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‘We’re At War.’ Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dmitry Muratov on the Fight for the Free Press in Russia

14 minute read

Few institutions have sacrificed more for the cause of free expression than Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s last independent newspapers. Since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, six of the paper’s reporters have been killed. One was bludgeoned to death. Another died of suspected poisoning. A third, Anna Politkovskaya, was shot five times in her apartment building in 2006.

The paper’s editor, Dmitry Muratov, had them all in mind when he learned in October that he had won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which he plans to dedicate to their memory during the awards ceremony on Dec. 10. In its announcement, the Nobel Committee said it had awarded the prize jointly to Muratov and his colleague in the Philippines, Maria Ressa, editor of Rappler, “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

Before traveling to Oslo to accept the award this week, Muratov made a trip to New York City to support another one of his colleagues, Natalia Sindeeva, the founder of Russia’s last independent news network, TV Rain, whose own struggle with censorship is featured in a forthcoming documentary. After the screening of the film, Muratov and Sindeeva sat down with TIME to discuss the power of the Nobel Prize and what it means for the future of journalism in Russia and beyond.

What follows is a transcript of the conversation, which took place on Nov. 19. It has been translated from Russian and edited for clarity by TIME.

This is your first trip abroad since you learned about the Nobel Committee’s decision. What brings you to New York?

Muratov: I made the trip to support two of my colleagues and friends. Their documentary film was just shown in the U.S. for the first time. It’s about TV Rain, the last independent television channel in Russia. The filmmaker, Vera Krichevskaya, invited me, and I wanted to come and show my support for her and for the founder of TV Rain, Natalia Sindeeva.

That’s a good sign for the solidarity among Russian journalists. Have you stopped seeing each other as competitors?

Sindeeva: I don’t see anyone as a competitor. We’re all in the same boat.

Even with the state-run media?

Sindeeva: Yes, even state-run media. They’re not all jerks. They’re people, too. We can’t see the world in black and white. We need to unite. And we have. Part of it was the state’s move to start designating journalists as “foreign agents.” When that started happening, we held a pledge drive to support the targets of that law, and 50 different media outlets took part, big and small. We were focused on the problem at hand, and that sense of solidarity persists. We did not slink away into our separate burrows. No, we all started to communicate.

Is that generally the mood now among independent journalists in Russia?

Muratov: Right now, we see that a war is being waged against us. And as long as we’re at war, competition gives way to solidarity. That doesn’t mean we have stopped chasing scoops. We all still fight for our scoops. But we don’t see each other as competitors anymore. We’ve banded together.

Natalia, you’ve said that, for you, the sense of physical danger in your profession came in 2015, with the murder of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. How did that event change your life and the life of your newsroom?

Sindeeva: It didn’t really change us. But it did bring the physical feeling of fear. There had been warning signs before – a car following me after one of our stories came out, things like that. And I would quickly forget about it. I would push it to the side. But when Nemtsov was killed, it became an existential fear. You start thinking to yourself: ‘Well, how long will they wait before killing someone else?’ So yes, this fear appeared, and I did my best to keep it away from the newsroom. I understood that this fear could burn me alive. It kept me from sleeping. It made me look over my shoulder. I couldn’t live like that. So I gave myself a bit of therapy and said, ‘You have to live with this. You cannot change it. You just need to let go of the fear.’ That helped me a lot.

Dmitry, for you this fear must have come much earlier. It’s been over two decades since you first experienced the murder of one of your reporters. How did it affect you and your newsroom?

Muratov: I can’t be open with you about this. Our newsroom has instituted a rule that forbids us from talking about danger, how we deal with it, and whether or not we’re afraid. No one from the newsroom of Novaya Gazeta will ever answer such questions. But you are right to remember my murdered colleagues, including the absolutely vicious killing of Anna Politkovskaya.

In what sense was it particularly vicious?

Muratov: Because of how they followed her. The people who were ready to put each of those five bullets in her body, they knew everything about her life. That’s why I call it vicious. They were plugged into her life. They watched who came and went from her home, all her private dramas, when her granddaughter would be born, how sick her mother was, how she races to the newsroom to turn in an article. And in the middle of all that, they shot her.

