In Russia, many conform, few resist.
On june 8, 1998, the body of a middle-aged woman was discovered in a pond on a lonely stretch of ground on the outskirts of the city of Elista, capital of the southern autonomous republic of Kalmykia in the Russian Federation. The body had a fractured skull and multiple knife wounds. The brave voice of Larisa Yudina, a prominent newspaper editor and political activist, had finally been silenced.
The night before she was murdered, Yudina had received a phone call from a man offering documents that he promised would assist her investigation of corrupt business practices by regional officials. She agreed to meet the alleged source and left her apartment in her slippers, never to be seen alive again.
Yudina had frequently been harassed and threatened for her exposés of local corruption and hard-line rule by the millionaire president of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Her newspaper, Sovietskaya Kalmykia Segodnya was the only alternative news outlet in the republic, and, as well as her role as reporter and editor, Yudina was a local leader of the liberal opposition Yabloko Party.
Yudina’s death sent shock waves throughout Russia and beyond. Seven years after the breakup of the Soviet Union was heralded as a great triumph of freedom over tyranny, another journalist was murdered for doing her job. Since 1990, more than 30 Russian reporters have died in the course of practicing their profession. Many have been killed in the cross fire in the conflicts that have ravaged the Soviet Union as it split into smaller states, especially in the wars over Chechen secession. Others have been the victims of contract killings by criminal gangs, vying for the spoils as Russia embarked on its tumultuous transition to a free market.
In the drama of Russia’s transformation, however, journalists like Yudina have proved to be the exception rather than the rule. She was willing to make a stand, to dig deeper for the truth even when her intimidators turned to threats and then to real physical violence. Hers is a tragic story in its own right—it is also tragic because it is such a rarity.
Many of yudina’s journalistic colleagues have capitulated. They have been won over by the forces of fear, money and cynicism. The consequences of such behavior are dire for journalism itself and for the future of democracy in Russia.
Fear is natural in a country where journalists, like all citizens, cannot rely on police protection. The lack of a functioning rule of law in Russia serves to dissuade all but the most tenacious whistle-blowers and is a wholly understandable explanation for the almost complete absence of genuine investigative reporting. The Committee to Protect Journalists monitors press freedom in Russia and the statistics make chilling reading: between 1990 and 1999, 34 journalists were killed in Russia, and hundreds were attacked. Of the deaths, the majority were killed in war zones; of those journalists who died in circumstances
unrelated to military conflict, most of the murders are unsolved to this day.
A second factor is the difficult financial straits in which journalists, again like most Russians, find themselves. Pay and conditions are generally poor. Pavel Gusev, chairman of the Union of Journalists of Moscow and editor in chief of the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, argues, “In circumstances of economic crisis, of unemployment, when everyone wants to eat and to live, journalists find themselves in a situation where either they must ‘serve,’ like a dog on its hind legs begging for a piece of meat, or be without work.”
The idea of serving a master is difficult to square with the Western concept of press freedom. Whereas fear and the lure of money can and does lead many ordinary citizens to compromise, both in Russia and elsewhere, it is hoped that journalists hold themselves to a different professional standard. The idea of the media as the “Fourth Estate,” acting as a watchdog of the powerful groups that seek to shape society, is firmly entrenched in countries where democracy has been in place for generations.
In Russia, that concept has been grasped by only a few. Most people—including many who work in the media—see journalism chiefly as a tool of political influence. “Very few of those who are involved in the media here are doing it as a business in the sense of pure financial gain, nor are they in the media out of a sense of civic duty,” says Manana Aslamazian, general director of Internews Russia, a nonprofit organization funded by international donors that provides technical assistance to Russian broadcast media. “In our country, the main function of the media is its use as an instrument through which groups can direct their corporate policies or protect their political interests.”
