'I am Putin's propaganda'

Is it possible to challenge censors without losing your livelihood? Polina Bykhovskaya interviews the men and women who wanted to change the world but ended up in the business of job preservation (their's and Putin's)

Journalist A

Place of work: NTV [owned by state gas behemoth Gazprom]

NTV

When you say ‘TV channel’, you assume a community of people. But there is no such communality, there is a divergence of interests. There is the management, who want to cover their backs, there are the compliant journalistic ‘bureaucrats’ and there are the partisans like us who are only tolerated because they liven up the pages. And ratings matter to the management.

[Kremlin strategist Vladislav] Surkov’s weekly press briefing is no secret, though I have never actually been there. NTV’s Director General Vladimir Kulistikov checks all our programme running orders and can remove anything he wants. Sometimes he throws out half the programme. There are certain subjects we steer clear of completely. We can’t touch anything connected with Chechnya, or controversial stories about Rosmolodyozh (the Federal Youth Agency - trans) and its head Vasily Yakemenko. And of course any minister can phone Putin and a story will be dropped immediately.

This is normal practice, and there is nothing you can do about it. You can just close your programme down, like Andrey Kolesnikov recently did. But Kolesnikov is also a reporter for Kommersant, and the editor in chief of Russky Pioneer magazine. Whereas I have no other work. We are in a rather unhealthy situation, where there is no real media industry, and anyone can be thrown out of a job at any moment and banned from following their profession. Parfyonov [Leonid Parfyonov, an outspoken journalist whose current affairs programme on NTV was closed down by the government in 2004] is one example of this. So self censorship is the order of the day. Everyone is afraid of something.

In this situation all you can do is get on with your job: to entertain and inform the public. It is difficult to identify with the people who watch TV, but in Russia they are in the majority. Only 19 million households have broadband internet access, which means the rest rely on television for their information. All you can do is try to tell them about what is happening, but as obliquely as possible. You have to resort to the language of Aesop. What you can’t say directly, you have to say not even between the lines, but through an extra layer of parable.

These are guerrilla tactics. The paradox is that the better you do your work, the more risky it becomes. I work on the ‘do what you can and hang the consequences’ principle. We are not required to call black white, but we can be fired if we call it black. The most seditious thing you can do on TV today is to describe what is actually happening in plain Russian. And this is what we try to do. You can vote with your feet, like Kolesnikov, but then you will be doing nothing at all.  

All these officially commissioned bits of propaganda like the film about the ‘Yukos Gang’, the exposé of Luzhkov, and the recent programme about the ‘Golos’ election monitoring group divert people from covering civil rights issues. They have of course ruined the channel’s reputation, but in fact you have to pity them. We spend all our time trying to prove that we are not ‘that’ NTV, but another one completely.

Journalist B

Place of work: NTV [state gas behemoth Gazprom]

NTV

It’s important to understand the technology: even if an item has to be pulled off the air, technically this doesn’t happen immediately. There is a TV server you can upload to, and the item will go out anyway. At NTV the bosses only check the running order for the first edition (for the Far East – there are five editions in all) and if they don’t like an item they pull it. Small changes are made to about half the items. Sometimes I deliberately slip in some clearly unacceptable remark they will definitely cut, in the hope they won’t notice a few other less obvious ones. But sometimes they don’t touch them. It’s like the weather - unpredictable.

If an item goes out in the first edition and is pulled afterwards, then you can put it on the internet. So there is more censorship of the programme for Moscow than for Vladivostok. They are more careful with the Moscow edition because that is the one watched by the presidential administration. But this is also absurd, because you can watch all the different editions on catch-up.

This game has no set rules. Sometimes you get away with something usually taboo, but subjects that have been permissible can also suddenly be declared off limits. For example, in a recent edition of the ‘NTV-shniks’ programme the main speaker was TV presenter and socialite Ksenya Sobchak. But after the ‘oyster incident’ when Sobchak caught Vasily Yakemenko on camera in Moscow’s most expensive restaurant and the resultant video went viral on ‘Youtube’, the programme makers were told to cut all Sobchak’s contributions to the programme – not an easy job for the editor, but it could be done.

