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Keeping calm and carrying on

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St Petersburg's Regional Press Institute has defended Russian media rights for the last two decades. Like other similar organisations, it has been subjected to various forms of governmental harassment, but has managed to keep going. Director Anna Sharogradskaya tells the story

Anna Sharogradskaya
31 July 2013

Twenty years ago a groundbreaking project set out to change the face of journalism in Russia, helping the media to develop in the new democratic conditions. The plan was to establish an organisation with a horizontal structure, unknown in Russia at the time, called the Russian American Press and Information Center. It opened with a network of seven branch offices throughout Russia.

The St Petersburg branch was set up in 1993, shortly after the Moscow office, and its first director, journalist and lecturer Lisa Schillinger, persuaded me to leave the university to become its head. I consider myself very lucky to have been given the opportunity to try and change the human rights situation in Russia for the better.

The organisation's name subsequently went through several transformations (RAPIC, National Press Institute and the Press Development Institute) for reasons more suited to a book than an article.  Ten years ago, in 2003,  the network collapsed and the Petersburg office decided to embark on a new, independent life as the non-profit Regional Press Institute, which took as models the Institute for US and Canadian Studies and New York University’s Institute for War, Peace and News Media. 

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Anna Sharogradskaya is a social activist and one of Russia´s leading media educators. Photo: Regional Press Institute

At that time perestroika and glasnost were the most popular buzzwords and it seemed quite likely that they would go into dictionaries throughout the world, as pogrom and sputnik had before them. The creators of the new organisers, convinced that

Glasnost rules, talk is free,

And thinking’s once more true.

No danger looms from careless words

When friends might tell on you.

appeared to have forgotten that V.S. Kurochkin’s poem Great Truths (1866), from which this loose translation is taken, was written 150 years ago and that freedom of speech had been under threat many times since then. For this reason the founding document of the Russian American Press and Information Center contained nothing about a human rights mission or function.

New press for a new society

For very obvious reasons the new press was badly in need of basic education on how to develop a media business, as neither press nor electronic outlets had any experience of working in the new market conditions. The 'Media Development Business Service' organisation brought in consultants from USA, West, Central and Eastern Europe to give essential assistance and training: how to manage a complex production system, so badly in need of modernisation, train staff, bring in advertising and many other elements of the business, not to mention capital investment.

No less important was the job of persuading media people that their role as propagandisers and agitators was a thing of the past: they must learn to convey events and facts to their audience intelligently, succinctly and subtly, looking at problems from various points of view and bringing in experts able to talk about complex public interest issues.

We were proud of having had a hand in ensuring the word ‘propaganda’ departed this life. Obligatory portraits of the chief Soviet journalist, Vladimir Lenin, disappeared off walls in faculties of journalism and everyone seemed to have forgotten his 1901 maxim ‘A newspaper is not only a collective propagandist and agitator, but a collective organiser too’. Editors and journalists attended seminars, whose evaluation sheets demonstrated the undoubted need for the training programmes that were on offer.

Meanwhile a far from harmless idea had lodged firmly in the brains of the new generation of journalists: to this day many journalism graduates in Russia are convinced that they are setting out to shape public opinion.  Another professional misconception often conflates journalism with PR. I remember one occasion when the dean of a faculty of journalism and public relations expressed the 'seditious', as she called it, idea that perhaps journalism and PR might actually be separate professions.

The State Duma Media law, which came into force in April 2013, classifies journalism as a 'creative profession’. People working in government service are not permitted have a second job, unless it is related to education, science or other creative activity, so the new law blurs the borderline between the press and the authorities and enables the servants of the people at every level to combine journalism with their day job of running the country.

Professional partnerships

There were not enough journalists in Russia and new schools of journalism were starting to appear.  This led to the development in Petersburg of partnerships with Scandinavian institutes of higher education. The word ‘schools’ covers all kind of training in higher education: journalism taught in faculties, departments and as an additional special subject. In August 2010 the North West Region (Archangel) registered its Association for Teachers of New Journalism Schools, whose members recently visited Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark. In November 2012 their students participated in a week-long seminar on political coverage at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in Aarhus.

It is difficult to overestimate the role played until recently by the Paul Klebnikov Foundation, which gave grants enabling students of journalism to work for a time in the Moscow offices of the New York Times, the Moscow Times, the Washington Post and CBS. In 2011 the programme ceased, only temporarily we hope, while the Foundation was being reorganised as an adjunct of Columbia University's Harriman Institute, possibly the leading academic institution in the study of contemporary Russia. Today the Foundation concentrates on offering established journalists like Oleg Kashin — who in some ways is made from the same mould as Paul Klebnikov — an opportunity to further develop their careers by inviting them to the USA.  Initially, the RPI ran the programme from Petersburg, then, some time later, Moscow State University came on board. The new generation of journalists needs to expand its world view by being in touch with students from other countries, comparing their own education with programmes available to students in other cities and countries. They are going to have to resurrect the profession in such a way as to allow space for quality journalism.

