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Russian provincial media: what price freedom?

OrenburgTV-jpg.jpg

The degree of press freedom in Russia has fluctuated violently over the 20 years since the fall of communism. The situation in the Orenburg region, as everywhere, is a balancing act between principles and funding. And it’s always more difficult to rebuild what has been lost, laments Elena Strelnikova.

Elena Strelnikova
11 July 2011

The jaws of power are always opened to devour

…the freedom of thinking, speaking and writing

John Adams (1765)

Vox pop

When I was thinking about how I might describe the media situation in the Orenburg region, where I live and work (as a journalist), I decided I could do worse than start by asking my friends. So I did. I couldn’t get a word in for 20 minutes, they were having such fun tearing the media to shreds. It obviously didn’t bother them that I, one of the movers and shakers in that same local media, was sitting there…but what can one do? The voters are always right (according to the Constitution, of course).

Orenburg_map

Their conversation went something like this:

“My husband is always watching the local news.”

“I try never to miss it. The only programme that drives it right out of my mind is ‘Fishing talk’. I’m always interested to know what’s going on my region, but I would really like to see more news about neighbouring regions.”

“They all curry favour with the authorities. I watch because it’s interesting, but they lay it on with a trowel!”

“Not everyone does the flattery, though some are impossible to watch. I myself don’t actually watch the news, but I do like the ‘SOS’ section in the paper, where people complain about the housing authorities and other knotty problems.”

“Whether you complain or not makes not a blind bit of difference – nothing gets done.”

“I don’t read the papers at all…Let’s look at one. What have we here? Announcements, ads and crosswords…”

“You could try starting on the front page, not the back!”

“Well OK, so…the governor went to visit…I know that, crime news..know that too.”

“I get all my news from the internet.”

“You get human interest stories and some kind of analysis too…”

So what kind of media situation do we actually have in our region?  Let’s start with some background information.

Orenburg regional media

At the time of writing there are 589 media outlets registered in the Orenburg region. 379 print, 203 electronic and 6 news agencies. No one has yet done a count of the websites. 56 of the outlets subsist on official government grants alone: most of the district newspapers and at least one TV channel survive only because they get regional funding. 

A cameraman I know worked at that channel for 6 months, but couldn’t bear it.  I asked him why. He said “Everything’s always wonderful there: we film flowers and tell the viewers how delicious they smell. We film s**t and say the same thing – it smells so good!” 

The other 4 channels (all in the city of Orenburg) receive regular handouts from the authorities. So does the radio, though this is no longer a primary information source. In Soviet times people would quote what they’d heard on the radio news and the news agencies would actually pinch their information. In the 90s I was driven mad by one representative of a big news agency who would ring me up – he wrote his news bulletins to our dictation – and preach to me about pronunciation and stress [in Russian very important and an indicator of level of education ed.]. 

"In the perestroika years there were no such things as press offices, so we didn't have to lodge an official request and then wait for the answer to be given within the period stipulated by law. At that time seasoned journalists almost broke the bureaucrats' doors down with requests to comment on whatever. The authorities commented, made no fuss and didn't tell us how to do our job." 

An editor’s view

Orenburgers have access to all forms of print media. The total number of newspapers and magazines printed is 500,000. Of these 170,000 are publications directly subsidised by the region, which gives an average figure of around 10 copies per 100 people (the population of the region is 2 million). 

I asked the managing editor of the Orenburg section in the paper “Arguments of the Week” how they survive. His answer was interesting.

“We've been going for 18 months and the only thing I really mind about is that I haven't had a holiday all that time. But over this period we have identified both the themes we want to write about and how we stand financially. 90% of our readers vote in elections, which is a good indication of how serious they are. Ads (mainly political) are our main source of income, but it's difficult to survive without business support. Business is not well developed in our region, though we are one of Russia's donor regions [sending money to Moscow and not in receipt of federal grants ed.]. You're lucky if you get into corporate media e.g. gas, oil or electricity. But there it's rigid discipline - 'Take a step to the right or a step to the left and I shoot.'

yaik_gazeta.jpg

Orenburg tabloid Yaik boasts 
financial independence and claims
it can operate without subsidy.

