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Russian Journalists Don’t Need A Special Law Or Any Other State Favors

"Kommersant" correspondent Oleg Kashin was brutally beaten in Moscow on November 6.
"Kommersant" correspondent Oleg Kashin was brutally beaten in Moscow on November 6.
The dramatic story around the savage beating of journalist Oleg Kashin has revived the idea of a special law on the protection of media employees. There are reports that a bill is being prepared that would stiffen the penalties for attacking a journalist. It has been suggested to amend Article 277 of the Criminal Code, which deals with “assaults on the lives of state or social figures.”

If the bill is passed, journalists will have the same status as officials and public figures, assaults on whose lives are punishable by terms of imprisonment from 12 to 20 years or even life. Earlier, the Public Chamber recommended that an attack on a journalist be made legally equivalent to an attack on a law enforcement officer.

It is possible that the initial reaction of any journalist to such talk will be joy. After all, who would not want to be protected from criminals? Some might even be impressed with the particular terms and the idea that journalists would have the same special protection of the law as state officials and public figures.

It is nice to be accepted among the chosen ones, to be moved into a higher caste. It is nice not to stand in line with everyone else, to ride around with flashing blue lights on top of your car and to know that for your life, a criminal won’t get five years but life in prison. Maybe, at first, some would feel a little self-conscious about this, but that would pass quickly.

But the key here is that the whole exercise is a bluff and a cheap distraction. It is hard to believe that the government has suddenly come to love journalists. What would this law mean then? The authorities are trying to buy journalists off. They are willing – formally, at least – to include them among the protected and untouchables. They would give them immunity. But in exchange for what? It isn’t hard to guess. The authorities only need one thing from journalists – obedience. “We will give you the same protections we ourselves enjoy and you will try to live up to our expectations.”

Moreover, this protection is not only a dirty deal at its heart, but it is also underhanded. State officials and public figures are not really protected by the law but by the Federal Protection Service or by private security agencies. No one is going to protect journalists (except for the police, from whom we all need to be protected). The legal protection being offered to journalists is a fiction, an illusion.

The problem of the vulnerability of journalists doesn’t arise because the current laws are bad but because they are irrelevant. Criminals aren’t caught. The authorities don’t want to catch them and can’t. The law enforcement agencies are busy with much more interesting tasks like providing cover for crime, extortion, and corruption. What is the difference if the penalty for killing a journalist is 10 years or life if that murderer is never arrested in the first place? Or if he is able to buy his way out of trouble? Or if his high-ranking puppet masters will get him off the hook in any case?

Mikhail Beketov
Investigators can claim that it has been hard to identify the killers in the case of Anna Politkovskaya. It is harder for them to cite difficulties in the case of Mikhail Beketov, when all the evidence points clearly at the municipal administration of the city of Khimki. And it takes particular brazenness to claim that they “can’t find” the Moscow police officers who broke the arm of journalist Aleksandr Artemev in a Moscow police station.

Did Artemev need special legal protection? I think that the current laws would have served him just fine if they had been obeyed and if investigators didn’t cover up for the perpetrator(s) out of corporate solidarity. Or maybe for other, more insidious, reasons.

Maybe behind the ideas being proposed by the authorities there is another idea – separating journalists from the public. Drawing a line between them. Including journalists among the state elite so that they will begin looking down on everyone else from above. That is not a small temptation.

United Russia Duma Deputy Boris Reznik, deputy chairman of the Duma’s Information Policy Committee and the author of the proposed bill, has said that additional measures must be taken to ensure the safety of journalists, including possibly arming them. “If a journalist had a gun in his pocket, then he would feel safer even when entering a building,” Reznik told the Russian News Service. True enough.

But this is true not just for journalists. Any person entering a dark building will feel more confident if he is carrying a gun. Carrying weapons is the last effective form of self-defense, particularly considering that the police offer no protection and the criminals have long been carrying their own guns. As the old American saying goes, “God made people free, but Samuel Colt made them equal.”

But equality isn’t an idea that Russia’s authorities understand. In order to rule over society, it has to be fractured. Into various categories and conditions. The more, the better. And this is the real point of the current effort to give journalists some special status before the law.

Aleksandr Podrabinek is a columnist for "Novaya gazeta." The views expressed in this commentary, which originally appeared on the website
"Yezhednevny zhurnal," are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL