In Soviet days foreign radio stations were a lifeline for people seeking another point of view. They continued broadcasting after the collapse of the USSR, though the BBC Russian Service programmes went online only in 2009. Now US-funded Radio Liberty is closing its doors. Mumin Shakirov, a special correspondent made redundant by the closure, reflects on the passing of an age.
Editors’ note: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is a broadcaster, funded by the US Congress, whose motto is ‘Free Media in Unfree Societies’. Founded as an anti-communist propaganda source during the Cold War, Radio Liberty has remained an important alternative to Russia’s mostly state controlled media, seeing itself as a Russian radio station obliged to broadcast from outside the country. However, a new law coming into force in November, banning radio broadcasting in Russia by companies more than 50 % owned by foreign individuals or organisations, has forced Radio Liberty to close down its broadcasts, although it will retain an online presence (as does the Russian Service of the BBC World Service, which ceased broadcasting in 2009).
Thursday, 20th September. The phone rang at 9am. I picked it up and heard the voice of Tatiana Ivanova, a receptionist at Liberty’s Moscow bureau. ‘Mumin, get yourself round to 25 Leontievsky Pererulok. They’re expecting you at 10.30 at the DLA Piper law firm.’ ‘What…? Why?’ I mumbled, still half asleep. ‘Instructions from Korn (Radio Liberty’s Director). Eighteen people have been asked to go there, and your name’s on the list. Ask for Sergey Kolchin, one of their legal team.’ The line went dead.
'The lawyer’s arguments are convincing: legal action against the company will be fruitless; he is making us an offer we can’t refuse; mutual agreement, severance packages, everyone to hand in their ID passes and equipment. Full stop.'
My first thought was that it must be about medical insurance, that we were finally getting it after hassling them about it for years. But then I started wondering - why the hurry, first thing in the morning, and why at a law firm rather than the office? With these worrying thoughts in my head I travelled into central Moscow. DLA Piper was on the fourth floor, with secretaries straight off a catwalk and a conference room with a large oval table around which colleagues from the RL internet department were sitting. Seeing me, their faces fell: ’you too?’ A nervous laugh. I look round and see at the window a group of RFE/RL bosses, headed by the station’s Deputy Director Julia Ragona.
Everything becomes clear. The DLA Piper lawyer quietly extinguishes all our emotions and protests. His arguments are convincing: legal action against the company will be fruitless; he is making us an offer we can’t refuse; mutual agreement, severance packages, everyone to hand in their ID passes and equipment. Full stop. Nearly twenty journalists lost their jobs that day, and the same number the next. In two days, Radio Liberty’s Moscow office was shut down. Not a thank you, not a goodbye. End of the story. Curtains. Nearly twenty years of working for the station finished.
Working for ‘Liberty’
I started working for RL as a freelance in 1994, when I returned from an assignment on the Tadjik-Afghan border. In my job as a correspondent for the Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Gazette), I had been in the Pamir mountains, in the thick of the Tajikistan Civil War, where Islamist forces and narcotics barons clashed with Russian border troops. Russia’s TV channels were, as usual, presenting a very one-sided picture of the conflict and in my reports on the real situation I attempted to refute the version being pumped out by Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Radio Liberty’s Moscow office was then headed by Savik Shuster, one of its original members. The programme I made for him, using the voices of those engaged in the conflict, as well as the sounds of gunfire in the mountains and helicopter attacks on the Islamist forces, caused a furore and was the start of my long years of work for RL. Later I reported from Chechnya, Abkhazia, Afghanistan and other ‘hot spots’. In the 90s Radio Liberty was, alongside other foreign broadcasters such as the BBC World Service, one of the few sources of information challenging the official version of events. In this respect Andrey Babitsky’s reports from the First Chechen War in the mid 90s, giving our listeners a first hand account of what was really happening in the northern Caucasus, were particularly outstanding.
It was at Radio Liberty that I learned the first principles of independent journalism. Anything we put out had to reflect at least two points of view, and preferably three or four, to be able to claim objectivity. ‘Nobody is interested in your opinion’, I was once reminded by RL’s Russian Service deputy head, the writer Pyotr Vail: ‘You are a plumber. Your business is to turn on the tap, and it isn’t up to you whether hot or cold water comes out.’ In 1998 I joined RL’s staff.
'Unlike most of my Russian media colleagues, I was privileged to work without having to think about which subjects were permitted and which taboo, and, most importantly, without any internal censorship.'
Perhaps the most interesting time for me was the early 2000s, when I was special correspondent for Mikhail Sokolov’s programme, travelling through provincial Russia from top to bottom and end to end. This was a school of life, showing me how people lived and worked far from the relatively affluent and complaisant Moscow.
At that time, local mayors and governors were still directly elected, so there was always some kind of political discussion to provide a story. And then of course there were the tense times of terrorist attacks in Moscow: the bombing of apartment blocks in the city; the Nord Ost Theatre hostage crisis; the bomb attack at Domodedovo airport – when Radio Liberty’s news reports almost always differed from those of the official media, for which the regime could not forgive us. It was during times of armed conflict, whether Beslan, the war with Georgia or the various terrorist attacks that we excelled ourselves, and we can be proud of our record there.
Making a difference
I must say that I developed a lot of professional pride, or even a certain arrogance, during my radio years. Unlike most of my Russian media colleagues I was privileged to work without having to think about which subjects were permitted and which taboo, and, most importantly, without any internal censorship, which of course gave me more confidence in my work. I can safely claim to have been the first person to include photos in my articles on the RL website, and the first to make a video serial - of a train journey I made from Dushanbe to Moscow with migrant Tadjik workers, which paved the way for this new type of content on the station’s internet platform. Thanks to online editor Lyudmila Telen, who has been responsible for developing our site, over the last three years it has become one of Russia’s most visited and quoted multimedia portals.
'We have carried out our mission; for all these years we have talked about another Russia, about events that often passed the official media by, and we have occupied a human rights niche that would otherwise have been empty.'
I will of course never forget the other colleagues who contributed to my professional development, and the marvellous sessions where we journalists would sit around a table drinking and chatting with top politicians such as Mikhail Gorbachov, Grigory Yavlinsky and Boris Nemtsov, as well as oligarchs, eminent human rights activists and well known figures from the Arts.
Now all that is in the past. The Moscow bureau no longer exists. But we have carried out our mission; for all these years we have talked about another Russia, about events that often passed the official media by, and we have occupied a human rights niche that would otherwise have been empty. We were different from everyone else and will be remembered for it.
Mumin Shakirov’s video serial Migrant Express, can be seen on Youtube.