Putin Steps Up Crackdown on Opposition Press

In Putin’s Russia, women stand at the vanguard of the fight for freedom and democracy, at least where the news media is concerned. So now that he has liquidated journalist Anna Politkovskaya and erased Natalia Estemirova, two new names are at the top of Vladimir Putin’s hit list: Yevgenia Albats and Yulia Latynina.

Of the two, Albats is likely the more despised by the regime. Currently the publisher of a magazine called New Times, Albats was Politkovskaya's classmate at Moscow State University (Russia’s version of Harvard) and received a Golden Pen Award (the USSR’s version of the Pulitzer Prize) for her reporting on conditions in Russian maternity wards. She was a Nieman journalism fellow at Harvard in 1993, and shortly thereafter published a bombshell book about the KGB and its efforts to infiltrate the Russian government. Later she matriculated at Harvard, and in 2004 received a PhD in political science.

In addition to consulting for American universities and writing for American papers, Albats hosts a talk show on Echo of Moscow Radio, one of the very last bastions of independent journalism in Russia. Along with Novaya Gazeta, her magazine stands virtually alone in print media in criticizing the excesses of the Putin regime.

Given the fact that Putin is a proud alumni of the KGB who has worked hard to fill all levels of Kremlin bureaucracy with his KGB cohorts, Albats is of course a particularly large dot on his radar screen.

In February, the New Times published a story about how Putin’s Praetorian Guard, known as OMON, were using migrant slave labor to support themselves (Russia’s so-called “law enforcement” officers are paid notoriously low wages). The article also revealed details about how OMON is used as a political tool by the Kremlin to crush dissent and intimidate opposition political leaders.

The Kremlin’s response was to attempt to raid the magazine’s offices and seize its records, but Albats boldly beat back this attempt.

Putin, of course, did not give up, and last week he struck again. On September 2, an army of masked Putin goons, including many special forces officers, raided the paper’s offices and demanded the source recordings of interviews for the story about OMON. It’s as if Barack Obama had sent the FBI, including a SWAT team, to collect taped interviews of White House informants over at Fox News.

Once again, Albats told Putin’s stormtroopers to drop dead. How long it will be before -- as with Politkovskaya and Estemirova -- Putin returns the favor is anyone’s guess.

Reporters without Borders (RWB) has condemned the Kremlin’s effort to uncover the New Times sources. RWB notes that efforts to forcibly uncover the names of news sources is becoming routine in Putin’s Russia, and states: “Russia is ranked 153rd out of 175 countries in the 2009 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.” In other words, 85% of world nations have more press freedom than Vladimir Putin’s Russia.