Press conferences and other events

When Moscow's Press Development Institute effectively ceased to exist, it did not sink without trace. The indefatigable Natalya Alexandrovna Yakovleva preserved the visible part of the organisation, the Independent Press Center.  This oasis of free speech constantly updates the press, empowering people who digest what they hear at the Centre's press conferences to become true citizens.

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One of the key aims of the Press Institute is to provide space for active debate. This has occassionally brought them into serious conflict with government structures. Photo: Regional Press Institute

Our Petersburg RPI also has a Press Centre: we never run commercial press conferences, but our round tables, panel discussions and the participation of newsmakers, who cannot speak in forums which are under Kremlin control, are of great interest to the press.

Our events interest the authorities too, though their interest is of a rather different kind. As a good example I could cite the February 1996 attack on our Petersburg office, after the press conference we had organised, relating to the 'spying activities' of the naval officer Alexander Nikitin. We invited ordinary journalists and an officer from the Northern Fleet, who flew in from Murmansk.  We also sent an invitation to the KGB Press Service in Petersburg, but no one was allowed to attend. That, at any rate, was how it was explained to us.

A few days later, journalist Alexander Nevzorov's programme 'Days' on the state TV channel described our organisation as 'CIA agents' protecting a spy, because we had brought in people sympathetic to Nikitin, rather than those who have the state's interests at heart. The Northern Fleet representative, who was sitting at the table with all the speakers, mysteriously disappeared from the picture.  Nevzorov went to the KGB and interviewed the head of the Press Service, who had not come to the press conference.  After a trial lasting several years, Alexander Nikitin was acquitted by the court.  But RPI can now be considered a 'foreign agent' of several years standing.

In 1996 the mayor of Leningrad, subsequently St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak banned Vladimir Zhirinovsky, LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) leader and a Duma deputy, from speaking in the city. Attempts to pay for the hire of the venue where he was to appear were unsuccessful, because everyone knew about the ban from on high.

It is just possible to explain, if not condone, why a democratic mayor refused to accept a politician with views at variance with his own, but very difficult to understand what happened with Gorbachev, who had facilitated Sobchak's climb up the career ladder.  During the 1996 presidential election, Anatoly Sobchak refused to allow Mikhail Sergeyevich [Gorbachev] to publicise his campaign by speaking to voters in the city. Gorbachev telephoned him, but Sobchak refused to speak to him so Mikhail Sergeyevich was forced to go to Ivangorod in the Leningrad region, where he addressed a handful of supporters.

In December 2002 the Petersburg City and Regional Union of Journalists banned the press conference on the infringement of human rights of sexual minorities, which had been announced for Human Rights Day in the press. The event did not take place, but was much discussed by the Russian and foreign press.

Our rental agreement

Members of the St Petersburg City Administration were particularly high-handed in their behaviour while Valentina Matvienko was governor (2003-11).  During the first months of her governorship (in 2004), she demanded that the rental agreement between the Regional Press Institute and the House of Journalists, where our offices are situated, should be broken, because she was unable to accept the criticism at our press conferences levelled against both her Administration and the government of the country.

There were no legal grounds for dissolving the contract: the (false) accusation that RPI owed the House of Journalists about 2,000,000 roubles was the subject of a court case and we were able to prove that the money had been stolen. In 2009 we had to endure a Justice Ministry raid lasting from 7 October to 27 November. Its outcome was pre-determined and it resulted in a warning, but this time too we managed to prove in court that the accusations were unfounded and in breach of legislation.  Our victory in April 2010 was only made possible by support from other NGOs and journalists, together with a brilliant defence by lawyer Ivan Pavlov, whose speech forced the judge the reconsider her own interpretation of the law and to hand down a fair verdict.

The Duma may not be the place for political discussion, as Putin ally Boris Gryzlov so famously said in 2005, but a court of law is a legal forum for expressing opinions and publicising facts. We hardly ever hear public discussions free which are not monitored by the state and only a very few people are bold enough to use the courtroom to defend their rights, but our experience has shown that this resource should more frequently be used.

When the law on 'foreign agents' was passed (July 2012), the RPI took the decision under no circumstances whatsoever to agree with this definition or, in the event of extreme necessity, to prove in court that this unseemly description cannot be understood to refer to our organisation. The dress rehearsal for our speech in a court of law took place during the interrogation at the office of the Prosecutor: our arguments were clearly convincing enough, because RPI received only a very vaguely-worded caution.

We hope to continue to serve our society, defending the right to know, to seek and to publicise information, freedom of speech, opinion and even freedom of the press.

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