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.
For Russian journalists, the announcement of Muratov’s prize, one of the most widely watched accolades in the world, will be a boost at a time of new pressure from Vladimir Putin’s government. But the 59-year-old editor would not say the credit belonged to him.
“I’ll tell you this: This is not my merit. Novaya Gazeta. This is Novaya Gazeta. They [the Nobel Committee], apparently decided that they should speak for us,” he said to 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. After a brief stint with the Soviet military, he went to Kuibyshev State University. He then began his career in journalism and was eventually made editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda’s party newspaper.
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. It has also been hit with a heavy price: six of its reporters were 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 labeled many independent media outlets “foreign agents”, a designation that renders it hard for them to make ends meet financially. Many journalists have fled Russia after being harassed, arrested and tortured.
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.”