What did that do to your newsroom?

Muratov: At that moment, the newsroom had one emotion, and it abides today. It is the desire for revenge. We seek that revenge in the daily work of finding and revealing the truth.

The 15th anniversary of Politkovskaya’s murder was on Oct. 7. The next day, the Nobel committee announced your award. What do you make of that coincidence?

Muratov: It’s a coincidence, and nothing more.

Sindeeva: Of course it’s a coincidence. But I always say that everything happens for a reason. This prize is not just for Dmitry. It’s a prize for all free and independent journalists. When we found out about it, our entire community felt that we had all won the prize. It was really emotional. So I don’t think it was just a coincidence. It was an act of cosmic justice.

Muratov: Natasha is right. There is nothing personal in the prize. And the fact that it fell on this year, I think, is connected to the 15th anniversary of Politkovskaya’s murder. It’s a date that persists in our memory. And the war declared against free and independent journalism in Russia also played a role here.

Still, you’ve said that, if it had been your decision, you would give the prize to Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned leader of the Russian opposition movement. Why is that?

Muratov: I can’t stand bullying and torture. I know the case against him. It is a total fabrication. It represents the return of Stalin’s practices – the forced confessions, the ruined fates, the isolation, the absolutely trumped-up charges. The political views of Alexei Navalny do not matter to me in the least. He and I have discussed our disagreements. But he has faced his imprisonment stoically and courageously. He has shown us all how to have a backbone, how to have a sense of irony and humor, to be brave. These are qualities I hold in the highest regard.

How do you assess Navalny’s prospects as a politician?

Sindeeva: I recently met in Warsaw with Adam Michnik, [the Polish journalist and lifelong dissident.] He said, ‘Why do you think this is so bad for Navalny? Maybe this is him building his future presidency.’ It’s not that Navalny went to prison on purpose so he could become president. It’s that others have gone through this experience. Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa. They all went through this. And they all became presidents afterward. So how can we know what will happen?

Muratov: I agree. We can’t know. But I do see a tendency that’s pretty frightening. The era when Vaclav Havel could come out on his balcony and see 300,000 people gathered, that era is over. Thirty years ago, we were all enamored with democracy. Gorbachev had united Europe. The Berlin wall had been broken. We learned then that joy can come without bloodshed. Today it seems to me that many people are enamored with dictatorship. In that sense, the context has changed a great deal. Now people say, ‘Democracy is all well and good, but leave me alone about it. It doesn’t concern me.’

What does that mean for the opposition movement in Russia?

Muratov: In 1989, millions of people marched through Moscow to end the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. No one was afraid. What happened to all those people? Now Navalny gets 120 million people to watch his film about Putin’s Palace. But when he was arrested in January, and it came time to support him in the streets, how many people showed up? By the most optimistic estimates, it was maybe 20,000. So what happened? Why did people stop turning from onlookers into supporters? The answer is fear. Fear has returned.

Sindeeva: Now, everyone has something to lose. It’s not just your personal wealth. No. Everyone has responsibilities. You might have 200 people working for you, and you understand what will happen to them if you speak out. I’m not justifying anyone’s silence. I’m just saying I understand the fear. It’s a fact that if you have a company and you speak out, you might lose that company the next day, and all your workers will be out in the street. We didn’t have that before. So it’s not just a cowardly fear. It’s the fear that comes with having responsibility for others.

Nov 18, 2021 - ICP Center. Natasha Sindeeva after the premier.
Natalia Sindeeva after the premier of F@CK THIS JOB at the IFC Film Center in New York City on Nov. 18, 2021.Dina Litovsky for TIME

At the film screening, you said that media freedom is the antidote to dictatorship. Is it also an antidote to fear?

Muratov: It’s a very strange paradox. We call on people to be brave. Yet we publish truths that terrify them. We show them the machinery of the state, and we are obligated to show them how this machinery works. But the more honest and penetrating our investigations, the more people are afraid.

The Nobel Prize might provide some encouragement. What changed in your life after you learned about it?