Another subject that turned out to be taboo was the debacle over the prison sentence given to the ‘paedophile’ Makarov, supposedly because the paedophile theme was brought up by Medvedev, but the police could not find enough proper evidence against Makarov, so the subject was put out of bounds to avoid discrediting Medvedev. Supposedly after a phone call from Medvedev himself.  And a year ago a story was pulled about a boy who died in an ambulance because he could not legally be admitted to the nearest hospital. The rumour was that Minister of Health and Social Development Tatyana Golikova had phoned Putin. Yes, I know it sounds strange that the president and prime minister phone the management of a TV channel to have some seven minute item dropped from the news. I wasn’t in the room, but it sounds plausible enough.

Unlike liberal channels such as ‘Dozhd’, we have the resources to produce high quality reporting journalism. We have the travel budget and enough people. I also like to think about our viewers: we need to do something for this multi-million silent majority. If we get through to a few thousand of them, that’s already something.  

I work as though there is no censorship, and know when I have to compromise. If a piece of blatant propaganda appears in my programme, I wash my hands of it. And I reserve the right to do that publicly.

Journalist C 

Former place of work: internet newspaper ‘Vzglyad’ [published by Konstantin Rykov, former United Russia Deputy well known for his connections to the presidential administration]

Vzglyad

I was asked to join Vzglyad by a friend. He said I would not be required to write propaganda, but warned that my articles might be edited. In the end I worked there for just a few months.  

No, I wasn’t under any pressure. Some subjects were off limits, but on the whole I didn’t have to change my way of working. Once I interviewed a pro-Kremlin political analyst about possible future developments in Russia’s political situation. I asked him several pointed questions, including one about the influence of the electorate on the political process. But when the interview went up on the site, the question was reformulated as ‘Is it true the people still trust United Russia?’ Then there were the forest fires, and I was asked to write an article about how one regional governor, a communist, hadn’t allocated adequate funds for rehousing people who had lost their homes. I went on to United Russia’s site and discovered that some ‘United Russian’ governors had allocated even less. This wasn’t some special investigative journalism, it was right there on the site. I included that fact in my text, but it was cut, and after that incident I left the job. The strangest thing was that the person who had altered my texts was the editor who had given me the job in the first place. He’s a real professional with a good reputation and lots of experience. I don’t know what he was trying to prove.  

I get the impression that we worry more about the wellbeing of United Russia than they do themselves. I’m not an opposition journalist; I just believe it’s important to give objective information. And by the way, I wrote all my articles at ‘Vzglyad’ under a pseudonym. 

Journalist D

Former place of work: ‘Zvezda’ TV channel  [run by Military of Defence]

Zvezda

I worked at Zvezda for about a year and left a few months ago. I became less a victim of censorship than of greed – the people there are more blatant about  creaming off the cash than on other channels. And the row arose over money – they wanted to fire me on the spot and asked me to return my previous month’s salary, but, as I said, this tells you more about their stupidity and greed. The only thing to do with censorship was a remark by the channel’s deputy director general at the first meeting about a new programme, when he said, ‘We shouldn’t criticise the government too much when we are taking money from it’. The first story I began filming at Zvezda had the code name ‘Office Totalitarianism’ and the producer and I worked our butts off to get permission to film in the office of a certain Boyko and get an interview from him – you probably know the name – he’s a petty Russian Orthodox despot. It was milk from his firm, Russkoye Moloko, that Putin and Medvedev were drinking in the famous photo. He has crosses hung up above all his employees’ desks, and if they are married he makes them go through a church wedding. And they get fired if they have an abortion. We got the shoot – it took me a week to get it – Boyko was good and orthodox, I gleefully included the scene in the programme – but it was only seen in Vladivostok. After the programme had gone out all across the country I was told not to touch Mr Boyko, since he was ‘an extremely repulsive figure’. A friend of mine who worked in regional news described events connected with him in his personal blog rather differently, mentioning the governor, I think, and was fired from his job for it.  

