Gorbachev on Attacks on Russian Press 'The Perpetrators Are Getting Away Scot-Free'

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about his support for the Kremlin-critical newspaper Novaya Gazeta, press freedom in Russia and the investigation into the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Gorbachev, why do you support Novaya Gazeta?

Mikhail Gorbachev: I've been connected to the newspaper for longer than most people realize. At the start of the 1990s, I gave the editors $300,000 (€216,000) from the fee that I received for my memoirs. Novaya Gazeta used the money to buy 22 computers. And the things that these computers have experienced since then! Some of them were stolen and destroyed in an attempt to get rid of the sensitive information that was on the hard drives.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Novaya Gazeta is world famous for a tragic reason -- four of its reporters have been murdered  in recent years, including the well-known investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.  Do you still have hope that these crimes will be solved?

Gorbachev: It is in my nature to stay optimistic. I have to say, though, that I am not satisfied with the outcome of the investigations. As a result, the perpetrators are getting away scot-free.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Novaya Gazeta has criticized the government more than any other publication in Russia. Many Russian leaders hate it. So why did Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently grant the newspaper an interview?

Gorbachev: For him, it was not a tactical maneuver or populism, but a question of principle. I think that he wanted to make his position clear on an important question, one which is a vital issue in our country.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are referring to freedom of the press. So by giving the interview, Medvedev wanted to give a kind of warning that the newspaper should be left in peace?

Gorbachev: Without a doubt. It was a signal that the government supports journalists who fight against corruption.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You and the financial tycoon Alexander Lebedev have owned 49 percent of the newspaper for the last three years. Some people in Moscow say that you are only playing a role in a game controlled by the Kremlin, which wants to make sure that the opposition does not become radicalized and to silence liberal intellectuals ...

Gorbachev: ... and we do exactly what the government tells us to do? What a load of nonsense! At Novaya Gazeta, journalists work according to their own opinions, using their own brains.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you take advantage of your influence as a shareholder?

Gorbachev: Not at all. I read every edition of the newspaper, but only after it has been published. It's the same with Alexander Lebedev. He has more contact with the editorial board than I do, but neither of us interferes in editorial matters. I have absolute confidence in the staff. Our young friends, the senior editors and journalists, are committed to writing the truth.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you sometimes call editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov up when the newspaper has published controversial stories?

Gorbachev: Extremely rarely. Sometimes I'm downright shocked by what I read. Then I might check if the research has been done carefully and it wasn't just rumors being repeated. What's important for me is that the facts have been checked before publication. Due to the quality of their work, the editorial staff has won practically all the court cases that have been brought against them. And there have been dozens.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You recently criticized the German media over their supposedly one-sided coverage of Russia. We believe, however, that there is a wide range of views of your country in the German media, from talk shows on television, to newspapers and magazines, to the Internet.

Gorbachev: Look at the negative reaction of the media to the presence of then-President Vladimir Putin at the Munich Security Conference in 2007...

SPIEGEL ONLINE: ... where Putin irritated the Europeans with his rhetorical blustering and undisguised claims to power for Russia.

Gorbachev: He did not say anything there that he had not already said earlier. Nevertheless, the reaction of the German media was still very hostile. On the other hand, polls showed that the majority of Germans shared Putin's views. I observe a lot of arrogance in the German media. I'd like to remind people of the wishes of the late German journalist Peter Boenisch, who once said: Stop trying to preach to the Russians all the time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But you can not deny that press freedom in Russia isn't as good as it could be.

Gorbachev: It is not. But we are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly and with difficulty. Russia has gone through a lot and one should not judge developments here purely from one's own perspective.

Interview conducted by Matthias Schepp
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