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Could a union do anything to protect Russian journalists?

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Physical attacks and management interference have put Russian journalists' safety — and their ability to work freely — back on the table. A new union will have to survive in an increasingly hostile environment. Русский

In Russia, journalism is a risky profession. The risks run from dismissal to imprisonment to murder. A recent estimate puts the number of journalists killed since 2000 at 27. But Russian journalists face pressure by other means, too.

Last week, one of Russia’s last remaining independent media holdings lost its three top editors after reporting on the development of oyster farming near Putin’s alleged “palace” in southern Russia. As a result, the management at RBC, a business newspaper and website owned by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, received a request to sack editor Maxim Solyus, triggering the resignations of editor-in-chief Elizaveta Osetinskaya, website editor Roman Badanin, and a dozen other editors in protest.

There are signs that Prokhorov is now gearing up to sell RBC, and Moscow’s journalist community has few doubts that these latest moves signal the loss of RBC’s independence. After all, these editors were responsible for turning RBC into Russia’s leading business and investigative outlet. Prior to 2014, RBC was best known for its “paid” material. But under Badanin, Osetinskaya and Solyus, RBC was transformed into the outlet that conducted the 2015 investigation into the $1.7 billion expansion of Moscow State University.

RBC didn’t name Katerina Tikhonova, the project manager, as Vladimir Putin’s daughter (others did), but RBC’s investigation was seen to have violated a taboo — there’s been no information about Putin’s family released into public for many years. RBC’s later investigations into the business successes of Tikhonova’s alleged husband Kirill Shamalov, the finances of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as Russian soldiers’ participation in Ukraine and Syria, all made RBC into a quality media, and one at odds with the Russian establishment. Would a real journalists union have helped?

Shrinking space 

This news about RBC comes not long after a group of Russian journalists and human rights activists was attacked in Ingushetia by unknown assailants in early March. Since the attack, Russia’s media community has been discussing the need for an independent trade union. This is not the first attempt to set up a permanent organisation to defend journalists’ rights in Russia, but it is the first initiative from journalists themselves. 

The new organisation held its first meeting on 20 March, where it adopted a constitution and elected an executive council. The meeting also allocated the roles of heads of key sections: the protection of journalists’ professional rights; relations with police and security services, international NGOs, other trade unions and government departments; media liaison and fundraising.

March 2016: Russian journalists conduct pickets outside the Presidential Administration building after the attack in Ingushetia. Ivan Sekretarev / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The union now has roughly 100 individual and 30 corporate members: the latter include numerous Moscow media outlets (the Dozhd TV channel, RT, Kommersant-FM, Novaya Gazeta, Takie Dela, Lenta.Ru, the Moskva Agency and others).

Western media and western media brands have also joined (Radio Liberty, BBC, Czech television, Associated Press and, of course, Men’s Health magazine) as well as two outlets from Saratov, Open Channel and Public Opinion. 

The search for solidarity

Russia’s journalist community was naturally shocked at the attack on their colleagues, who had gone to the Caucasus at the invitation of human rights campaigners from the Committee Against Torture, an interregional NGO.

A number of journalists — including Yegor Skovoroda from Mediazona and Norwegian journalist Øystein Windstad — were badly hurt, not to mention two human rights campaigners, as well as Bashir Pliev, the driver, whose vehicle was damaged and burned by the attackers.

“The criminals need to realise that if they attack us they will be up against a powerful, united collective reaction and not a collective silence as usual”

The entire staff at Mediazona (where Skovoroda works), including its editor in chief Sergei Smirnov, have signed up for the new union. Two Mediazona journalists are members of the union council. 

“The idea is that as no one is protecting [journalists], we need to protect ourselves,” Smirnov says. “The criminals need to realise that if they attack us they will be up against a powerful, united collective reaction and not a collective silence as usual.”

Since the Ingushetia attack, journalists have mounted a fundraising campaign to buy Bashir Pliev a new bus and provide financial support for his family. By 28 March, the helpbashir.org site had 1,894 donors and collected over 1.5m roubles (roughly £16,000).

“The driver took a conscious risk in driving the journalists through a dangerous area,” says Maksim Solopov, a member of the union’s council, “helping him was a matter of professional honour and respect. We need to show that journalists are aware of risks incurred by people who work with them and are ready to show solidarity and take collective action.”

The union will hold its first conference on 25 June, by which time it should have decided on the direction its work will take, what funding it will need, and how to raise the necessary cash. 

The old guard

In Russia’s highly atomised society, no journalists’ organisation carries any weight. The oldest such organisation is the Russian Journalists’ Union, which estimates its membership at around 100,000, including 30,000 members from former Soviet republics. It is the successor to the Bolshevik Russian Union of Soviet Journalists, founded on 13 November 1918: Lenin and Trotsky co-chaired its first conference. 

