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Unwritten loyalties: journalism in the Russian regions

Self-censorship was an important feature of Soviet life, but old habits, it seems, die hard. Mikhail Loginov reports on the return of “unwritten rules” to the Russian regional press

No editor-in-chief has it easy. Whatever you do, you have to be the produce the most popular copy on the market, without being ruined by libel cases. You have to run the tightrope between being attractive and being trustworthy. If the newspaper’s contents are boring it won’t be read, but if its pages become a parade of fictional revelations, then respectable advertisers will turn away.

The editor of a contemporary Russian regional newspaper, however, is burdened with many additional dilemmas. He is obliged to live by a number of restrictions — rules of the game which may or may not be written. Disregarding them may bring unpleasant consequences. Yet on the plus side employees themselves know what absolutely must, and what absolutely may not — under any circumstances — be contained in the paper.

The Kama Sutra and the Governor

At the beginning of the 1990s regional newspapers, especially in large cities such as St Petersburg, Nizhnii Novgorod and Ekaterinburg, outdid national broadsheets. They bravely criticized both local and federal authorities, sending special correspondents to report from regional war zones such as Karabakh, even Bosnia and Herzegovina. A former city Komsomol newspaper, which just five years earlier had been afraid to write about the fact that intimate relations between young people may result in pregnancy, reported from swinger clubs and published extracts from the Indian text the Kama Sutra. The newspaper was not repositioning itself as gutter press however: previously unpublished poems by Joseph Brodsky might well appear on a page next to the Kama Sutra. 

"At the beginning of the 1990s regional newspapers, especially in large cities such as St Petersburg, Nizhnii Novgorod and Ekaterinburg, outdid national broadsheets. They bravely criticized both local and federal authorities, sending special correspondents to report from regional war zones such as Karabakh, even Bosnia and Herzegovina."

In the second half of the 90s the majority of regional newspapers were in crisis. They were printing fewer copies, because their former readers were watching television rather than spending money on subscriptions – TV programmes had become as interesting as newspapers. Government subsidies to the regional press were substantially reduced, while the income from advertising was insufficient.

In order to survive newspapers sought out sponsors, but it soon became clear that the best sponsors, as before, were the authorities who, if they didn’t pay out money themselves, could make a bank or corporation do it for them. Almost bankrupt publications began to praise governors and mayors with an energy not demanded of them even by Party bosses in the late Soviet period. Thus a newspaper which was publishing the Kama Sutra at the beginning of the 1990s was publishing eulogies to the local governor by the end of the decade.

Good Putin, bad bureaucrats and an awful life in Europe

PUtin&MedvedevI

In addition to self-censorship, editors have faced an additional recent burden: ensuring the correct balance in coverage of Russia's tandem. Photo kremlin.ru

In order to illustrate the unwritten rules and mechanisms of regional media, let us take a typical (not entirely ficticious) case of a local newspaper that for argument's sake we will call Petropolis Chimes [Kuranty Petropolya]. The paper has existed since before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but in those times had a different title: let's say The Banner of Leningrad [Leningradskoe znamya]. In order not to lose its traditional readership, the paper remained partly an opposition-Communist paper, but in order not to lose advertising revenue and young readers, its editorials promoted the existence of a “free market” and criticised the authorities for being insufficiently democratic.

Over twenty years the newspaper was fortunate to count on several different sponsors. Its current master is a bank, whose owner was friendly with Vladimir Putin in the 1990s. The first unspoken commandment of editorial politics is, therefore, that the newspaper must continuously stress that Putin is Russia’s master.

This is achieved by various means. In an official news item the names of both Putin and Medvedev feature more or less the same number of times. But Putin’s work as Prime Minister, or his organisation of the People’s Front, is loyally reported. Medvedev is discussed neutrally, and occasionally articles appear in which a disabled person goes on hunger strike in protest at the President’s failure to keep his promises. There is no question of similar news related to Putin appearing. Moreover, in the editors’ smoking room they say that the patron from the bank counts the number of times that Medvedev and Putin are mentioned each week, and if Medvedev is mentioned more often, then the editor will be sacked.

"Both the editor in chief and his journalists know only too well that – in contrast to communist times – today’s rules can be very flexible."

Relatively little space is given to current social and economic problems in Russia. To make up for it, stories about achievements expected in Russian economics and science over the next five, ten or fifteen years are presented as events which have already happened. Naturally, all future achievements are linked to Putin’s work as Prime Minister.

Although the newspaper is considered a city paper, front page photographs do not necessarily have to relate to St Petersburg. They can be of international events: clashes between police and demonstrators in Greece and in Spain or tornados in the USA. Sometimes an illustrated story about Greeks throwing stones at the police takes up half a page, while news about a fight between troops and terrorists in the Caucasus – which resulted in dozens of victims – gets three lines of print. Similarly, an opposition meeting will get two lines of print.

A whole page is taken up with commentary. This is devoted to the decline in society’s morals and soulless television programmes. Very often the criticism focuses on television advertising. Social problems are sometimes the subject of comment. In this latter case one may relate a true story to do with official red tape. Wider generalisations about the state of political corruption, however, are undesirable.

Inside the newspaper entire pages are given over to material provided by “foreign correspondents”, who are expats contracted by the paper. If there are serious economic problems in EC countries, then this material is devoted to the economic crisis. If there aren’t any economic problems, then the material critiques the decline in morals, for example Gay Pride in Berlin. Reading several such articles, one can safely conclude that the European continent is a mass of problems.

Very often you see articles on the topic of ‘the revival of fascism’, about events happening in the Baltic States and in West Ukraine. Simultaneously any material devoted to the Second World War is replete with a pathos impossible in communist period.

It’s awful in Europe, but it’s expensive in Russia.

Greek_Protests

Loyalist regional titles are strong when it comes to reporting international events of a negative charakter.  Photo: Iliya Pitalev, RIA Novosti Agency

Nevertheless, a significant number of the newspaper’s employees remain professional. At the first available opportunity they attempt to publish honest material illuminating real problems. There might, for instance, be an article about how an unjustly sacked police officer sent all his awards back to the Interior Ministry. The paper doesn’t criticise the city bureaucrats who permitted building on protected land, but it may sharply criticise the building firm.

The same correspondent who was horrified by the Gay Pride march in Berlin is able to write a piece about how all goods and services in Germany are significantly cheaper than in Russia. It is even possible to include tables showing just how expensive life is in Petersburg, and in Russia generally, though the role of corruption in this situation only gets one sentence. The existence of the blogger Alexei Navalny might occasionally be mentioned in the newspaper, but his words describing United Russia as ‘the party of swindlers and thieves’ are unambiguously banned.

"In order to survive newspapers sought out sponsors, but it soon became clear that the best sponsors, as before, were the authorities"

Both the editor in chief and his journalists know only too well that – in contrast to communist times – today’s self-censorship rules are flexible. For example, the editor is friends with the head of the city police today, but if this changes then it will be possible to criticise him. If the Kremlin decides to legalise the opposition, then it will no longer be ignored by the press. If a miracle should happen and it becomes clear that Medvedev is stronger than Putin, then the current President will become the main positive figure in the newspaper.

To follow changing rules isn’t easy. But the editorial team can comfort themselves with the thought that being a journalist has never been easy.


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