In recent weeks, the unlikely camaraderie between Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised eyebrows among many commentators. On Friday, Trump pushed his support for Putin even further, apparently endorsing the violence against journalists that has become routine in Russia with a glib comment: "At least he's a leader."
Here's the transcript of the exchange, which took place on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
TRUMP: When people call you "brilliant," it's always good, especially when the person heads up Russia.
HOST JOE SCARBOROUGH: Well, I mean, also is a person who kills journalists, political opponents and ...
CO-HOST WILLIE GEIST: Invades countries.
SCARBOROUGH: ... and invades countries, obviously that would be a concern, would it not?
TRUMP: He's running his country, and at least he's a leader, unlike what we have in this country.
SCARBOROUGH: But, again: He kills journalists that don't agree with him.
TRUMP: Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe.
In the clip, Trump does go on to say that he "absolutely" condemns the alleged killing of journalists by Putin. However, critics of the GOP contender seem to view this as too little too late. The idea that a man vying to be the U.S. president could openly express admiration for a world leader accused of killing journalists left many feeling deeply uncomfortable.
On Sunday, Trump took the opportunity to defend himself. "Nobody has proven that he's killed anyone. ... He's always denied it. It's never been proven that he's killed anybody,” the American billionaire explained during an appearance on ABC’s "This Week." He added: “You're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, at least in our country. It has not been proven that he's killed reporters."
Trump has earned a reputation over the past few months as someone who is willing to say outlandish, sometimes patently untrue things. However, Russia watchers would have to begrudgingly admit that his latest comments about Putin and Russian journalists do not fall into this category. In fact, on the face of it, he is right: There really is little evidence to suggest that Putin "kills journalists that don't agree with him."
No one denies that journalists critical of Putin have been killed in Russia. There have been a number of cases over the years. The Committee to Protect Journalists has described Russia as "one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists," with 36 journalists killed since 1992.
Perhaps the most well-known case is that of Anna Politkovskaya, a writer who was critical of Putin's role in the second Chechen war. Politkovskaya was fatally shot in her apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006 – the same day as Putin's birthday. Opposition politicians also have been killed: Boris Nemtsov, a high-profile figure in post-Soviet politics, was shot just steps from the Kremlin in February.
There are plenty of people who suspect that Putin ordered the killings. The evidence, however, isn't there. Although it's certainly possible that he did play some role, it might be more likely that individuals loyal to him acted without his knowledge or permission, or that another group in the complicated, multifaceted world of modern Russia was behind the acts. After Politkovskaya's death, Putin played down her influence on Russian politics, describing her as a "minimal" figure and suggesting that her killing hurt his government rather than helped it. "In my opinion, murdering such a person certainly does much greater damage from the authorities' point of view, authorities that she strongly criticized, than her publications ever did," he said.
Given that few of these cases ever find closure in Russia's flawed justice system (five men have been sentenced in Politkovskaya's killing, but it's still not known who ordered it), we may never know whether Putin had any involvement. Nina Ognianova, Europe and Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says that about 90 percent of killings of journalists in Russia go unpunished. "A fact that stands in stark contrast with a 2014 statement by Russia's top investigator, Aleksandr Bastrykin, that 90 percent of all homicides in the country are solved," she says.
Scarborough's suggestion that Putin kills journalists is evidence of a widespread misunderstanding of Putin's Russia — that he is directly responsible for every bad thing that happens in the country. That idea of Russia desperately lacks nuance: Putin may set the tone for everything that happens in the country, but he doesn't necessarily order every politically charged murder. Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the book "Mr. Putin," notes that it's actually regional journalists who have suffered the most violence in Russia, rather than Moscow-based or national journalists.
"That's primarily because of the activity of local and regional governments and leaders," she says.
There's a key difference between ordering the murder of a journalist and creating an environment in which journalists can be murdered. And while Putin may not be guilty of the former, he is certainly guilty of the latter. "Trump is technically right but wrong in spirit," says Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who studies the Russian security state. "There is indeed no proof Putin has journalists killed. But he presides over a regime in which journalists are beaten, harassed and murdered, often with impunity."
Oleg Kashin, a prominent journalist who was almost beaten to death in 2010, recently told WorldViews that a regional governor, Andrei Turchak, was the man responsible for the attack (Turchak did not respond to the allegations). While Kashin didn't directly link Putin to his case and praised Russian Prime Minister "Any politician will tell you that you have to answer for your words," Kashin said. "And I indeed believe that the real reason for that atmosphere, the criminalization of society, it comes from Putin, as everything flows from the top down."
Violence is not the only threat Russian journalists face. Their attackers are often emboldened by official hostility to independent journalists and the aforementioned weak justice system, but Russian journalists also find themselves squeezed by a media world in which the state plays an increasingly large role. Independent outlets that dare to criticize Putin are increasingly rare. Prominent critics, such anti-corruption blogger and activist Alexei Navalny, can find themselves entangled in costly and time-consuming legal cases that have the potential to land them in jail for lengthy periods.
That's why Trump's comments remain galling, even if vaguely accurate. It may be true that there's no evidence that Putin plays a direct role in state killings. It may be true that Trump would never support state-ordered killings of journalists. But journalists living in the Putin-led Russia that Trump admires can have their lives and careers threatened in several ways. There's a reason that groups such as Freedom House consistently rank Russia as "not free" in its rankings of press freedom: The bar for that freedom is higher than just "the head of state doesn't directly order the murder of journalists."
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