Media freedom in the Russian regions? You must be joking…

As the Kremlin tightens its grip even further on the Russian media, lawyer and legal rights activist Galina Arapova looks at the tough options faced by journalists, especially in the regions.

If you mention ‘media freedom’ in Russia today your words will probably be met with a smile. If you are talking to an ordinary Russian the smile will be sceptical; it will say, ‘Media freedom, freedom of speech? Don’t be daft, there’s no such thing.’ If you are talking to a journalist, especially a regional one working in the government or municipally owned media, the smile will be a sad one, sometimes full of bitterness - about the loss of professional ideals, the impossibility of writing and talking about issues of interest to them – and to the public, about censorship and self-censorship and the fact that the last 20 years have slipped away with very little to show for them. Digital TV, internet media, glossy journals in new formats –Russia has all of these things, but they have very little to do with media freedom

Public television à la Russe

Most Russians rarely even think about media freedom, probably because they haven’t tasted it for so long (and some have never known it). Sadly, the kind of press that in a democratic society protects public interests and holds up an objective mirror to events hardly exists in Russia today, either at a national or regional level. 

Individual journalists who try to work in the public interest and uphold the traditional standards of their profession face harsh reprisals from the Kremlin machine, which has at its disposal any number of means for suppressing freedom of speech, from energy-sapping charges of defamation and checks for ‘extremism’ to the newly reinstated article of the Criminal Code on defamation, which attracts astronomical fines of up to five million roubles (many years‘salary for an average journo).  

'Digital TV, internet media, glossy journals in new formats –Russia has all of these things, but they have very little to do with media freedom.'

There has been no independent TV in Russia for many years: there are channels that are not state owned, but their editorial policies are very cautious. All the six national TV channels are either fully or partly owned by the state, and the two main national radio news channels (Radio Mayak and Radio Rossiya) are also completely state-owned. The state owns two of the 14 main daily newspapers, and more than 60% of the 51,000 regional and local titles. As proprietor of a massive proportion of news outlets, the regime has no difficulty controlling both content and the journalists who provide it, despite the fact the censorship is outlawed by the Russian constitution.

Regional television is no different: it is mostly funded by the state out of its regional budget, and occasionally by major regional industrialists, generally when they want to stand for public office. At no stage does the public interest come into the picture. Making TV programmes is an expensive and complex business, so there is little commissioning of regional projects, and those that do happen are government funded.

Documentary film - news or propaganda?

Russians like saying that he who pays the piper calls the tune. A good example of this is the recent row over the showing on TV of the documentary ‘Anatomy of a Protest’, about the opposition demonstrations after the parliamentary and presidential elections. The participants were portrayed in a very negative light and the film itself was extremely tendentious –the powerful state media empire had once again trundled into action in the war of words.   

The film sparked massive outrage and was widely debated on the internet and social networks. In June it was referred to the Public Press Complaints Council, a self regulating oversight body. The complaint was lodged jointly by several organisations involved in defending freedom of speech and journalists: the Foundation for the Defence of Openness (Glasnost), the Mass Media Defence Centre and the Russian Union of Journalists. According to the complainants, the film not only attempted to manipulate public opinion, with the aim of discrediting citizens who were actively pursuing their civil rights, but also undermined journalists’ professional ethics by camouflaging political propaganda as journalism. 

NTV_lies_anatomy

‘NTV lies’. Protesters gathered spontaneously in front of the Ostankino TV Center in Moscow to protest against the airing of the ‘Anatomy of Protest” by state controlled NTV. The film alleged the recent protests against election fraud were fuelled by foreign money. (photo: ottenki_serogo, live journal, all rights reserved).

'The Complaints Council found that the film ‘Anatomy of a Protest’ contained ‘marked elements of political propaganda, inconsistent with accepted ideas of the principles and norms of investigative television journalism.’

