Several months ago at a reception for Vice President Biden in Moscow, I met a 30-year old journalist named Oleg Kashin. He is a special correspondent for the Russian newspaper Kommersant and runs a blog called Live Journal. I noticed Oleg walked with a cane and his face was bruised and swollen. He was missing teeth.
In November, after reporting on the controversy and protests around a proposal to build a highway through the Khimki forest near Moscow, Oleg was attacked and severely beaten to the point that he had to be hospitalized. His editor told the BBC that he believed that Oleg was attacked as retribution for a series of articles he had written. Oleg’s case is still under investigation by Russian authorities. President Medvedev has said that those behind the attack must be brought to justice.
When I met him, almost four months after the attack, Oleg was still clearly suffering from the beating. However, he was undeterred. Oleg was in the process of posting a live blog about Vice President Biden’s meeting with civil society organizations. I couldn’t help but recognize his brave spirit and to think that such voices are vital as Russia moves forward with plans for modernization. I also remembered hearing about Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. In 2006, Anna was shot and killed in the elevator to her apartment after writing a series of articles and books about human rights abuses in Chechnya.
Oleg and Anna’s fate represent the continuing danger to independent voices and freedom of the press in the countries of the former Soviet Union and in some countries in Eastern Europe such as the Balkans. Journalists who work to expose corruption and wrongdoing often end up the target of harassment, intimidation, or even violence. From the recent brutal crackdown on Belarusian journalists to the incarnation of Azerbaijani youth activists using social networking to express dissent, there are clear and ongoing challenges for press freedom throughout the region.
As we commemorate 2011 World Press Freedom Day, the United States stands with journalists in Eastern Europe and Eurasia to defend and promote freedom of the press and freedom of expression as guaranteed by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. USAID will continue to support production of, access to and distribution of reliable information produced by professional journalists, as well as that shared between citizens. Our support represents our continued belief in one of the most basic human rights, freedom of information and expression, supporting those who dare to speak up and speak out. Even in the 21st Century, these basic freedoms remain at risk.