Playbook of a dictator: Weighing the risks and rewards of the truth in Russia | Miraldi
Ann Cooper was a 36-year-old journalist in Moscow in 1986, soon to be the first correspondent that National Public Radio stationed in the Russian capital. The communists still controlled the country and it was a challenging place to be a reporter, although it does not compare to today’s Putin dictatorship and his iron curtain on the media.
If you were a persistent critic, probing too much into Soviet life, the Kremlin threw you out of the country which was almost a badge of honor. Cooper recalls that Soviet officials – before 14 republics, including Ukraine, split off – insisted on knowing where reporters were going and who they were talking to.
Cooper had to live in a guarded housing compound. If she left Moscow, she had to register and get approval. She was easy to follow since her car had a special license plate code that indicated “American correspondent.” When I worked as a reporter in New York City, I too had special press license plates (by choice) but it gave me some privilege – not marked me as a target.
Today, in Putin’s Russia, trying to report on the invasion of Ukraine, you are fair game to be shot at, assassinated or locked up. The independent press of Russia that emerged after the giddy democratic uprising known as “glasnost” in the late 1980s has been snuffed out. Novaya Gazeta, the last independent newspaper in Russia, went silent on March 26.
Even the oligarchs who took over many of Russia’s media outlets – mostly because it was, as Cooper says, “cool” to own a media property – do not dare let criticism of Putin or the war breathe any life. Putin’s financial buddies must toe the government propaganda line, or lose their publications.
Cooper never had a direct clash with the Russian government when she was a reporter, partly, she believes, because before the internet dawned, her NPR broadcasts couldn’t get widespread attention. “If the Kremlin could not hear me report, then neither could the people,” Cooper told me in a recent telephone conversation.
Foreign reporters were less of a danger than today when the Internet and social media penetrate virtually all households. But, as Cooper reminds, “Autocrats and dictators all over the world have figured it out. They recognized the power of the internet and how to use and restrict it.” To wit, see what Putin did in just the month of March:
March 3, Russia blocks Facebook.
March 12, Russia threatens Facebook and Google executives with jail if they do not remove an “app” that encourages criticism of Putin. (The app was taken down.)
March 13, Russia blocks Instagram.
March 21, a Russian court finds Facebook guilty of “extremist activity.” Which is comical when you think of all the birthday party photos and silly memes on the giant network. But let’s not take a chance: Someone might tell the truth about war crime murders taking place in Ukraine by Russian troops. Silence them!
But back to Ann Cooper who has had a unique perch to watch Putin’s behavior for many years. She left Russia to cover South Africa in 1992, and then from 1998 to 2006 she headed up the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ is the foremost advocacy group in the world seeking to help reporters. When they mysteriously turn up dead; when they are thrown in jail on fake charges; when they disappear – CPJ investigates, documents and decries the treatment of the press.
Cooper recalls that advocates were hopeful and a bit giddy about Russia in the late 1980s. All of a sudden Andre Sakharov, the Nobel Prize-winning Soviet physicist and dissenter who was under house arrest, was talking live on TV to the entire country.
“Things really opened up. Great for the country and for me as a foreign correspondent,” she said.
But then Putin became President in 2000. “There was a lot of puzzling of what he will be like,” Cooper recalled. “Some predicted he’d be pretty democratic.” But within three months, that hope was dashed. CPJ issued a “devastating” critique of the former KGB agent, Cooper said. Putin understood the power of information and the press. And how both had to be controlled. Of course he did; he wanted to be dictator for life.
Award-winning Russian reporter Andrei Babitsky covered both Russia-Chechen wars for U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe's Russian-language station. In 2000 he was captured by Russian troops and turned over to Chechen rebels, which outraged the world community. But Cooper explained that the Prime Minister understood the danger of reporters: Putin said. “What Babitsky did is much more dangerous than firing a machine gun.”
He was correct, of course; information and truth matter which is why dictators must control the newspapers, TV and radio stations and the Internet. “Putin doesn’t want dissenters,” Cooper declares. “He wants to control the message. That was very evident from his first days in office.”
And that is why at least 14,000 Russians protesting the Ukraine invasion have been imprisoned. That’s why on March 4 Russia passed laws making it a crime to protest the Ukrainian war and to report on it. Now only state-run media can lie to the people: about how well the war is going, about that beastly Zelensky, and how Russian troops would never massacre civilians.
If you say otherwise – to spread “fake news,” as the law puts it – you go to prison for 15 years. Even the foreign press is subject to the law. And that is why the New York Times and the major American TV networks have suspended reporting from inside Russia. The BBC has stayed, and avoided the Putin noose – thus far.
Reporting from inside Ukraine runs another risk. Thus far, seven journalists have been killed, and some seem to have been targeted. It’s a cliché that truth is the first casualty of war. But that refers to propaganda, usually by both sides. Putin is murdering the people who might bring truth.
I hope my editor will headline this column: The Playbook of a Dictator. Because that’s what a close look at what Vladimir Putin has done in just may give us. He shut down independent reporting; blocked access to social media; arrested anyone who took to the streets to protest government policy. And he criminalized the speech of those who dare criticize the authorities.
It was exactly why in 1791 America adopted a First Amendment – to prevent the Vladimir Putins from denying the people’s right to know – and to decide to throw out the autocrats. Cooper concluded: “Putin shows little hesitation in taking bare-knuckled action to silence critics.” And there’s no First Amendment to stop him.
I asked Ann Cooper, a recently retired Columbia University professor, what we learn from Putin’s behavior in relation to America’s free speech guarantees. “We’ve learned how fragile free speech can be,” she said without pausing. “We embrace and believe in the First Amendment and we think it’s always going to be there to protect journalists as they do their work.”
But, she insisted, “you have to defend these rights.” She points to the hundreds of actions against journalists covering demonstrations recently in the U.S. “Those actions need to be made public,” she insists. “The journalist’s right to cover that news has to be defended.”
“Russia is far more dire. But It’s a lesson for all of us,” Cooper says. “You’re never done. Press freedom is never guaranteed.”
Rob Miraldi’s writing on the First Amendment has won numerous awards. He taught journalism at the State University of New York for many years.
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