October 12, 2021

How exactly does a newspaper editor win a Nobel Peace Prize and live to tell the tale?

First, you survive a war, then you get to tell everyone your own breaking news with a headline like this, packaged with a newsroom photo on the paper’s website:

“The whole Novaya Gazeta and everyone who worked and works there. Alive and dead. This is their prize.”

The editor-in-chief in question is Dmitry Muratov, who will share the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize with Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, who has been arrested multiple times and still faces trumped-up charges from a repressive government in the Philippines.

The Peace Prize comes with a gold medal and a share of 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.14 million).

Muratov’s ordeal has been life or death. He has lost six of his newspaper staff to murder since he co-founded Novaya Gazeta (New Newspaper) in 1993.

The newspaper’s ownership group includes Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet Union president serving from 1985 to 1991, who used some of the proceeds from his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize to underwrite the founding of an independent newspaper in Russia.

Speaking in Russian on Moscow radio after the Nobel Prize was announced on Friday, Muratov said, “The persecution of journalists deployed in Russia is, in my opinion, disbelief in the people. The authorities seem to believe that people themselves will not figure it out. The authorities are sure that only they should determine what the people need to watch, listen to and know, and what not.”

The Nobel Prize announcement came 15 years and a day after the murder of one of Muratov’s investigative reporters, Anna Politkovskaya, 48, who was born in New York City in 1958 and who was gunned down in her Moscow apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006.

She was the author of “Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy,” a personal account of what she decried as the brutality of a mafia state. Known for her reporting on the “holy war” that began in 1999 when Islamist fighters declared Chechnya an independent state, Politkovskaya chronicled in the book the kidnappings, murders, rape and torture of the people in Chechnya by Russia’s military and the crackdown on others by the regional government.

Muratov paid tribute to Politkovskaya’s memory in a ceremony in his newspaper’s offices the day before he received the Nobel Prize. A video the newspaper posted about Politkovskaya praised her pursuit of justice when crimes go unpunished.

Politkovskaya’s murder did not stop the newspaper’s coverage of turmoil in Chechnya, nor did the blowback cease.

In March, a chemical sprayed outside the newspaper’s offices led the International Press Institute to publish a story with the headline: “Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta target of fresh attacks/Authorities must condemn all attacks and threats against the newspaper, including by Chechen officials.”

Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said in announcing the prize, “Despite the killings and threats, editor-in-chief Muratov has refused to abandon the newspaper’s independent policy. He has consistently defended the right of journalists to write anything they want about whatever they want, as long as they comply with the professional and ethical standards of journalism.”

Muratov, swamped with well-wishers, took time out on Friday to answer a few questions in an exclusive interview for Poynter.

The following questions have been edited to provide clarity and additional context. Muratov’s responses are verbatim, though translated from Russian, which doesn’t always translate easily.

Getting a peace prize: What would peace look like for today’s Russia? 

Stop fighting with the whole world, stop considering everyone as enemies, complete the story with Ukraine — this is an independent country, we can only have humanitarian interests there. Stop thinking that patriotism is a war with others, not love for people you live with.

You are the seventh recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 119 years who lists “journalist” as a job title, even though you are all from different countries. Do you see any parallels? For the record, you follow Elie Ducommun, Switzerland, 1902; Ernesto Teodoro Moneta, Italy, 1907; Alfred Hermann Fried, Austria, 1911; Sir Ralph Norman Angell, England, 1933; Carl von Ossietzky, Germany, 1935; and Tawakkol Karman, Yemen, 2011.

There are no parallels in history. I don’t believe it anymore. History doesn’t repeat itself today. Karl Marx’s phrase, “First as tragedy, then as farce,” does not work either. We create our own history every day.

Gallup published a poll this week with the headline: “Americans’ Trust in Media Dips to Second Lowest on Record.” In Russia, television remains the main news source for the people, though polls show trust in that medium has dropped 25% in the last decade. Meanwhile, trust in news websites, like yours, has been shown to grow threefold in the same period. How do you think about gaining trust from your readers? What advice do you have for journalists facing a lack of trust?

I heard an old story about a child (taking notes) in World War II. He divided the page of observations into three parts:

  • I saw it myself
  • I heard
  • I suppose

This is how professional journalists should work.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of media based on what they suggest. They don’t see, they don’t listen to sources. Just suppose and guess. This is why the media in general are trusted less.

Professional media in Russia work today under great pressure. To be a good journalist, it now means that you have to combine “(data) journalism” with “field journalism.”

(Note: Muratov coined a colorful term other than “data” that echoed Walter Cronkite’s observation about what it takes to be a great journalist — an ironclad posterior for sitting in a chair for hours on end.)

What we call “(data) journalism” is working with data through analysis of documents. To work in the field means communicating with insiders and being where events happen. Those who combine these two approaches are trusted.

How are you going to spend the money?

I personally will take nothing. We had a discussion with my team. Part of the prize will go to support the journalists who are currently being persecuted by the authorities. Also we’ll donate to the VERA Hospice Charity Fund. They are the first hospice in Russia. And one part definitely will go to the fund for children with “orphan diseases.” We have been covering this topic for the last two years.

Oksi Lantt, a multimedia producer and innovative educator based in St. Petersburg, Russia, founded Silamedia to provide training for Russian journalists on multimedia communication and interactive education, storytelling and creative thinking. She is a member of the Academic Council of the Media Communications Program at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

Buck Ryan, a journalism professor and director of the Citizen Kentucky Project of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky, has followed journalism trends in Russia over the last decade. He has conducted Maestro Concept storytelling seminars for Russian journalists, including investigative reporters, and journalism school students and faculty across multiple time zones. In 2014 Ryan co-authored an article, “Civic arms race: To Russia, with love for young voters,” with a senior lecturer at Lomonosov Moscow State University’s journalism school on the rise in popularity of Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny, now in prison and recognized by Amnesty International as “a prisoner of conscience.”

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Oksi Lantt, a multimedia producer and innovative educator based in St. Petersburg, Russia, founded Silamedia to provide training for Russian journalists on multimedia communication and…
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