“Our newspaper is distributed in the neighbouring Samara Region as well.  In addition to our basic funding, we have the income from sales via Rospechat [Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications] and some of my own money (not giving any details there). Our print run is 20,000. I have 3 journalists. Each one of them has been working for longer than 10 years and knows the whole region inside out. We do what no one else will – analysis. 'Moskovskii komsomolets in Orenburg' and 'Komsolmolskaya pravda in Orenburg' are for the ordinary consumer. 'Yaik' and 'Life' are tabloids. The more parochial newspapers simply parrot the official line, though sometimes they take pot-shots at the authorities (usually with their permission or at their suggestion), more often than not in the pre-election period.

“Our job is to analyse: social problems from the condition of the asphalt to the Unified State Exam [taken by school leavers], for instance. Anything that might interest business people. In our analysis we try to show all sides of the argument. It's difficult to put the squeeze on us, because we are like a stream flowing alongside the main river course. We don't engage in character assassination or foam at the mouth. Our criticism is constructive, which is how it should be. Sometimes you look at colleagues arguing (especially on TV – lots of aphorisms and theatrical gestures) and you see that it's no more than cheap self-advertising. It's nothing to do with the issue under discussion…it's just look at me. What is particularly amusing is when they criticise the government in general terms. Why do that? Criticise someone who has failed in his official responsibilities, which is what we do. If we can't actually name the person, then we don't write anything. And anyway, criticism without no suggestions how to move forward is not what journalists these days should be doing.”

The governor comes to call

The Orenburg media likes criticising the authorities. They are permitted to do this, though the regional leadership never passes up an opportunity to instruct journalists how they should work and they take pleasure in so doing. 

About 5 years ago the then Governor came to visit us on New Year's Eve.  This was an unusual event – governors have such a busy workload, but he'd taken the time to come and see us. There was a three-line whip to get people in from all over the office so as to create a respectably solid audience. We all turned up and sat down in an orderly fashion. We'd even managed to come up with a present for our VIP guest – a CD of choirs singing folk music, which had been recorded in our studio, and the jubilee edition of our house journal. We folded our hands and awaited the governor's kind words on the eve of the public holiday. 

But we waited in vain…our elected representative went through all the staff by name (he must have done his homework, unlike us..), finding something to criticise in everyone's work. He lectured us about how real journalists should cover life in the region: tell the truth and nothing but the truth! Well, we don't actually make anything up…all you have to do is present the picture and it tells its own story. Then he collected his presents and went on his way, with no good wishes for the most joyful and cheerful holiday of the year. It may not seem much, but it left a nasty taste in the mouth which didn't go away. No more high-ranking officials came to visit us just before any public holidays. But, as the maid Liza says in Alexander Griboyedov's Woe from Wit: 'Beware of masters, they/Will cause you trouble any day./Of all the woes God spare us both/The masters' love and masters' wrath.'

The authorities

Last month I went to a media festival in Perm. There were about 50 people there from all the regions of Russia, most of them possessed of a good sense of humour (journalism without a sense of humour is a press office), a ready tongue (no point in grasping the mouse without that) and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour…and they were far away from their nearest and dearest. Well, it was the same as always: at work you talk about women and with women about work.

Orenburg_government

We are lucky in that in the Orenburg region our relations with the authorities are pretty decent. At least they don't ask to see the proofs before we go to press! Nor do they require us to go overboard when it comes to the United Russia party matters.                           

Orenburg's local administration in session. Regional authorities typically expect local media to report on their activities and agenda

A colleague from Tula told me that in a 20-minute TV programme they have to have at least 4-5 topics about the governor (where he's been, what he saw and his particular focus point at the time) and resistance is quite pointless.  I asked them how they live with this. Their answer was honest: “We expressed very slight criticism of them and they were offended, so they started giving us money and now we are more restrained in our remarks.” I don't believe them. They're making it up. My first boss used to say that he would do both – take the money and tell the truth. My boss in the 90s said the same thing. Perhaps the situation with the authorities was simpler then, I don't know. In the perestroika years there were no such things as press offices, so we didn't have to lodge an official request and then wait for the answer to be given within the period stipulated by law. At that time seasoned journalists almost broke the bureaucrats' doors down with requests to comment on whatever. The authorities commented, made no fuss and didn't tell us how to do our job. I'm reminded of an old joke.

An elderly editor is ticking off a young journalist:

“You've written here that the bureaucrat Mr N is a thief. You can't do that!  His lawyers will swamp us with libel cases, and bankrupt us!”

