This site is our response to everyone who has ever asked us what Russia is like, and for anyone who might have never wondered, but should have. It’s an attempt to put into words Russia as we see it; our go at explaining that big old riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, that in fact, never went away. It’s about understanding the views, opinions and psyche of a nation that hits our headlines daily, without many of us ever really knowing why. And ultimately, it’s about providing a picture of Russia, as seen first-hand by two people, who think that although the journey they’re on to try and understand this country might never end, the process itself is worth sharing.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Russia Receives an F for Media Freedom

Photo: James Hill
In September Reporters Without Borders (RBW) ranked Russia 141st (out of 179 countries) in its annual world press freedom index. Describing Russia as a ‘would-be great country’, the report lamented the Putin-Medvedev duo’s strict control over both state and opposition media, as well as the physically and mentally threatening atmosphere in which Russian media professionals work.

In a detailed report, RBW criticised numerous elements of the Russian media, including the abuse of journalists by the militsia during protest marches; searches of editorial offices and news agencies; the closing down of the Samara and Nizhni Novgorod branches of Novaya Gazeta (the left-wing paper, for whom Politkovskaya wrote); the change of leadership and editorial policy of the Russia News Service and the disappearance of the BBC from FM-broad wave. They also expressed further concerns about how the investigations of the murders of journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Khlebnikov are being carried out, and about the circumstances surrounding the death of Kommersant journalist Ivan Safronov.

Why then, if the media is so strictly controlled, are we choosing to base a substantial part of this blog on translations of articles written in the Russian press? Surely any ideas expressed there will be heavily censored and artificial? Well, no, not exactly. Certainly, as the RBW report highlights, it would be ridiculous to speak of freedom of speech within Russia. As the trial of Politkovskaya’s murderers progresses, a poignant reminder of the pressure Russian journalists face, to do so would be an insult to all those journalists facing constant harassment as they attempt to exercise their constitutional right to freedom of speech. However, as I hope the excerpts from following article shows, public opinion, as expressed by journalists, academics and bloggers, is not entirely homogenous. Despite the climate of fear and oppression, the Russian state does not hold journalists in a totalitarian grip. On the contrary, it is possible to find a huge range of opinion pieces in the Russian press, including some that vehemently attack the status quo.

This article, published 28th September in Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent Gazette), is an example of attempts to challenge the status quo and express genuine opinion. In the light of the RBW conclusions, the author, Stanislav Minin casts a critical eye over the state of the Russian media and how it is perceived within Russia.

“Many will argue that the conclusions of RWB are biased. Indeed, any ranking in which Russia comes lower than two thirds down the table is said to be biased. The question is not whether a rating is biased, but rather which bias underpins this particular ranking. Thus, in recent years we have learnt that there are two understandings of human rights: Western and Russian. Similarly, it is suggested that what constitutes freedom of the press is open to different interpretations. It follows that we should not therefore be worried about being ranked 141st in their list.

Freedom of the press demands that journalists are not shot, beaten up, thrown into prison or expelled from the country; that journalists do not receive threatening phone calls; that the State cooperates with them and does not obstruct their access to important information; that undue political pressure is not placed upon writers, so that self-censorship turns into an absence of criticism; that the authorities’ activities are critically examined; that the government neither possesses a monopoly on the mass media nor strives to do so. In these requirements I see nothing specifically Western nor biased.

When we say that ‘Russia has an independent (i.e. independent from the government) press’, we are immediately highlighting the fact that Russia has a problem with freedom of the media. It is a question of word usage. Democratic countries have no need to proclaim that they ‘have’ an independent press, since in these countries the concept of a state media simply doesn’t exist. By claiming to have an independent press, we are immediately aware that there must also be a government-controlled press, against which the independent media is defined.

What’s more, when we say that ‘Russia has an independent press’ we sometimes forget to describe the conditions in which it exists. The independent media is owned by independent businesses, which are themselves often uncertain of their security. Consequently, the media is likewise left feeling unsure of itself. Neither the Russian government nor Russian society enjoys debate; they don’t know how to participate nor do they want to learn. Any alternative opinions are thus seen as marginal and those who pronounce them are dubbed ‘fifth columnists’. As a result, the idea of freedom of the press is not accorded much respect, a problem compounded by the impurity of those in power, their backwardness, their short sightedness and their one-sided understanding of the nature of the media and its complexities. [Given such conditions] it should not come as such a surprise to be ranked 141st in the press freedom index. Russia fails with regards to media freedom.”

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