Needless to say, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is no friend of the free press. The dozens of Russian journalists harassed and beaten every year are witness enough to that. But until recently, Putin has not had the temerity to openly pressure American journalists in his country.
Around the end of this past year, that changed. The Russian government told David Satter, an accomplished historical journalist and a National Review contributor, that he had become an “undesirable” presence in the country, and barred him from entering. Satter was trying to return to Moscow, where he’d been living and working for Radio Free Europe, from Ukraine, where he’d been covering the protests against Kiev’s Putin-friendly government. The Russian foreign ministry says Satter was refused entry because he’d overstayed a visa when in Moscow — a visa the Russians had refused to renew on time, and an infraction for which he had already paid the penalty. In any case, the foreign ministry had approved a new visa for Satter before reneging on it and informing him that “competent organs” had decided not to allow him back into the country.
The U.S. State Department has publicly complained to its counterparts in Moscow and forced the Russians to come up with the above cover story. But real pressure should be brought to bear. Journalists such as Satter do very important work, both in drawing attention to abuses in Russia today and in revealing the darker side of the country’s history (from the Soviet era and today’s neo-Soviet one), which is precisely why Russia’s “competent organs” would rather not be disturbed by them.
No country, of course, has to grant a particular visa to another nation’s citizen. But to be a member in good standing of the international community — as an administration attempting to “reset” relations with another country should expect its presumed partner to be — a country has to grant journalists free movement and respect the freedom of the press. Satter’s work is controversial only in that it has uncovered hard truths and discomfiting questions about the conduct of the same Russian actors who probably made the call to yank his visa. Acquiescing to Russia’s decision is tantamount to saying that Russia has a right to shield its citizens from what Satter has had to say, and will have to say.
With the Sochi Olympics about to turn the spotlight on Russia — its sordid history, its broken society, its hopelessly corrupt economy — enough pressure could persuade the Russians to reverse their decision. So far, though, the Russians are playing ice hockey while the Obama administration wants to figure-skate.