Elena Milashina is the leading investigative journalist for Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s most prominent independent newspaper. In October 2009 she was awarded Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism. She continues investigations started by her colleague Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated in Moscow in October 2006.
ARTICLE 19: Russia is often called the most dangerous region in the world for journalists, what is your perspective of the current situation for journalists in the country?
Elena Milashina (E.M): It is prominently a bad situation in Russia for journalists, for bloggers and for those who criticize the regime, like human rights defenders. Because they do it publicly, using the media or the internet, they are not completely safe as a result of the impunity policy that the Russian government has created since 2000.
A19: Do you think the current government is enabling people who wish to silence journalists, by providing this environment?
E.M: We have legislation that protects journalists very well in Russia – for example, if an officer or somebody from the authorities does not let journalists do their professional work they can be charged and sentenced for many years, because this article in our Criminal Code (Article 144) was strengthened during Medvedev’s presidency. However, this article is never used. There are many cases of policemen who beat journalists during their professional duty covering protests – we have more than 100 cases and none of those cases went to trial.I think it’s a purposeful policy – and people who are accused of crimes against journalists are not brought to trial – again it’s a policy of impunity by the government.
A19: How much impact do you think this policy of impunity for crimes against journalists – from threats to attacks to murders- has on the journalistic community?
E.M: The effect is that journalists, especially on TV, are totally controlled and people cannot say anything. Because it’s under censorship – not self-censorship, but official censorship – though we do not have it like in Soviet Union, when we had official censorship [in all the media] and every story we wrote had to first go to a special person. Now they say it does not exist, but it exists and everyone knows it.
For official print media it is the same thing, a lot of people are afraid to talk or write on controversial issues, they still do of course, but not a lot.
A19: Do you think the situation has changed since the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova?
E.M: In Chechnya, it has changed completely and for the worst. Natalia Estemirova was the last person, who held on her shoulders the last signs of freedom of speech in Chechnya. While she was alive people were not afraid to talk to human rights defenders, to journalists – people had hope that if people talked to them, they could save their loved ones. When Natasha was alive human rights defenders were active enough and willing to talk loudly about the problems in Chechnya. After she was killed, everything was broken and Chechnya became completely silenced.
A19: Shortly after Anna Politkovskaya’s death, Putin said that she was not important in Russia, that she had no influence.
E.M: It was a huge mistake. They thought so, but it happens that Anna Politkovskaya is probably the most well-known Russian journalist. Yes the world knows Putin, but probably the world knows him as not really a good person and the world knows Anna Politkovskaya and she remains, many years after her death, as a symbol of an honest, great Russia. A much more powerful symbol than Putin himself.
A19: Investigations into crimes against journalists perpetually appear to be ineffective and slow, why do you think this is?
E.M: We had some reforms in our Investigative Committee, and General Prosecution Office, but they are paralysed because they are not professional enough to investigate effectively. The second reason is corruption, it is not easy for the Investigative Committee to investigate these crimes because there is another interest. The other thing is that those kind of crimes are not a priority for the Investigative Committee.
A19: Why do you think there is a reluctance to link the crime with the journalist’s profession?
E.M: In a few cases they accept immediately that it has something to do with their professional work. But for attacks on journalists, not murders, sometimes outside in the street, it is always easy for them to pretend that it was a robbery but not a professional thing – because for a professional thing – it would create so much more work for investigators which is why they prefer to do this.
A19: This is what happened in your case? At the same time they quickly apprehended two men?
E.M: From the beginning, they did not want to examine [that the attack was connected to my work].The day after the attack, I wrote a blog about the way the police behaved following the attack and it became a big scandal. Which is why they worked on a result, to get anyone. They took two drug addicts and they said to them, you say that you did it, or you will have drugs [in your pockets] and go to jail for a longer term than in the first case. They did not have any choice.
The investigation was awful because it was so fake and it was so funny because, when they made it public, they still were following this line which becomes ridiculous. The trial was the same. I was the only one who needed a fair trial and a fair investigation and this situation was ridiculous. On 12 December 2013 we have an appeal, but I think that they will not change the first verdict.
A19: So the case is closed, and they are not looking for anyone else?
E.M: No, they never were from the beginning, which was strange to me. If they had worked a little harder I could have believed it was a robbery – it was strange for a robbery, but things happen. But after the investigator followed this stupid version, I was convinced that [it was because of my work].
A19: Did the attack have an impact on how you view your own work?
E.M: When I come home late in the evening, I’m a little bit afraid, but I still continue to work. And a lot of other people do the same in Russia. I do not know of people who got scared and stopped their work after these kinds of situations with their colleagues or themselves in Russia.
A19: Do you think there is enough solidarity in Russia for journalists?
E.M: In my newspaper – yes. There is solidarity amongst my colleagues and human rights defenders. Not always in every case, but there is. For example, when Anna Politkovskaya was murdered, we had little solidarity and we felt for a while that we are alone in Russia, until the world showed us that she was even more influential than Putin. Later when Oleg Kashin was attacked, solidarity became more powerful and more colleagues began to support the principle that we are all colleagues and we have to work together.
A19: What would you like to see the government do to better protect journalists?
E.M: To investigate. It’s not that hard. In many cases we manage ourselves to bring them evidence, witnesses – for example, in Anna Politkovskaya’s case we brought them the names of the murderers; in Natalia Estemirova’s case we can help them, we have always been helping. Make these kinds of crimes a priority – show that if you do not agree with a person, you should go to court and sue him, but if you want to kill him or attack him you will be sent to prison. That would be a great signal.