“But what if he really is a thief?”

“Hmm, well this is what you do. Don't write 'thief', but 't.h.i.e.f' and then in a footnote explain that this abbreviation stands for 'this heavyweight is extremely fallible.'”

Press freedom

“We don't have a free press in the Orenburg region today, because it's been decimated”, says one of our experienced political scientists. “The will to achieve freedom has been lost and we no longer know how to live in a free atmosphere. The reason everyone gives for this is the economy: there's no other way to live, we need the money. Over the years that we had no freedom at all, a generation grew up of…you can't really even call them journalists, they're media employees. They lost sight of the mission of a journalist and what they're supposed to be doing, so they don't know how to work in a free press. We'll have to learn how all over again, but it's always more difficult to restore something that's been lost. 

“It must be said that there are exceptions. The newspaper 'Southern Urals', for instance. This was set up by the Regional Legislative Assembly and I may disagree with their editorial policy, but it's a professional paper working to the best of its ability to provide free news coverage. It has considerable authority, which means it has slightly more latitude than most. We have no opposition press: the material put out by the opposition parties at the time of an election is really no more than leaflets and sometimes they don't smell very nice.”

Southern_Ural_newspaper

Yuzhny Ural (Southern Urals) has
established itself as Orenburg’s most
prestigious title.

“Criticism of the authorities is right and proper, it's what needed, it's even essential!” my TV colleague interrupts. “And you always get a reaction. We managed to get flats for the war veterans. And what about the queues to see a doctor? We pushed them and pushed them on this and now people have forgotten what it was like to queue to see a doctor. The media have always acted as a hammer: they still do and it will go on. But of course we don't have an opposition. Everybody depends on someone or something else in one way or another.”

“Journalists' pieces should contain information that is both eye-catching and interesting i.e. creative. Not the teeth-clenchingly boring stuff we are usually regaled with.” This is a quote from an essay written by a student of the faculty of journalism. Clearly a budding genius, if he didn't scruple to put in words like that for the dean to read. He's probably still strutting the corridors of the institute, boasting to his course mates about his freedom of expression and independence. What it is to be young!

“We were lucky, because we had the older journalists behind us,” says my 30-year old colleague, who comes from a family of journalists. “We make a fuss about being journalists, but we need to be hounded and persecuted.  There has to be rigorous filtering of people trying to get into our profession, because there are a great many young people, but not all of them have the necessary urge to discover, they're not sufficiently driven or questioning.  Every time my father comes back from a reporting assignment his eyes are shining: 'Such a pity the TV guys weren't there. I've just met such an amazing person. We have to help, something must be done!'”

I was sort of trying to bring the discussion to an end, but more and more people kept joining in. It's just not that easy to shut journalists up.

“Regional [as opposed to local] journalists have a tough call”, was a widely held opinion in the writing fraternity. “Salaries are low and there's no hope of an increase. But there are things that only the regional guys can do. We're unique, we write about our region with particular affection and are quickest to react to events. We're an essential part of the mix. The federal press would have nothing to write about if it weren't for us digging away in the regions, but their casual attitude to us is infuriating. 

"Over the years that we had no freedom at all, a generation grew up ofyou can't really even call them journalists, they're media employees. They lost sight of the mission of a journalist and what they're supposed to be doing ... they don't know how to work in a free press."

“At one point I was asked to work with a special correspondent from Moscow. I spent three days tramping through the woods and fields with him and his cameraman. We were dead on our feet, though I thought that at the very least we'd be decently paid. But we were swindled. In a couple of months they rang to ask if we would mind doing some filming for them. I asked why we should. The reply came back: but we thought you'd count yourselves lucky to work with a special correspondent! As if we can't work by ourselves! Actually, we do have some kind of freedom. We work honestly after elections and about 6 months before the next.”

Out of the mouths…

My daughter, so it appears, also wants to be a journalist. When I asked her what sort of a person she thought a journo should be, her answer made me smile ruefully.  Interesting and persistent with an enquiring mind, encyclopaedic knowledge and an ability to get on with people, she thought. Then she added thoughtfully that they should be both incorruptible and objective.

I wonder how long she will manage to hold on to this uplifting view of a profession which cannot by definition really accommodate idealists. (And not only in Russia…)

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