The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin’s impatience with free speech veers toward totalitarianism

Novaya Gazeta editor in chief Dmitry Muratov at the entrance to the newspaper's office in Moscow on Oct. 7, 2021. (Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

In his lecture accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10, the editor of the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, declared that “journalism in Russia is going through a dark valley.” He said more than 100 journalists, media outlets, human rights defenders and nongovernmental organizations have been branded “foreign agents,” a label equivalent to “enemies of the people.” Many journalists lost their jobs and fled the country.

Now Novaya Gazeta itself has suspended publication, threatened by the government for failing to label a group as a “foreign agent” and because of an onerous new law that makes it a crime with penalties up to 15 years in prison to “discredit” the armed forces — including use of the words “war,” “invasion” or “attack” to describe President Vladimir Putin’s onslaught against Ukraine. A day after the invasion, Novaya Gazeta expressed outrage with a front-page three-word banner headline against a black background: “Russia. Bombs. Ukraine.” The paper continued to report, including from a correspondent in Ukraine, until it could no longer. The decision to suspend was portrayed by Mr. Muratov as temporary, but the future for all independent media in Russia appears grim.

This is a tombstone moment for a generation of independent journalists. In the final years of Soviet glasnost and in the unbridled and exuberant first years of Russia’s democracy, they threw off the straitjacket of censors and state-dominated media outlets to create newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television broadcasts and digital and social media that drew large and information-hungry audiences. To be sure, the audiences often were liberal, elite and urban, but at the very least, Russians benefited from information sources outside state control. Even in the authoritarian years of Mr. Putin’s rise, some were permitted to function. Novaya Gazeta distinguished itself with hard-hitting investigations, as Mr. Muratov noted in his lecture, fearlessly exposing money-laundering and the exploitation of Siberian forests, among other topics. Six of the paper’s reporters have been killed over the years.

But now it seems that Russia is moving from authoritarianism to totalitarianism, where the state can no longer tolerate any independent outlets. Ekho Moskvy, a bastion of open discussion on radio and online, has been silenced and closed. TV Dozhd, founded in 2010, has suspended operations, and some of its journalists have fled. The popular news website Znak.com has also closed. A similar trend has swept independent media in Russia’s regions.

Mr. Putin completely missed the ferment and exhilaration of the late-1980s glasnost years — he was serving in the KGB in East Germany — and in his two decades in power, he has shown little patience for free speech. Lately, dozens of people have been arrested for expressing antiwar sentiments. Vera Bashmakova, the editor of a popular science magazine, was detained for several hours when she showed up at preschool to pick up her daughter with a “No to war!” sign in her car window. She was charged with “discrediting the army.”

This is indeed a “dark valley” for Russia, and it is growing darker by the day.

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