Journalists find themselves beholden to one or another of the political and business groups that fought over and carved up the Soviet media throughout the 1990s. There are essentially three main competing empires. They are headed by business tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who is close to the Kremlin and controls the national state television channel ORT and a number of influential newspapers; Vladimir Gusinsky, who owns NTV, the main private television station, and several publishing interests; and Yuri Luzhkov, the Moscow mayor who controls TV-Tsentr and a handful of papers.
Many Russian journalists are resigned to the task of serving one or other of the media barons who rule the airwaves and run the printing presses in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In outlying areas, local media are often answerable to the mayor or the dominant business enterprise, on whom they rely for essential services such as floor-space and computers. Some reporters serve more than one master, like Moscow-based journalist Kirill Byelyaninov, who works for both a Berezovsky newspaper and a Luzhkov television program. “This gives me a good opportunity not to waste information.” he says. “I write completely different stories. I dig up dirt on both. If it’s dirt on Berezovsky, I put it in the program. If it’s dirt on Luzhkov, it goes in the newspaper.”
Politicization of journalism is partly a hangover from Soviet times when journalists were little more than mouthpieces for the Communist Party. Today, reporters can choose from a vast array of outlets, but the practice of writing to promote a particular party or person has not changed. The guiding force in today’s Russia tends not to be conviction or perks and privileges but money. It is widely accepted that journalists take bribes and do pieces to order (called dzhintsi after the Russian word for the once-coveted Western denim jeans). Politicians pay to be on political programs, and journalists are paid to push a particular line.
Nowhere has this been more evident than during Russia’s election campaigns of the past decade. In fact, many observers point to the 1996 presidential campaign as a turning point for the press. In the early 1990s, there was an ethical quality to Russian journalism, in the tradition of the brave dissident writing that had persisted in spite of Soviet repression. Journalists like Vitaly Korotich and Artyom Borovik wrote with moral authority and were eager to instill ideals of freedom of expression in their own country.
Election campaign 1996, however, was a watershed, in which those who had been charged with the responsibility of safeguarding Russia’s hard-won freedoms stumbled badly. In an open display of partisanship, much of the media promoted Boris Yeltsin. In one critical example, Igor Malashenko, then president of NTV, agreed to work simultaneously as Yeltsin’s campaign manager. Malashenko argued that journalists had a duty to support the candidate who seemed most likely to protect press freedom. That sacrifice of objectivity, though understandable, is one from which Russian journalism has never truly recovered.
NTV deserves praise nonetheless for its courageous coverage of the 1994–96 Chechnya war. It won national and international acclaim for its fearless reporting from the front line and for its ability to withstand political pressure from the Kremlin. The network was threatened with the loss of its broadcasting license for transmitting dramatic pictures of the destruction of Grozny and its impact on the city’s inhabitants, and for showing that the Russian forces were often made up of frightened teenage conscripts. Images such as these stimulated heated debate in the media and in society as a whole, and influenced public opinion against the war.
The latest caucasus campaign, however, has not inspired the same critical reporting. The second conflict was from the outset far more popular amongst the Russian people, who had been terrified by a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and elsewhere last fall, which the Kremlin blamed on Chechen separatists. The Russian government used more sophisticated propaganda techniques this time around, creating a virtual information blackout and accusing journalists who went against the official line of lacking patriotism.
NTV, in unison with almost every other media outlet, state and private, was notably muted in its criticism of the Kremlin censorship. Aslamazian of Internews Russia comments: “The current war in Chechnya and the previous one are very different from the point of view of journalists’ access to information. Then, it was a question of personal courage, and having the means to pay for a vehicle or whatever. Then, you could get information from both sides. Today, the information is strictly censored, and it is clear we’re being given an inaccurate picture in the media—generals in smart uniforms speak in high-flown phrases, and we don’t get any information at all from the Chechen side.”
