Russian student resists media restrictions
Published: Friday, September 27, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 27, 2013 02:09
In Russia, 56 journalists have been killed for their work since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). CPJ has proven that at least 31 percent of those deaths were intentional killings contracted by government officials. The public media are left to deal with blood and bodies and the message to aspiring investigative journalists is clear: there is a line, and if they cross it, it will take their life and work.
Even though these murders seem an ocean away from Oxford, they are still fresh for Russian Miami student, Ivan Grek, a former journalist and political activist from Russia.
Grek left his home of St.Petersburg a month ago for the United States and is now completing a master’s program at Miami with the Havinghurst Center for Post-Soviet Studies, with a focus in political science and history.
“I didn’t want to live like that,” Grek said. “You can’t make a career in Russia being an activist or journalist. The system is based on personal loyalty. It’s important to understand everyone in the government and state media are all friends. The law is for those who don’t have power, no one regulates those in power.”
While attending university in St. Petersburg, Grek worked as a freelance journalist for Russian news portal, Rosbalt, and other media. Much of his political activism was focused on protesting against election fraud in Russia.
“I helped observe over the 2011-2012 elections in St.Petersburg in order to make sure they were fair,” Grek said. “We saw parents who would come up to workers and ask, ‘why does it say my two-year-old voted?’ Dead people and illegal immigrants would also somehow be registered to vote.”
Even though Grek and other activists tried to stop this sort of corruption from happening, they always lived under the threat of being attacked by police.
“You had to be tougher than them,” he said sternly.
Issues such as voter fraud plague all of Russia, especially in the case of Chechnya. This is the very place where Putin declared war in 1999, and yet 99.82 percent reportedly voted for him in the 2012 election, according to the New York Times.
“Putin arranged this war, and now over 90 percent of people vote for him there?” Grek said. “Seems strange. People in Chechnya will be killed without a doubt for speaking out against elections.”
Even as a student in St.Petersburg, Grek’s work as a journalist and as an activist sometimes caught the wrong attention. For example, when Grek spoke at a seminar about upcoming elections, an unknown man in the crowd was seen asking audience members for Grek’s personal information.
“I was scared, but I was always surrounded by people working on the same issues as me,” Grek said. “When I had random people call me about my articles, asking me questions, it’s like, ‘how did you even get my phone number?’ They will try to make you afraid of them.”
Protests for gay rights and the GLBTQ community have been prevalent in St. Petersburg recently, according to Grek, particularly since Putin signed a law this summer, making it illegal for “non-traditional” relationships to be discussed in the presence of minors or shown in public by minors according to the Washington Post.
Grek’s friend and fellow political activist Daniel Grachev was arrested in St. Petersburg for simply holding a sign endorsing homosexuality during a march in June against Putin’s law, labeled a ban on “homosexual propaganda.”
“I have been arrested three times,” Grachev said. “One of them was for the gay pride march. It was a legal manifestation, but nationalists were complaining to police about ‘homosexual propaganda.’ Seems like police only needed a reason to stop the march. So they did. Most of my friends were pushed into a riot bus by police, and I was arrested after some neo-Nazi attacked me.”
Some of Grek’s activist friends were even thrown in jail for no good reason, he said. Grek said he hopes to be able to help them while at Miami with the help of his professors.
“It will be more useful for me to help them from here with me having access to resources at Miami,” Grek said. “Activists are currently sitting in jail. It’s normal to think about suicide versus prison in Russia. There are no rules, no laws.”