in the worst cases, murdering journalists. No stranger to the list, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin makes a repeat appearance this year, accompanied for the first time by Chechen President Razman Kadyrov. The authors of the report mince no words in slamming the two leaders for creating an overtly hostile environment for journalists working in Russia today.
President Kadyrov’s debut as an official predator of press freedom comes as no surprise following last year’s surge in violence against journalists in the North Caucasus. The report cites 5 journalists killed in that region in 2009 alone, and 22 since 2000:
Often referred to as “Putin’s guard dog,” Ramzan Kadyrov shares the Russian prime minister’s taste for crude language and strong action. President and undisputed chief of this Russian republic in the North Caucasus since April 2007, he has restored a semblance of calm after the devastation of two wars. A high price has been paid for this superficial stability, the introduction of a lawless regime. Anyone questioning the policies of this “Hero of Russia” (an award he received from Putin in 2004) is exposed to deadly reprisals. Two fierce critics of the handling of the “Chechen issue,” reporter Anna Politkovskaya and human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, were both gunned down – Politkovskaya in Moscow in October 2006 and Estemirova in Chechnya in July 2009. When human rights activists blamed him for their deaths, Kadyrov was dismissive: “That’s bullshit, that’s just gossip,” he said.
The report blames the Kremlin for buying Kadyrov’s loyalty and for using government-run media outlets to create the veneer of a legitimate press. The analysts were equally scathing of the prime minister himself:
“Control” is the key word for this former KGB officer: control of the state, control of the economic and political forces, control of geopolitical strategic interests and control of the media. The national TV stations now speak with a single voice. …The Nashi (Ours), a young patriotic guard created by the Kremlin in 2005 at the behest of Putin and others who lament Russia’s imperial decline, sues newspapers critical of the Soviet past or the current government when it is not staging actual manhunts. As well as manipulating groups and institutions, Putin has promoted a climate of pumped-up national pride that encourages the persecution of dissidents and freethinkers and fosters a level of impunity that is steadily undermining the rule of law.
Putin and Kadyrov found themselves among fifteen other presidents and prime ministers condemned as predators of press freedom, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. All over the world, says the organization, 9 journalists have been killed since the beginning of 2010, and another 300 are sitting behind bars. In Russia alone, the Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that 19 journalists have been murdered as a direct result of their work since 2000. A murder conviction has only been handed down in one of those cases.