The Norwegian Nobel committee’s decision, announced last Friday (October 8), to award the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to Novaya Gazeta Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov as well as Philippine journalist Maria Ressa evoked astonishment, anger and elation across Russia. Muratov himself was astounded (he rejected the first call from Norway, thinking it was a fake), before declaring that the award would honor the whole team at Novaya Gazeta and, in particular, the six journalists murdered in the line of duty: Igor Domnikov (2000), Yuri Shchekochikhin (2003), Anna Politkovskaya (2006), Anastasiya Baburova (2009), Stanislav Markelov (2009) and Natalya Estemirova (2009) (Novaya Gazeta, October 8). Muratov has stood at the editorial helm of Novaya Gazeta since he founded the publication in 1993, steadfastly striving to uphold liberal values and human rights in Russian journalism.
United States President Joseph Biden congratulated Ressa and Muratov, pointing out that in defending their media outlets against forces that seek their silence, “they have faced constant threats, harassment and intimidation, legal action, and even, in the case of Muratov, the death of his colleagues” (RIA Novosti, October 9).
Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary to Russian President Vladimir Putin, also issued a few words of congratulations, mentioning Muratov’s bravery and commitment to his ideals (TASS, October 8). Yet the Kremlin authorities’ barely hidden irritation at the award showed through in the official expansion of the notorious list of “foreign agents,” which grew with the addition of nine activists, including journalists working for Radio Liberty and BBC News, as well as three organizations, including the open-source investigative group Bellingcat (Meduza, October 8). One notable target of this state-enforced discrediting through being labeled a “foreign agent” is the media outlet Caucasian Knot (Kavkazsky Uzel), which covers human security issues in the Caucasus and works with Novaya Gazeta on investigating human rights violations in Chechnya (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 8).
Russia has massively expanded repressive measures against independent media this year. Many outlets branded as “foreign agents” (like VTimes) had to stop their work, while others (like the investigative team Proekt Media) were declared “undesirable” (The Moscow Times, July 15). The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) recently compiled a long list of security-related topics, including just about everything pertaining to defense and the space program, on which any gathering of even unclassified data would result in the offending individual’s or entity’s blacklisting as a “foreign agent” (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, October 8; see EDM, October 7).
A large group of Russian media organizations, including Novaya Gazeta, has issued an open appeal to the government to revise and discard the “foreign agent” legislation. However, despite gathering more than 165,000 supporting signatures, the petition has made no difference in the harsh suppression of voices deemed dangerous to the stability of the ruling regime (Novaya Gazeta, September 14). Independent investigations of corruption are persecuted with particular vengeance; and the recent publication of the “Pandora Papers,” which expose the hidden offshore assets of many Russian officials, has triggered a new surge of repressions (The Insider, October 3; Novaya Gazeta, October 7).
The struggle against corruption in Russia has a champion in Alexei Navalny, who was thrown in jail immediately upon his return from Germany—where he had recovered from the poisoning with the nerve toxin Novichok—and now awaits a new trial against his “extremist” network (Izvestiya, September 28). Navalny’s many supporters are convinced that he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize and that the Norwegian committee should have shown the same resolve as in 1975, when Andrei Sakharov was granted the honor, or in 1983, when Lech Walesa became the laureate (Svoboda.org, October 8).
Muratov himself said that he would have voted for the prize to be given to Navalny (Meduza, October 8). While Navalny has more than a few foes even among the Russian liberal opposition, President Putin seems obsessed with the threat coming from this young, charismatic and unshakably optimistic politician. As such, the Kremlin leader reportedly forbids his courtiers from so much as mentioning Navalny’s name. Were the prize awarded to this anti-corruption crusader and opposition leader (coincidentally, on the day Putin celebrated his 69th birthday), the Kremlin might well have resorted to forceful measures to exact revenge on Norway, the West and every manifestation of dissent inside Russia. So by choosing Muratov, the committee sidestepped direct Kremlin anger, focused international attention on the severe suppression of free media in Russia, and provided Novaya Gazeta with indirect protection to its intrepid journalists (Moscow Echo, October 8).
Another deserving candidate, in the view of many in the Russian liberal camp, would have been Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran against then-five-term incumbent, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, in the August 2020 Belarusian presidential election. Tikhanovskaya was forced into exile following the outbreak of mass protests to the grossly falsified vote, but she continues to campaign relentlessly in Europe and the United States for the pro-democracy cause (RBC, October 8). Maria Kolesnikova, another leader of the opposition, who refused to leave the country and was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison, could have shared the prize (Rosbalt, October 8).
Meanwhile, the European Parliament recently passed a new resolution tightening the ostracism of Lukashenka’s autocratic regime and warning Russia against extending him further support (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 6). Ironically, the question of media freedom has sparked quarrels between Moscow and Minsk as Belarus’s president finds it necessary to persecute journalists even from the mainstream Russian outlets (Izvestia, October 7). Tikhanovskaya has congratulated Muratov and Ressa on winning the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, while earlier she expressed gratitude to Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, who had nominated her for the award (RIA Novosti, January 31).
In any case, the suppression of independent media in Russia can be expected to continue to escalate, Navalny’s life remains in grave danger while behind bars, and Ramzan Kadyrov’s despotic rule in Russian Chechnya will not likely soften soon. With that, some may argue that the Nobel Peace Prize has not made any difference whatsoever. However, the impact extends beyond turning Dmitry Muratov into a major figure on the Russian political arena and an international celebrity. The award will help Novaya Gazeta gain new energy to reinvent itself and transform from a traditional newspaper to a far-reaching media platform and a powerful influencer across online social networks. The publication may then play a key role in uniting the Russian opposition and shaping an agenda of peaceful change to challenge and prevail over Putin’s autocratic stagnation. His deeply corrupt regime depends critically upon lies produced by the state propaganda machine; and a voice of truth, amplified by international recognition, might spur Putinism’s implosion.