One journalist who did try to get information from the Chechen side was Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent with RFE/RL’s Russian Service. He ignored the Russian military’s requirement for special credentials and its ban on independent travel into Chechnya without a military escort. In addition, he overcame fear of kidnappings by Chechen gangs and the nightmare of bombardment—the sound of explosions was regularly heard in his reports. Babitsky had reported independently and courageously throughout the first Chechnya war, and, unlike the majority of his colleagues, he continued the same practice during the second conflict.
Babitsky’s fate became widely publicized when he vanished in Chechnya in January 2000. He was arrested and beaten by Russian forces, and released after spending more than 40 days in captivity. The reaction of Western human rights groups to his disappearance was swift and vigorous; Russian journalists, however, held back for a full month before issuing a protest. Gusev of the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets says journalists have lost their sense of solidarity: “Journalists have turned against each other, they are enemies. Everyone has a different master and these masters are fighting each other. As a result you don’t have journalistic freedom, but rather individuals who are settling scores.”
Another conflict that engulfs Russia is mafia wars. Investigative journalism is a dangerous occupation, whether in the arena of politics or business. The two are often intertwined, and there are copious examples of media figures who have been the victims of threats, abduction, violence and murder because they have dug too deep for someone’s liking—reporters like Alexander Minkin, who works for the biweekly independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and carries a gun after having been attacked twice following publication of reports that accused top-level Kremlin officials of accepting bribes. Or Alexander Khinstein of Moskovsky Komsomolets, who went into hiding after police, following publication of anti-corruption stories, issued him an order to accompany them to a psychiatric hospital.
Most investigative reporting, however, does not lead to such dire consequences. That is because there is very little that is worthy of the name: a genuine drive to get at the facts has been to a large extent replaced by slander and muckraking. Political commentator Gleb Pavlovsky says: “Investigative reporting is at a very low ebb. Plenty of compromising material is dug up, but it hasn’t come about because of solid investigative reporting; it has simply been bought from the police or special services or some such organization. The press doesn’t really have an investigative arm. There is compromising material, but no one investigates where it’s from or whether it’s true.”
Such is the prevalence of compromising material that a new word has been coined, kompromat, to describe the kind of political muckraking that has become all the rage in the Russian media. Newspapers and broadcasts are full of startling revelations that usually bear little relation to reality. Riddled with inaccuracies, rarely referring to sources and often making unsubstantiated claims and accusations, the professional standard of much of the Russian media has taken a dramatic slide over the past decade.
There are significant exceptions. NTV has managed to retain a degree of critical reportage, and newspapers like Segodnya and Novaya Gazeta are bravely outspoken. Novaya Gazeta in particular continues to produce good-quality investigative reports, and the newspaper’s deputy editor Sergei Sokolov is not alone in lamenting the current state of Russian journalism. “The initial euphoria of freedom which we experienced in 1991 has evaporated,” he says. “Journalists feel the influence of the censor more and more. Many would like to find a niche where they could work with a measure of independence, but that, unfortunately, has proved extremely difficult. Now many have come to the conclusion that either they must stop working in their chosen profession or be much more cynical in their approach to it.”
Amongst the vast profusion of media outlets in Russia today, few are dedicated to reliably informing the public and exposing wrongdoing. Part of the blame resides with the government, which has done little to create conditions in which citizens can live without fear and poverty. As regards press freedom, there has been a dramatic increase in official interference since the onset of the second Chechen war in late 1999. New laws policing the Internet and giving the authorities greater control over subsidies to thousands of newspapers across Russia also indicate a tougher Kremlin line on the media.
Part of the blame, however, falls squarely on the shoulders of the journalists themselves. Though there are individuals of great courage, many Russian journalists have sold out. If they are to stay in their profession, many see no alternative other than accepting either the role of adjunct government flack or being the mouthpiece of one of the media barons who own the airwaves. This, of course, is a great tragedy for journalists and their profession. It also bodes ill for the future of democracy in Russia.
Emma Gray is Europe program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. She is co-founder of the news agency FSN and a former producer in Moscow for Independent Television News of London and for Monitor Television.