We all know that there are circumstances where journalists put themselves at risk in order to cover a story. Camera men, reporters, and photo journalists frequently report from war zones and come under the same fire as the soldiers they are reporting on and run the same if not larger risks. For unlike the soldiers, they aren’t in a position to defend themselves. Yet while it is true that journalists are at risk under fire, it is only on rare occasions that they are deliberately targeted during these situations.
In his introduction to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2008 called “Despots Masquerading As Democrats,” Kenneth Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch, wrote that silencing the media is one of the ways that a government has of ensuring the denial of the democratic process to their people. Now there are many ways that a government can do this: creating laws that control the media; allowing monopoly ownership of the media in return for favourable coverage; censorship; and either directly killing, or turning a blind eye to the killing of journalists.
It’s no coincidence that one of the first things that a government does when it wants to control how its people think is that it seeks to control the mass media. Even in North America–with our so-called free press–we have seen how easy it is for governments to sway public opinion when they are able to manipulate the media properly. Yet this behaviour pales in comparison to countries where journalists are murdered on a regular basis and the government attitude has done nothing to discourage this behaviour.
In The Silencing, a new book published by Viggo Mortensen’s Perceval Press, multi-talented artist Alix Lambert has compiled a collection of interviews, essays, and photographs that tell the story of six Russian journalists killed for being good at their jobs. For each of the six individuals, Ms. Lambert has visited the murder site and photographed it and interviewed a family member and/or colleague to tell us a little about the person who was murdered.
In her introduction, Ms. Lambert says that with the photographs she was trying to represent the sense of absence, what had happened, what might still happen, and that they are about possibility, loss, death, pain, passion, yet also about hope. The essays aren’t necessarily about the murder, or even what the story was that the person was working on that resulted in their murder–although in some of them that is mentioned. Instead they are about the person and what they meant to the person writing the essay.
In order to give us some idea of the significance behind the murder of these six people, Ms. Lambert includes in her introduction an essay by Ann Cooper, former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), about the development of a free press in the former Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev during the period of glasnost and perestroika in the mid 1980’s, and how that press actually prevented a coup by extreme Communists from overthrowing Gorbachev in 1991. Yet the problem was that with freedom from state control in the early 1990’s meant that there was no longer the state’s money paying the way for the press. Wealthy individuals began buying up the major media outlets in Moscow and turning them into mouthpieces for their political and social opinions.
So by the time Putin came to power in 1999, it was easy for him to start reigning in the freedom of the press, because the public no longer had the same faith in their objectivity that they had earlier in the decade. Putin was smart in that he only went after the major television stations and allowed independent print media to exist, knowing full well how little influence they actually carried. Of course, in the larger metropolitan centres like Moscow, other means could be brought to bear to exercise control of journalists who would report on matters that might be troubling to certain parties.
Such was the case for five of the six journalists memorialized in The Silencing. The reasons behind the murder of the sixth are unclear and have never been discovered–which gives you some indication as how little was done in terms of investigating any of these crimes. When, as it is in most countries around the world, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure justice is carried out, and the murder of journalists are barely investigated, or the guilty parties are somehow able to leave the country, it has a chilling effect on freedom of the press.
What journalist is going to push his or her investigation too hard if they know that it is open season on reporters who uncover anything that somebody may not want revealed? Conversely, what is there restraining a corrupt politician or a crook from having a journalist silenced when he knows little or nothing will be done to investigate the crime, or that it is always possible to buy your way out of jail?
Looking at the photographs of what look to be perfectly ordinary scenes in the lobby of an apartment building, the sidewalk in front of an office, or a train station takes on a whole different perspective when you understand that somebody was murdered there. Shot in black and white, sometimes at day, other times at night, they allow your imagination full scope. That darker spot on the cement floor; is it a stain left behind from a puddle of blood? Would the victim have heard his or her assailants footsteps echoing on the floor boards?
Ms. Lambert was right about the sense of loss and absence the images create, especially when they are viewed with the accompanying essays. If those writings had only been details about what had happened, or facts about the story the people had been working on, they might not have had the same impact. The fact that they are tales told by a son or a cousin or a friend and include details about why they had wanted to become journalists, their families, the things that made them laugh, and the things they felt strongest about make the sense of absence feel even stronger.
If there is hope to be found in these images it’s because their existence means somebody cares to do something about the situation. It means that there are people both inside and outside of Russia who care enough about what these people were doing and the ideal of free press, that they are willing to continue talking about the murders ten, even fourteen years later. Nobody is expecting a solution to be found at this late date for any of the murders. I don’t honestly expect anybody thought that the murderers would be caught even the day after the majority of the murders took place. Yet keeping the memory of the people alive reminds people that a free press did exist, and can exist.
On their own, and out of context, I’m not sure what sort of effect the pictures would have on me as they would become just another office block etc. Now, however, they each serve as memorials to an ideal as well as individuals. Alix Lambert’s The Silencing is an awful reminder of how valuable a commodity truth is and the lengths some governments will go to prevent their people from hearing the truth. Read it to remind yourself what the words freedom of the press really mean.
Those wishing to purchase The Silencing can do so directly from Perceval Press and hopefully other on line retailers.