Nestled along a bend on the Volga River, Samara tops the list of regions in Russia in terms of media organisations. There are 589 publications operating in Samara, including 363 newspapers and more than 60 radio and television stations. Yet quantity does not equal quality when it comes to press freedom. There are no independent media organisations in Samara.
Many outlets, few truths
At a high-profile seminar on press freedom in September, rights activists, budding journalists and students gathered in Samara to discuss the fate of reporting in Russia. The forecast was grim. ‘This generation of young journalists is lost professionally,’ declared Nikolai Svanidze, a member of the Public Chamber of Russia and the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. ‘They are completely surrounded. While the authorities act from above, one’s colleagues and friends influence you from the side. Frankly, you need heroic strength and willpower to go against the grain.’
The editor-in-chief of leading opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, shared this view. As Muratov put it, journalism has become a form of ‘prostitution’ in Russia.
‘This generation of young journalists is lost professionally’
But the reality for young journalists is more complicated. ‘For a new journalist, the only way to remain independent is to report on non-political topics or to work freelance in independent media in Moscow or the West,’ a journalist named Anton told me. But journalists working with those kinds of publications will not be employed by organisations in Samara. A journalist just starting out might receive a salary of 12,000 roubles per month [£139]. And freelance isn’t for me. There’s no stable income, and I need that.’ Anton asked me not to disclose his surname for fear that he would be expelled from the Russian Union of Journalists and dismissed from the editorial office where he works, on account of his criticism. ‘My monthly salary is 15,000 roubles [£173] — full stop. The rest of the editors offer to write “advertorials”, which is what we call articles with hidden advertisements. For example, you write an article about the city parliament and praise a particular policy. And in return, as a token of gratitude, they pay you. A lot of people work like this. Nobody wants to stand by his principles and earn a tiny salary. This happens everywhere. There are practically no exceptions.’
Under Governor Nikolai Merkushkin, nearly all media assets in Samara are controlled by a single official entity. Using the ‘carrot and stick’ approach, the regional authorities are thus able to put pressure on the city’s local press.
For instance, during the recent gubernatorial elections in September, even the Samara branch of the popular opposition radio station Echo Moscow ceased to criticise Governor Merkushkin. During the governor’s pre-election campaign, the newspaper Volzhskaya Kommuna (The Volga Commune), which is funded by the regional budget, included six photographs of Merkushkin in each publication.
Private media outlets are also loyal to the regional governor. For instance, Media-Samara — a holding company owned by city deputy Dmitry Suryaninov — owns five popular newspapers in Samara and the neighbouring town of Tolyatii. A radio and television broadcasting service also belongs to this same holding group.
Ten years ago, the Samara branch of Echo Moscow regularly discussed current political events. Today, the Samara branch is a conventional talk-radio station. Indeed, in June, people conducted solo pickets, demanding that the central management of Echo Moscow dismiss the editors of the Samara station.
Every year on 13 January, the Day of Russian Press, Governor Merkushkin presents awards to winners of a regional journalism competition, which is funded by the regional budget. In 2013, the award was given to over 100 journalists and bloggers. According to tradition, the winners of the 2014 competition were also awarded cash prizes.
‘Are self-respect and self-esteem old news for journalists nowadays?’
Elena Vavina, a journalist who works for the Samara regional branch of the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, said ‘Last year, one of my colleagues who teaches at a university was awarded a prize. It turns out that her nomination only received three votes. She got third place in the competition. Many of my colleagues are journalists and bloggers — they collect documents and publications for the Governor’s prize. My colleagues advised me to sign up for the competition, but I don’t want to take money from Merkushkin. I don’t respect him. Are self-respect and self-esteem old news for journalists nowadays?’ Vavina wonders.
Censorship and retribution
Censorship and retribution is at work in Samara. In September, journalist Sergei Melnik (from radio station Lada FM in Tolyatti) was suspended live on air for asking a question about the Samara gubernatorial elections. Just before the election, Arkady Estrin, the former vice-mayor and director of the Department of Construction of the City Hall of Tolyatti was invited to Melnik’s show on Lada Fm. Expressing his opinion about the upcoming gubernatorial elections live on air, Estrin announced: ‘It’s not an election, it’s a farce’. When Melnik asked him if he would vote and participate in this ‘farce’, Estrin answered in the negative. Melnik then added that he had also decided not to vote in the gubernatorial elections. ‘And you, my friends, decide for yourselves. We are not telling anyone to do anything,’ announced Melnik, live on air.