The Complaints Council agreed, finding that the film contained ‘marked elements of political propaganda, inconsistent with accepted ideas of the principles and norms of investigative television journalism.’ It warned against using 'journalism as an instrument for the achievement of personal goals, including those goals which are incompatible with the ideas of the public interest accepted in civilised journalism.’  

They are certainly right: it is inconceivable that such a film would have been made had Russia had an independent TV sector and if the TV company that made it valued its reputation higher than its financial interests and political expediency.

The mimicry of censorship

Formally, censorship is banned by Article 29 of the Russian Federal Constitution and Article 1 of the Russian Law on the Media. In fact it is flourishing. Censors as such no longer exist, but there are still editors or Research and Information departments whose opinion on a given article must be taken into account. Today’s ‘censor’ will not normally check a text for ‘soundness’ before its publication (though I have heard of it happening on occasion). Instead there are a number of effective levers (usually economic) that can be used on editors to agree a (spoken or unspoken) list of those subjects which are acceptable to cover and those which are taboo. Regional editors are compelled to play the game by these rules because with limited access to advertising revenue they often rely on external governmental cash injections.   

'Today’s ‘censor’ will not normally check a text for ‘soundness’ before its publication, but there are effective levers (usually economic) that can be used on editors to agree a (spoken or unspoken) list of those subjects which are acceptable to cover and those which are taboo.'   

This can also lead to stories being published that are a combination of hidden advertising and censorship: the published material looks like an editorial or signed article, but in fact it is paid for by the local administration. In this situation it cannot of course contain any criticism. Editors who publish critical articles or cover unacceptable subjects will pay for their rashness financially – their contact can be withdrawn or not renewed for the following year. So in the interests of financial viability, newsrooms turn into local branches of the government’s press department. From a legal point of view it probably doesn’t fit the definition of censorship, but its influence on editorial policies is perhaps more destructive.    

The tendency for municipal and regional publications to amalgamate into larger groups ups the level of this hidden censorship still further and reinforces government control. Only in the last few months several regions, including Omsk and Oryol, announced the amalgamation of their regional newspapers into state owned groups and the restructuring of existing groups. This has already been the situation for some time in Tambov, Chelyabinsk and quite a few other regions. 

The role of the courts

When journalists talk about self censorship it is usually in a different context, most often in connection with threats and violence against them or their families. Sometimes journalists’ ardour is cooled by lost lawsuits over something they have written, and the resulting fury of their editors, who have to pay the costs and compensation. Lost court battles lead to a vicious circle where a journalist is afraid of writing articles about anything controversia and his or her editor is afraid to print them in case they cause trouble.   

Being able to consult a media lawyer strengthens journalists’ position immensely – both at the stage of writing and as they are being taken to court. Lawyers at our Mass Media Defence Centre handle up to 100 cases a year, defending journalists and editorial staff. Each time we take on a case, we are aware that we are not defending an individual journalist, but taking a stand for the cause of professional freedom and freedom of speech in general. Both journalists and judges are beginning to see the work of the press in a different light, belatedly realising to what extent core standards relating to freedom of speech have been laid down by the European Court of Human Rights and learning to apply them. Every case of this kind changes both everyone involved in it and Russian reality itself.  

'IIn the last ten years our country has been unable to carry out effective investigations to bring to justice the perpetrators of more than 150 murders of journalists and other media workers. This demonstrates the failure of the system at every level:  politics, law enforcement and the judiciary.'

The Pussy Riot trial is but one example of freedom of speech being central to the case. Another was last year’s court victory of Oleg Orlov, the head of the ‘Memorial’ human rights group, over Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. Orlov was charged with defamation after he publicly accused Kadyrov of being behind the murder of the human rights campaigner Natalia Estemirova in 2009, but was later cleared by a Moscow court.

Murder and intimidation

Unsurprsingly, the high incidence of violence against journalists, including murders that frequently go unsolved, has not only created an atmosphere of official impunity but led to self-censorship by journalists. 

