Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, founding editor of the fiercely independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, sharing it with the Philippines’ Maria Ressa.
“I’ll tell you this: This is not my merit. This is Novaya Gazeta. It is for those who died defending the right of people to freedom of speech. Since they are not with us, they [the Nobel Committee] apparently decided that I should speak for them,” he told Tass news agency.
But Muratov played a key role in strengthening Russia’s independent journalism after the fall of the Soviet Union, helping it survive in extremely difficult conditions in modern Russia.
Born in 1961 in the Russian city of Samara, then known as Kuibyshev, Muratov came of age in the final years of the Soviet Union. He attended Kuibyshev State University and, after a stint in the Soviet military, came to work in journalism, eventually becoming an editor at party newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Muratov and other journalists from Komsomolskaya Pravda left to found their own publication: Novaya Gazeta, which means “new gazette.” The publication was designed to be “honest, independent, and rich,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which honored Muratov in 2007.
Though the wild Russia of the 1990s was a fertile ground for such a publication, Novaya Gazeta initially struggled with funding. In his memoir, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev said he donated roughly $300,000 of his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize award money to help pay for computers and salaries at the fledgling publication.
Muratov was initially a deputy press editor, and later a correspondent from the first Chechen war, before becoming editor in chief. He held that position from 1995 to 2017, before stepping down.
He returned to the position in 2019 after winning a company election (since 2009, Novaya Gazeta has selected its top editor via elections; they serve two-year terms).
What role has Novaya Gazeta played in Russia?
The publication is known for hard-hitting investigative work, breaking big stories about the war in Chechnya or the conduct of the new class of government-linked billionaires — oligarchs — in Putin’s Russia. But it has paid a huge cost: Six of its journalists have been killed.
Perhaps the best known of these journalists was Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on human rights abuses in Chechnya. Politkovskaya was shot dead outside her apartment in 2006. On Thursday, staff at Novaya Gazeta’s Moscow offices gathered to commemorate the 15th anniversary of her death.
Her son told Agence France-Presse that although the contract killers who shot his mother had been caught, authorities had shown little interest in investigating further. “Neither I nor Novaya Gazeta have a final understanding of who ordered” the hit, Ilya Politkovsky told AFP.
Another journalist who investigated abuses in Chechnya, Natalia Estemirova, exposed the torture, enforced disappearances and murders of civilians in Chechnya. In 2009, she was kidnapped outside her apartment in Grozny and shot dead.
The paper has continued publishing hard-hitting stories. In 2017, Novaya Gazeta broke the news that gay men were being detained, tortured and killed in an anti-homosexual purge in Chechnya. The reporter who broke that story, Elena Milashina, later fled abroad due to threats.
What is the situation for journalists in Russia now?
Investigative journalism has flourished in Putin’s Russia. New online publications such as Insider and Proekt have broken huge stories about corruption and the targeting of the Russian opposition. Alexei Navalny, the now-jailed political activist who was poisoned in 2020, grew his own support thanks to investigative reports about Russia’s elite.
Novaya Gazette and Muratov both played a huge part in this, keeping independent journalism alive during tough years.
But Russian journalism is facing a significant amount of pressure. Russian authorities have labeled many independent media “foreign agents,” a legal designation that makes it difficult for them to survive financially. Journalists have been harassed and arrested; many have fled the country.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov congratulated Muratov on Friday after he won the award, describing the journalist as “talented and brave” and “committed to his ideals.”