Cyr Column: Freedom of the press is vital – and fragile
Courageous journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia have just received the Nobel Peace Prize. Each of these remarkable leaders personifies great courage and reflects a nation experiencing challenge to internal repression.
Russia will be the focus of this column, the Philippines of a later column. Vladimir Putin’s Russia remains fundamentally different from the United States and the wider western world. Courageous reporters highlight ongoing repression.
Alexei Navalny, a prominent and influential Russia opposition leader, is a prisoner following his brave return to Russia early this year. This followed evacuation to Germany for emergency medical treatment after being poisoned.
Before Navalny returned to Russia, authorities there tried to intimidate journalists and restrict protests supporting him. State media regulator Roskomnadzor demanded social media not post information related to protests.
In Britain in March 2018, a police officer found Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, unconscious on a park bench in Salisbury, a city near London. Authorities immediately hospitalized them in intensive care. The nerve agent responsible sickened the officer, likewise hospitalized.
Skripal worked for the GRU, the military intelligence arm of Russia. He also worked as a double agent for British intelligence from 1995.
In September 2018, opposition activist Peter Verzilov became severely ill after a court hearing related to a protest and his subsequent arrest. He also was flown to Berlin for specialist medical treatment, where poisoning was diagnosed as the likely cause.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition leader and journalist, suffered two severe health attacks in 2015 and 2017. The diagnosis in each case was probable poisoning. He is vice chairman of Open Russia, an organization founded by successful business entrepreneur Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a strong Putin opponent who has been persecuted and imprisoned.
A particularly prominent victim is Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in November 2006 from acute radiation poisoning. Litvinenko was a former colleague of Putin in the KGB, the principal arms of state security in the Soviet Union, an agency rightly feared for ruthless methods and effective results. Putin is a product of distinctive KGB culture.
Litvinenko defected to Britain, where he until silenced was a prominent and influential public critic of Putin and the government of Russia. After a meticulous thorough investigation, representatives of Scotland Yard testified in a public inquiry the Russian government was involved in this killing.
Earlier, critics of Russia’s regime sometimes died violently gangland style, in public. In early 2009, near the Kremlin on a sunny day on a public street, a gunman murdered activist attorney Stanislav Markelov. Journalist Anastasia Baburova tried to help him and she was killed. The hit man was a practiced pro, his pistol equipped with a silencer.
Markelov had publicly denounced early release from prison of Colonel Yuri Budanov, sentenced to ten years for strangling a woman during the war in Chechnya.
Winston Churchill observed “the key” to Russia was national interest. Alliance with the Soviet Union was vital during World War II, when interests joined profoundly.
Today, as in the past, national interest should guide policy. Most apparent in the news are instances of Russian military aggression and related espionage and sabotage. Military exercises and involvements range from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and beyond. Interference in U.S. elections is notorious.
We should continue collaboration in such areas as space exploration, and professional communication between our militaries. We must condemn repression and honor Russians who speak out.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact email@example.com.