Russia is near the top of the list of risky countries in the the annual ‘Impunity Index’ of the  Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), taking 9th place behind Iraq, Somalia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Afghanistan, Nepal and Mexico. In nine out of ten cases those responsible were not brought to justice, which makes killing a journalist a cheap, easy and practically risk-free method of silencing someone.

In the last ten years our country has been unable to carry out effective investigations to bring to justice the perpetrators of more than 150 murders of journalists and other media workers. This demonstrates the failure of the system at every level:  politics, law enforcement and the judiciary. The impunity that accompanies a journalist's murder is in stark contrast to other official police statistics about the detection rate of murders in the general population (some 4 out of 5 cases are solved, according to  Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of the Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee). 

Public and media pressure to encourage authorities to investigate violence has achieved very little. Discussion of sensitive issues is left to the traditional kitchen table - and the internet, which has in the past few years become a breathing space for people not only in search of information, but wanting to air their concerns in a relatively free environment. 

Politkovskaya_Shchekotchikhin

In the last 10 years more than 150 journalists and media workers in Russia have been murdered, among them two prominent journalists of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment block in central Moscow. Yuri Shchekochikhin, a veteran investigative reporter died three years earlier from a mysterious illness, widely believed to be the result of poisoning (photos courtesy of Novaya gazeta). 

Bloggers and the web

Freedom of speech is clearly not just the prerogative of traditional print and electronic journalists. More and more frequently, we are representing bloggers, civil rights activists and ordinary citizens who have been criminally charged in relation to internet posts. 

The legal battles arising in this situation are also a clear symptom of the contradictions between citizens’ attempts to exercise their freedom of speech and the unwillingness of the regime to listen to them. A recent example is the case of a collage portraying Russia’s leaders in the uniform of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces in World War II. A young woman living in Zheleznogorsk, in the Kursk region, re-posted it on her page in ‘Vkontakte’ (the Russian equivalent of ‘Facebook’ – trans.), as did many others before her. The Zheleznogorsk magistrates’ court found her guilty of extremism and the administrative offence of ‘Propaganda and the public demonstration of Nazi symbolism’.  

Just a couple of weeks ago, on 13th August, Yulia Arkhipova, a student of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and civil rights activist, appeared before a magistrates’ court for writing the phrase ‘I Appeal for Mass Order’ on a sketchpad. Yulia planned to use this as a slogan at the informal annual ‘Monstratsia’ perfomance-demonstration, the aim of which is to show ordinary things in a new light (the demonstration is also famous for its absurd slogans). The demonstration  was in fact broken up by the police before it had even started, but the student was nevertheless fined 10,000 roubles (which internet users raised for her in two hours after the news broke on the web).

The last year has seen an unlikely and unbelievable growth in civil rights activity, and this has turned into a direct test of the regime’s durability. So far, this regime has failed the test and resorted to repressive measures such as the reintroduction of criminal charges for defamation, the tightening of internet legislation and so on.

'Lacking  the opportunity to cover the news properly or write on topical issues, many regional journalists are turning to the internet to publish their articles and simply to express their views'

Despite these legal restrictions, the internet remains a platform for a free exchange of opinions. The number of internet users is also rising fast: according to ‘Yandex’, about 55 million Russians, more than a third of the population, are now online. Admittedly 73% of these use the internet mainly for social and entertainment purposes, and only 13% for finding information or reading the news, but this latter group is also growing. Social networks are also growing at a record rate. According to the digital analysis company comScore, the number of visitors to Twitter and Facebook has increased by 74%, and 35 million Russians are now signed up, many of them using these resources as a virtual ‘Speakers’ Corner’.

Lacking the opportunity to cover the news properly or write on topical issues, many regional journalists are turning to the internet to publish their articles and simply to express their views: if they can’t do it on the pages of their paper, there is plenty of space in ‘Live Journal’ or on their Facebook page. It may not be ideal, but it is a way to avoid self censorship and the harsh conditions under which the press has to work in Russia today.