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Truth is the Most Powerful Deterrent to Vladimir Putin

Jemimah Steinfeld, editor of the Index on Censorship’s 50th anniversary edition, explains how journalism can be an antidote to autocracy

A protest in Hungary, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo: REUTERS/Alamy

TruthIs the Most Powerful Deterrent To Vladimir Putin

Jemimah Steinfeld, editor of the Index on Censorship’s 50th anniversary edition, explains how journalism can be an antidote to autocracy

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“Death, the bullet, poison, or trial” – those were the words of Anna Politkovskaya, discussing journalists who criticised Vladimir Putin. The year was 2004. Politkovskaya continued to speak out. She was murdered in 2006 – shot in her apartment lift four times. 

I have thought about Politkovskaya a lot since the invasion of Ukraine. Politkovskaya was a fierce critic of Putin and in particular of Putin’s aggressive foreign policy. Her cause célèbre, if you could call it that, was Chechnya. She travelled there often, writing award-winning reports for independent Russian outlet Novaya Gazeta on murders, torture, kidnappings and other human rights violations that took place on both sides of the conflict. Her coverage was honest, raw, gut-wrenching and earned her widespread acclaim.

She angered a lot of people in Russia, people who wanted those to see the Kremlin and its actions as heroic and valiant, not brutal and unjustified. In her 2002 article for Index on Censorship, she wrote about a helicopter being struck down over Grozny that contained incriminating material on Russian war crimes. Russia’s Minister of Defence initially denied the report and then conceded it was true. Even the concession didn’t help her. “They began to warn of new threats,” she wrote.  

“We heard that a particular officer, a Lieutenant Larin, whom I had described in print as a war criminal, was sending letters to the newspaper and similar notes to the ministry. The deaths and torture of several people lie on his conscience and the evidence against him is incontrovertible. Soon there were warnings that I’d better stay at home.”

Politkovskaya’s words could be copied and pasted into today’s conflict. In her 2002 Index article, for example, she wrote of the West giving Putin “carte blanche” to do what he wanted, while her 2004 book Putin’s Russia contained lines currently making the rounds. “We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance,” she wrote.

But it’s not just Politkovskaya’s words that have made me return to her writing. It’s what she symbolises – a brave voice fighting for truth against tyranny. 

When Russia launched its attack on Ukraine two weeks ago, the 50th anniversary issue of Index on Censorship had just gone to bed. For months, the team had worked solidly on it and we were proud of the end result. It felt fresh, exciting, while also being a tribute to this esteemed publication’s history. And yet with just one small dispatch from Ukraine, it suddenly seemed irrelevant. The conversation had moved on; we were now in a new world order, or a new Cold War. 

And yet it is far from irrelevant. Index was, after all, created during the height of the Cold War as an antidote to the assault on truth waged by the USSR. The 50th issue is a homage to that. Politkovskaya’s article – printed in full – sits in a section that charts the five decades of free speech battles lost, won and still ongoing. Some of these battles are personal, but most are intensely political and anchored in the wars of the day.

A shattering story from Sarajevo in the early 1990s asks whether a TV crew filming the immediate aftermath of a bombing in which a two-year-old was killed had gone too far. Was it satisfying a thirst for truth or, as the writer said, has our desire to never repeat the Holocaust fed into a morbid fascination? Today, as we sit glued to our social media feeds in the comfort of our own living rooms, the very same questions are being asked.

A dispatch from Latin America in the early 1980s, where a journalist charts the radio stations providing crucial information to war-torn rural communities, chimes with news of the BBC bringing back its shortwave radio service in Russia and Ukraine to ensure civilians in both countries can access news amid media blackouts.

At the issue’s heart is the painful fact that tyranny never actually goes away, nor does it stop its assault on truth. All that really happens is it changes its tune.

A War Against Ignorance

Putin’s tune is deafening – an onslaught that has been growing louder for decades. The great dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, himself an Index contributor, said that anyone who has proclaimed violence as his method inexorably must choose lying as his principle.

Solzhenitsyn’s comment on the Soviet Union applies to today’s Kremlin. For years now, protestors have been arrested and beaten, bloggers jailed, political candidates poisoned and imprisoned, and journalists, activists and opposition figures murdered. Politkovskaya’s words read like a swan-song to freedom in Russia.  

Since invading Ukraine at the end of February, Putin’s war against truth has only intensified. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the country became fertile ground for disinformation. This process is merely intensifying.

A hacking group called Ghostwriter, believed to operate from Russia, has ramped up action against journalists in Ukraine, according to Facebook’s Meta security team. TV towers have been bombed; a Sky News team shot at. And in a piece of information that will send shivers down the spine, the US Government revealed it has “credible information” that Russian forces are creating lists of Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps, with journalists on the list. 

Across the border, a new ‘fake news’ law in Russia has resulted in the suspension of news desks amid fears of 15-year jail terms for reporters. It’s little wonder, as a result, that many Ukrainians in touch with Russian relatives have spoken of their frustrations at their seeming ignorance of the war.

Today more than ever we need to know what exactly is happening on the ground; the war crimes being committed – on both sides – and the actions of soldiers. But which source can we trust? Who can we turn to? How do we promote media freedom while still protecting journalists on the frontline? 

All is not yet lost. Thousands still fill the streets in Moscow to protest the war – and journalists rushed to cover the story. These courageous individuals know what happened to Politkovskaya – they’ve seen how Alexey Navalny has been treated – but they still went. More than a million Russian people have also signed an anti-war petition, and a string of prominent individuals – artists, academics, writers and musicians – have signed open letters against the war. 

That’s just in Russia. Over in Ukraine, coalitions have formed like Free Ukraine, a group committed to bringing as much information as possible to people from the multiple frontlines. Then there are the abundant narratives from Ukrainian people themselves. These emotional posts are a reminder that often the best way to counter lies and disinformation is through personal, honest testimony. 

Ultimately, the most powerful weapon we have in our arsenal is the truth. Documenting and publicising human rights violations doesn’t always stop them, but it can change the narrative.

And for those people directly affected, knowing that their story is being heard can be the difference between hope and despair. It’s for these reasons that Index has circulated for 50 years and isn’t closing shop any time soon. We stand firmly by our commitment to protect the truth and to cut through the lies, now more so than ever. We owe it to all those fighting for their very existence in Ukraine and to those who continue to fight for freedoms in Russia. And we owe it to Anna Polikovskaya. 

Jemimah Steinfeld is the editor of the 50th anniversary issue of Index on Censorship, published on 15 March. For more information on how to get a copy, click here 

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