By Alyssa Feir
Tamara Panchenko got an earful when she wrote a story about government officials pressuring local St. Petersburg restaurants to endorse the United Russia party.
Panchenko reported that local administrators told disk jockeys to announce that customers had to vote for United Russia, the dominant political grouping in Russia. After the article went to press, the press secretary of the local administration told her not to write stories that would spoil United Russia’s image.
This sort of pressure is not uncommon in Russia. At times it is a phone call, other times it is a firm letter on your desk and in rare instances a bullet to the head. But despite it, journalists aren’t ready to say they are afraid.
Russia has made a name for itself in the international community as a dangerous place for journalists. It has been ranked 144th out of 169 countries in terms of freedom of its press by Reporters Without Borders, a French organization that monitors press freedom around the world.
“There is a problem compared to other countries,” said Dr. Yuri Leving, assistant professor in Dalhousie’s department of Russian studies. “It is less safe to be bold in Russia. You have to put it back into context of this Kremlin versus mass media relationship and we see that unfortunately during the (Vladimir) Putin presidency there was a significant shift towards controlling the mass media.”
Russia was the first country to make it onto the International Press Institute’s Watch List in June of 2000. Following the change in government between Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin there were a series of changes that made it clear that Putin was taking regressive action in terms of press freedom.
There was a lot of government pressure put on the nation’s largest independent media organization, Media-Most. In May of 2000 armed tax police raided its headquarters and in June its owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, was arrested.
Putin’s government introduced the Doctrine of the Information Security of the Russian Federation, which limited both the right to information inside Russia and freedom of speech.
Since 2000, 28 journalists have been killed in Russia.
Despite that fact, journalists interviewed by KJR said they feel they can work safely, as long as they are careful.
One of the most prominent cases of violence against a journalist in Russia was that against Anna Politkovskaya.
As an investigative journalist who worked for Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper, Politkovskaya made her name reporting on Russian policy in Chechnya.
Politkovskaya was found shot dead in the lift of her apartment building on October 7, 2006.
Is it really that dangerous?
But despite such cases, Panchenko said she is not afraid.
“There are no reasons for it,” she said in an e-mail. “Local journalists doesn’t feel any danger. It is difficult to work but for most people it is not dangerous.”
Panchenko has been working as a reporter for eight years and has spent the last four years working for Moy Rayon a weekly newspaper in St. Petersburg.
Panchenko is not the only journalist who expresses this view.
Pavel Rumyantsev, 20, and Evgenia Akhmadullina, 21, both journalism students at St.-Petersburg State University in Russia, were quick to dismiss any feelings of danger. In early September they spent two weeks at the University of King’s College in Halifax on an exchange.
“I understood it, but I don’t feel it,” said Rumyantsev, who has participated in various internships and worked part time as a freelancer. “I never faced a real danger, some kind of physical danger or mental danger.”
Matt Brown, deputy editor of the St. Petersburg Times, a twice-weekly English-language newspaper, says that people are often a bit quick to assume that some sort of institutionalized control is happening as it used to in the Soviet Union.
“They don’t need massive censorship offices or massive structure of control as they had in the totalitarian regime. They just need a symbolic way of frightening people and they do,” said Brown. The deaths of prominent journalists, like Politkovskaya, can be that symbol.
While journalists interviewed by KJR are all reluctant to say they feel danger, they know there are boundaries.
Avoid danger, censor yourself
“They are absolutely, reasonably afraid for themselves, for their lives,” said Rumyantsev. It is for this reason that journalists are willing to censor themselves.
“If there is no such direct institutional meddling on the part of the government into the coverage then there is clearly massive self-censorship on the part of the journalists who are frightened [that] if they step out of line then the government has the power to do things like close down television stations and shut down newspapers,” said Brown.
There is not only the fear of physical retaliation but also legal retaliation. Colin Peters, Press Freedom Adviser for the International Press Institute explained that criminal defamation laws are applied differently in Russia compared to the rest of Europe.
“Journalists are obviously going to be less willing to do investigative journalism or to report on things which might be of public interest such as corruption for example,” said Peters, “if there’s always this fear dangling over their heads that there’s going to be some kind of legal repercussions for them.”
Journalists are learning early on that they have to avoid certain topics. Both Rumyantsev and Akhmadullina are in their early 20s but they already understand that they should avoid certain things.
Akhmadullina said that it is only when a journalist tackles sensitive topics, political issues or powerful businessmen that they are in danger of retaliation.
“Of course self-censorship is not an obligation,” said Akhmadullina, “but you better censor yourself.”
Rumyantsez added, “If you can’t write in the right way about politics, then you better write about city life.”
It is simple, if you want to be published or if you want to get that promotion then you don’t write about politics. It gives a slight twist to the age-old phrase, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Independence, sort of
“It’s not an easy task really to express the transparent dissent against the Russian government because if you are working (in) state media your editor just won’t put it on air or in the newspaper,” said Rumyantsev.
Media independence is a contentious issue in Russia. In 2001 NTV, a nationwide independent TV network was taken over by Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of state-controlled gas giant Gazprom. The two most popular TV channels on Russian television are state-owned. Channel One has the most widespread reception, is the most popular TV channel and is state controlled. Russia TV channel, or Channel 2, has the second widest reception, is the second most popular TV channel and is state-owned.
“By far the vast majority of media (outlets are) state controlled so we have issues there of trying to create some kind of separation of government and media,” said Peters.
There are more than 50,000 newspapers in Russia. A large number of them are independent but their circulation is minimal. For example, the independent Novaya Gazeta known for its critical journalism has a circulation of only 171,000 copies. Contrast that to Komsomolskaya Pravda, the most popular nationwide newspaper. It has close ties to the Kremlin and is known for backing its policies, although it is more of a tabloid than a hard-hitting paper. It has a daily circulation of more than 700,000 copies and it boasts a huge weekly circulation of 3.1 million copies.
Independence is least likely among regional outlets.
“Regional newspapers are mostly controlled and sponsored by the local authorities. The journalists of regional newspapers never have an opportunity to criticize those who have the power, because they give money for the newspaper development,” said Panchenko. “In small local newspapers, where the only owner is a man in power, the journalists are told what should they write in their articles.”
What does this mean for Journalism in Russia?
Although organizations such as the International Press Institute and Reporters Without Borders are in a constant battle to improve the state of freedom of the press there is only so much they can do. Peters understands that at a certain point change must come from within.
“The main thing would be a change in attitude on the behalf of the administration or on behalf of the local government, basically a willingness to accept critical journalism,” said Peters, “At the same time you have to think that perhaps a change also among Russians themselves.”
Dr. Leving believes that this change will have to come from the readers, viewers and listeners.
“I think it will largely depend on readership, mass media after all is just a reflection of the interests of citizens,” said Dr. Leving. Unfortunately he does not see much hope as we see the development moving away from analytical pieces and items and to more entertainment oriented journalism, Komsomolskaya Pravda is an example.
Editor-in-chief at Moy Rayon, Diana Kachalova tries to be more optimistic. She makes sure that her paper remains independent. It does not take money from the local government, politicians or political parties.
“It is difficult for them to press us or censor us from that point of view,” said Kachalova, “They cannot come to us and say ‘you cannot write this’ or ‘you cannot write that.'”
“Russia has only a few newspapers which can be called ‘free’. And Moy Rayon is one of them. So, you understand, that all the others are controlled, and the term “free press” is not suitable for Russia,” said Panchenko. “It is better to say, ‘Russia is a country where only a few free newspapers exist'”.