Journalist E

Place of work: ‘Rossiiskaya Gazeta’ [official state newspaper]

Rossiyskaya

In my department things are not as bad as it may seem. There is censorship, but it is not direct. We try not to write about subjects on which our opinion differs from the official one. If it is politics, then it’s all more difficult. They don’t attack the ‘official’ opposition, but they don’t say nice things about it either. And the ‘unofficial’ opposition is simply not mentioned. Anything unflattering to the government is avoided.

We do officially commissioned work – I don’t know if they pay us for it or not. For example, we ran a hatchet job on Chirkunov, the Governor of Perm. You can tell by the names of the writers: they are names you won’t find anywhere else in the paper. Also, these articles are set differently, and don’t usually go on the internet.

Naturally I don’t approve of that. I try to bring it up when I’m talking to my editor. You could say I’m trying to change the system from within. But I’m not making much headway, they won’t change anything. And that’s sad.

Sometimes my colleagues manage to push something through. For example we wrote about the anti-government protests in Belorus in a way that suggested support for the opposition. Not in so many words, of course. But we only asked people in the opposition for comments and we only covered their actions. And we also had a reaction to the events from a Russian opposition figure.

The staff on the paper are quite a specific group – they are mainly older people who I think are disappointed with life. Only a minority are United Russia supporters. At the same time they don’t believe in the opposition. Mostly they are completely indifferent; they just don’t care about what is happening in the country.

I often think about moving on somewhere else. But on a professional level I’ve got a lot out of working here, and there’s room for me to go on developing my career.

Journalist F

Place of work: Channel One [state-owned TV]

ORT

I would rather not talk about censorship on my TV channel. Political news is looked after by a separate group of people who don’t talk to anyone else.

 

 

 

Katerina Ovsyannikova

Current position: producer at “Vremya”, Channel One news programme

Vremya

I’ve been workig on ‘Vremya’ for a month and a half, and before that I was editor of a programme called ‘Pust’ Govoryat’(Let Them Speak).

If my views differed from the channel’s politics, I wouldn’t be working here. When I started working on ‘Pust’ Govoryat’ I knew that we would be covering highly sensitive social issues, embarrassing things that people prefer not to talk about. But people watch the programme, so it’s obviously needed. When people came on work placement, the first question we would ask was ‘Have you watched the programme?’ And many of them hadn’t.  

On ‘Pust’ Govoryat’ they teach you to react as a human being, and not just as a journalist. You need to remember that the subjects of the programme are real people and that their lives will continue after the show. Appearing on television is something unimaginable for them. It’s important to them what people will think of them and how they will advise them. The programme changes their entire lives! Many journalist colleagues working in the tabloid press push the idea that TV is in the business of degrading people and afterwards their lives are ruined. It’s not true. I’m still in touch with a lot of people who were on the show; they’re on my social networking pages. People thank us for what we’ve done for them.

There is censorship, but it’s the same on every channel. Our job as journalists is to keep ourselves informed about everything and select whatever is really important. Filtering what goes on air isn’t my responsibility. I suggest a story to my bosses, and if it is relevant and interesting they send a team out to cover it and it goes on air. Maternity benefit, for example. If people are having too few children, they receive a sum of money when they have a second child. That’s very important, especially out in the regions.

Journalist G

Place of work: Russia Today [state-funded English-language TV channel]

Russia_Today

The TV station was set up as a counterweight to foreign media companies who were slating everything happened in Russia. They said that we were a bunch of w****ers and that bears wandered through Red Square. Our channel gives the world the truth about Russia, and what we think about what is happening in the world. And while doing that of course we stress our government’s official line. 

Russia Today is actually more independent than Channel One. We have a balanced approach to covering the news. We report on the activities of the opposition - that goes without saying, but it’s a question of scale. We don’t bother covering Strategy-31 demos, partly because they’re not news any more, but also because there are so few people there. If the revolution comes, we’ll obviously report it. We have a joke: how many Russians have to die for us to report on it? Three. How many Europeans? 20 to 40. How many Arabs? 40 to 60. How many Chinese? Forty at least.  