Muratov: It’s strange. When you play football or hockey, you can win the championship, take your prize, go home and get ready for the next season. Here it’s the exact opposite. It’s not a prize in the sense of a celebration for the journalistic community. It feels like getting a magic wand that you don’t quite know how to use. In the first few days after the Nobel committee made the announcement, we got bundles of letters asking for help. Help for people with disabilities. Help for people unjustly imprisoned. In our country, many people saw us as a place to turn.

Instead of turning to the state, they turn to a newspaper?

Muratov: It’s another paradox. People vote for Putin, but they turn to us for help. I remember once, in 2003 or 2004, Anna Politkovskaya was taken hostage, and one of her captors, a Russian officer, told her, ‘We’ll shoot you right here, and nobody will ever know what happened to you.’ This was in Chechnya. Then they let her go. Some years passed, and when those same officers retired, they didn’t get the apartments they had been promised as their pensions. So where did they go? They came to our newsroom, standing there outside Politkovskaya’s office, talking about, ‘Oh, Anna, please help us! It’s not fair!’ You know what she told them? She said, ‘Well, it’s lucky for you that you didn’t shoot me dead.’ It’s incredible, but that’s the way we live.

Keeping your newspaper alive has often forced you to negotiate with the state. How will the Nobel change those negotiations?

Muratov: My take on that question is pessimistic. My country likes to show that it couldn’t care less about the world’s judgements. They don’t care when they shoot down an old satellite and spray debris through space. They don’t care when migrants gather on the border between Belarus and the European Union. The state’s position is, ‘We’ve got oil and gas. We’ve got rockets. We’ve got money and a huge budget surplus. Europe and the world can’t live without our gas. So here’s the deal. We live the way we want, and you mind your business. Or else we’ll hit back.’ Given that lack of respect for the world’s institutions, why would they respect an institution like the Nobel Prize? I don’t see why. If anything, I see how it could become a liability for us.

What are the red lines the Kremlin sets for journalists in Russia? Are they even visible?

Muratov: Each of us understands what pressure points are the most ticklish, the most painful for the state. Right now, in my view, the most sensitive is hybrid warfare – the presence of Russia’s hybrid forces in eastern Ukraine, and the private military companies, which are expanding on different continents, South America and, in particular, central Africa.

Both of your outlets report aggressively on those topics. Several of Novaya Gazeta’s reporters have been killed for their work. How does your newsroom cope with that level of danger?

Muratov: After enough time on this job, some dangers fade like sirens in the background. It’s like we’re used to living with a certain level of radiation in the air. We push it to the side. It becomes a part of life. But these unpleasant incidents do happen. We’ve had Russian neo-Nazis send us pig heads pierced with enormous daggers, accompanied by notes that say, ‘This will happen to each of you, from the janitor to the editor in chief.’ We’ve had powder arrive in the mail, forcing our staff to work in hazmat suits while specialists come to disinfect the newsroom. We’ve had a bicycle roll up at night with some sophisticated contraption that sprayed the entrance to our newsroom with some kind of poison. All five floors of our building had to be evacuated after that one. Sometimes funny things happen. Once we got 10 or 12 live rams in giant cages delivered to our newsroom. This was meant as an insult. What did we do? We took the rams and found a local farmer to take care of them. Now these rams are out grazing somewhere, enjoying their lives. So yes, all these things happen. That’s life.

What do you see as the future of journalism?

Muratov: The Washington Post once had a source called Deep Throat, who exposed the Watergate scandal. That era is gone. There are no more [government] insiders. They are too afraid of the state, the security services. Now we have journalists who know computer programming, who write code, who can extract what we need from Big Data. Huge collectives of journalists can do that work from anywhere. When we investigate corruption, we can snake our way through their networks all the way to the beneficiary of a specific offshore account. That’s a very important thing, even if that costs us some element of personal fame and glory.

Sindeeva: We’ll get by without that.

Muratov: Right. We’ll get by. And it’ll help us focus on our sense of mission, on the good we can do for society. There’s personal satisfaction in that. That is the future. I just hope in the future our journalists will die of old age.

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