Authoritarian governments, like those in Russia and China, have renewed their commitments to media suppression with high-profile crackdowns on media stationed within their borders. Russia and China have collaborated closely on disseminating propaganda under the guise of journalism while also employing similar methods to deal with voices of dissent.
Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in a high-security prison on charges of treason for criticizing the war in Ukraine. He denies any wrongdoing and believes the case against him is politically motivated due to his “many years of fighting against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s dictatorship.”
“I’m in jail for my political views. For speaking out against the war in Ukraine,” Kara-Murza said. “Not only do I not repent of any of this, I am proud of it. For a person who has not committed any crimes, acquittal would be the only fair verdict, but I do not ask this court for anything. I know the verdict.”
Kara-Murza was a target of two poisoning attacks between 2015 and 2017, both of which Russia’s government denied any role in. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on this latest verdict, telling reporters that the government never comments “on court decisions, and we will not do so this time, either.”
“Twenty-five [year sentence] for words. They don’t even sentence you to that long for murder,” said Ivan Pavlov, one of Russia’s top human rights lawyers. “The temperature is rising, the sentences are growing longer. This is indicative of a war.”
Kara-Murza’s trial, held behind closed doors, came as American officials were finally granted access to Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested in Russia at the end of March on accusations of spying for the U.S. government. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy visited the reporter in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison on Monday, April 17 and has called for the “immediate release” of both Gershkovich and Kara-Murza.
“The right to have political opinions, or to disagree with the decisions of one’s own government, are fundamental freedoms enshrined in both the Russian constitution and international treaties to which Russia is a party,” Tracy said in a statement regarding Kara-Murza’s sentence. “This ruling is an attempt to silence dissent in this country and to make an example of those with the courage to offer an alternative to the policies of the Russian government.”
In China, prominent political commentator Xu Zhiyong was arrested and sentenced to 14 years in prison for his alleged crimes, including publishing an opinion piece critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xu was reportedly subjected to various methods of torture during his detention, including food and sleep deprivation. His defense lawyers were barred from speaking to the media, and sharing the court verdict could result in their law licenses being revoked by the government.
“It shows Beijing is doing everything it can to punish human rights advocates and using cruel methods to crush China’s civil rights movement,” said Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer who has known Xu for two decades.
These cases are part of a larger issue concerning free press in China and Russia. Since the invasion of Ukraine, almost all independent media in Russia has been banned or blocked, while all state media outlets are subject to military censorship. China is also the world’s largest captor of journalists, ranking 175th out of 180 in the 2022 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.