We’re very conscientious about selecting our facts: if RIA Novosti publishes the information that the quantity of grain harvested this year was 300 tonnes, and some brain damaged idiot from the opposition says it was 100 tonnes, we naturally use the RIA Novosti figure.

Information is the best propaganda. If you churn out propaganda like a dimwit, nobody will believe you. Our job is to give the other side of the story, the facts that the BBC and CNN keep quiet about. For example, when thousands of people in New York occupied Wall Street, under CNN’s nose, they were ignored, because their TV stations are all owned by the 1%, the corporations the demonstrators were protesting against. Here, thank God, our government is elected by the people. There is no actual proof of irregularities during our recent elections. I think there was a bit of rigging, but not much: United Russia certainly got a straight 40%. In any case, elections are a game for the big shots, and we’ll never get to the bottom of it all.

You often have to make compromises. I, for instance, like to slag off the west, but the editors think I sometimes go too far. And don’t give my name: I’m due for promotion and the bosses might not like me shooting my mouth off.

Anastasia Kashevarova

Current position: political editor at ‘Life News’ [published by Aram Gabrelian, known for his good relations with Kremlin]

Life_news

I’m twenty three years old. I got into journalism at the age of 17 thanks to Zhirinovsky – I was working on his staff at the time. I’ve been working at Life for three years. We have a clearly-defined editorial position – we don’t write anything bad about the president, prime minister or patriarch. That is what affects the wellbeing of the country. A journalist might not know everything, and his or her criticism of the government could lead to conflict or even to war. Constant negative coverage might end up undermining our head of state’s authority on the world stage – and with him our country’s authority.

I don’t understand why people criticise the president they elected themselves. I have voted for Putin and Medvedev at every election. Even if there is some vote rigging at elections, it’s not more than 10%. I speak as someone who knows something about politics. There’s no one who could compete with Putin. Navalny, who writes crap on the internet – no one gives a damn about him.

The only thing I don’t agree with completely was Kudrin being sacked. He is a real man and couldn’t help voicing his opinion. But he shouldn’t have criticised Putin’s policies. It’s a pity he’s gone. They could have come to some agreement, but they didn’t. That’s their business.

When I’m appointing new staff for my department, it’s important that they have their own opinions. But if they want to criticise Putin and Medvedev, then they need to have their facts straight.

If I get hold of documents claiming that Putin has committed some crime, I would want to check on them and where they came from. I discuss every document with Aram Gabrelyanov, our editor in chief, and we decide whether or not to publish it. I think it’s better to save millions of lives than a few hundred.  I mean we wouldn’t publish something or somehow try to rewrite it so it sounds better… We’re patriots, not hacks for hire.

For me being a journalist means trying to make the world better, telling the truth, but without damaging Russia’s interests. Truthfulness comes second for me, after our country’s security. And the other thing that motivates me is my ego – as a journalist you can change history.    

Grigory Okhotin

Former position: freelance editor of the foreign press translation service of RIA Novosti [state-owned news agency]

RIA_Novosti

I resigned after I got instructions not to translate anything that was critical of Putin and Medvedev. Or if we did translate it, not to lead with it. I don’t have any contact with Ria Novosti any more. I only saw their press release that said they were going to take me to court to defend their reputation. My lawyers at the Glasnost Defence Foundation have advised me to say that I had every right to express my opinion that there is censorship at the Agency. Let me stress that - it’s my opinion.

I’m not worried about my own reputation, let them call me a scandalmonger if they like. But at least I can look them in the eye.

When I went to work at RIA, I assumed of course that there would be censorship. But during the ten months I worked there was nothing. Literally the day before I resigned I was boasting to friends who work in the liberal media that I didn’t have any problems. I spoke too soon.

I believe there is no such thing as censorship. When I’ve spoken to other journalists I know I’ve been really struck by how afraid they are. I can understand older people, people with children; they’ve got something to lose. But when you’re in your twenties and living in Moscow, you can find work in three days. You don’t have to work as a journalist.