After this statement, the radio station management suspended Melnik from work, live on the radio. Members of the Union of Journalists of the Samara Region refused to comment on the situation, stating that Lada Fm is a private radio station. Indeed, as a recipient of honorary titles and twice named the winner of the Russian Union of Journalists Prize for Professional Excellence, Melnik was surprised that the Union of Journalists in Samara did not defend him after his unfair dismissal.
The work of an independent journalist can be physically dangerous. While preparing for his report on the public hearings into town planning in Samara, Anton Korneev (a correspondent from internet-publication Zasekin.ru) was threatened with physical violence by strangers. Eventually, Korneev had to resort to police protection. Indeed, internet journalism is now being targeted centrally. On 13 March, the Russian press watchdog Roskomnadzor decided to block access to Rufront, Kasparov.ru, Ezhednevny Zhurnal (Daily Journal) and Grani.ru — all prominent opposition news websites — in the Samara Region.
In addition to explicit censorship as seen in the case of Sergei Melnik, there is also a hidden kind of censorship, which manifests itself in editorial policy. Practically all the regional, city, and district, terrestrial TV channels and editorial print and online media are under the direct control of regional authorities.
In addition to explicit censorship, there is also a hidden kind of censorship
Local journalist Vladimir Ivanov says that officials from the Media Relations Department, — under the control of the governor of the Samara Region — can call the editors of a television channel and stop reports of opposition rallies from being aired. ‘Editors are forced to comply with the demands of officials. Otherwise the editorial offices will not be paid for their report on the military parade or be allocated money to buy new equipment. Regional authorities are also co-founders of our television company. That’s why it is necessary to take into account the interests of the government and to avoid criticism.’
Junkets for bloggers
Under Governor Merkushkin, the Information Policy Department controls not only the media, but also bloggers. On 9 May 2013, Merkushkin took a group of prominent bloggers to Saransk to celebrate Victory Day — the annual commemoration of the end of the Second World War. Saransk is the regional capital of the Republic of Mordovia, where Merkushkin was governor from 1995 to 2012. The promotional trip involved a chartered flight to Saransk, and was funded from the Samara regional budget. Bloggers were flown 500km to Saransk, allocated ‘deluxe’ rooms at a hotel, wined and dined at the best restaurants, and taken on a tour of Mordovia’s regional capital. All this free of charge.
As Valery Karlov, leader of the human rights organisation Civil Initiative, says: ‘The aim of the trip was to show how much Merkushkin has done for Mordovia and how much he will do as the governor of the Samara Region. As a token of gratitude, all the bloggers posted enthusiastic reports about their experiences on LiveJournal and Facebook. Not sparing any compliments, they lavished Merkushkin with praise. It would have been better if they had written about human rights violations in the Samara Region.’
Despite the censorship, and pressure from officials of the regional government, independent media and independent journalists can still be found in Samara Region. People in Samara are familiar with independent journalists such as Sergei Kurt-Adjiev, Anton Korneyev, Roman Khakhalin, and others. In terms of print media, there are two independent newspapers in the Samara Region today, the Samara branches of opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta and popular daily Moskovsky Komsomolets. Local online media such as the online journal Park Gagarina, Zasekin.ru, as well as national websites Kasparov.ru and Rufront are the most well-known and respected outlets among readers interested in civil and human rights. Of all the mass media outlets in Samara, independent online media attract the most readers. Indeed, local officials also read the critical reports published by independent media outlets.
Of all the mass media outlets in Samara, independent online media attract the most readers.
Journalists who cover human rights issues often combine reporting with activism, and frequently participate in protests. For example, local branches of the 5 December Party (named after the start of the 2011 protests) and the Progress Party (founded by Alexei Navalny) publish information on their Facebook pages. The leaders of these regional party cells, Elena Makhrova and Katerina Gerasimova, work as independent journalists, and report on human rights protests in Samara. The leader of the Civil Initiative movement in Samara, Valery Karlov, also publishes material critical of the regional authorities on Facebook and LiveJournal. The leader of the Samara Union of Voters, Andrei Sokolov, and Andrei Astashkin, a well-known blogger and deputy head of the local cell of the liberal political party Yabloko, also maintain presences on social media.
But these independent voices are few and far between. As Astashkin sums up the situation, ‘Today, Samara is a region with no freedom of speech. The internet remains the only space for independent media here.’
Standfirst image: (c) RIA Novosti/Ruslan Krivobok