Another organisation, the Media Union, headed by the well known journalist and media manager Aleksandr Liubimov, sprang up in the summer of 2001 (not long after Vladimir Putin came to power). This was when the Kremlin was beginning to assert control over Russia’s main TV channels, ORT and NTV, and the Media Union supported this move, unlike the Journalists’ Union, which organised protest rallies and other actions. Liubimov promised to recruit “more authoritative journalists” to his union, but it also failed to become a more authoritative voice and in the mid 2000s he was replaced as its head by Valery Fadeev, another active government supporter. Over the last few years the organisation has gradually collapsed.

April 20166: journalists at one Moscow newspaper watch "Direct Line with Vladimir Putin". (с) Aleksandr Vilf / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.According to official statistics, in 2013 there were more than 38,000 journalists working in Russia’s capital, although these figures cannot be trusted as media organisations are under no legal obligation to reveal the size of their staff. Theoretically all these people could also be members of an another organisation, the Moscow Journalists’ Union headed by Pavel Gusev, editor of the daily tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. 

It’s not easy to find working journalists, especially young ones, in these older organisations. Many see no point in joining. Some of the veteran journalists can’t even remember if they’re members of any particular union today.

Leonid Bershidsky, the first editor of the Vedomosti newspaper and the internet news site Slon.ru, is sceptical of anyone in Moscow who “would attempt to negotiate with anyone in my name”. Bershidsky now lives in Germany and works as a staff columnist for BloombergView. He’s not joining a German trade union either. 

In Russia’s highly atomised society, no journalists’ organisation carries any weight

Olga Allenova, a journalist at Kommersant, considers the old Journalists’ Union “an ethically threadbare organisation”, although she’ll admit it’s not bad at public relations.

Yegor Skovoroda, one of the journalists beaten in Ingushetia, says that nothing is being done by the existing journalists’ organisations to address attacks on journalists.

“In the public statements of the Russian Journalists’ Union and the Moscow Journalists’ Union, I see complete compliance with every openly malicious government initiative relating to journalists,” Skovoroda tells me. “For example, they support the law on accreditation at elections, which will make our work more difficult. I don’t see them really defending journalists’ rights and freedoms.”

Maksim Solopov, Skovoroda’s colleague at Mediazona, would like to be responsible for relations with the law enforcement agencies and the legal profession and to be involved in defending journalists’ civil rights as part of his work for the new union. He also sees the existing union as useless: “I have no interest it as a member of a professional community, and I don’t see it as part of the journalistic community.” 

The government: an ally or an enemy?

A relationship with the authorities are an important issue for any journalistic organisation. 

Pavel Gusev, who heads the Moscow Journalists’ Union, may have published articles critical of the present government in Moskovsky Komsomolets, but he also became an authorised representative of Vladimir Putin for the March 2012 presidential elections. “I will always be proud of this fact,” Gusev told me. “For that period of time I recognised, and I still recognise, that Putin was the leader for me, in spite of the mistakes he made. And I always wrote about these mistakes in my paper and talked about them whenever I made a speech.”

The old unions have had their internal disagreements. In April 2008, the Russian Journalists’ Union abolished the second most important position in its hierarchy — the post of Secretary-General. This meant that while union president Vsevolod Bogdanov stayed, his deputy Igor Yakovenko, an irreconcilable critic of the Putin government long accused of over-politicising the organisation, lost his job.

During the two year period when the Kremlin was attempting to assert its control over the NTV channel (it was taken from owner Vladimir Gusinsky and fell into government hands in 2001), Yakovenko on more than one occasion publicly referred to Vladimir Putin and his then-press minister, the late Mikhail Lesin, as enemies of the Russian press.

RBK's offices, Moscow. (c) Aleksandr Fillipov / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.The last public row that revealed a difference in approach of the Journalists’ Union’s leaders took place in March 2008, a month before Yakovenko’s dismissal, when Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov was awarded union membership.

Vsevolod Bogdanov explained to a shocked media community that Kadyrov had been accepted as a member of the local Chechen branch of the union, for his “contribution to the establishment of Chechen journalism and a free press, and the creation of ideal conditions for local media work.”

Aleksandr Minkin, a journalist for Moskovsky Komsomolets, and Dmitry Muratov, editor of Novaya Gazeta, both immediately threatened to resign from the union, to avoid being part of “the same organisation as cannibals”. (Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered in 2006 — allegedly by men with ties to Kadyrov.) Yakovenko also protested at Kadyrov’s union membership. 

In the end, Kadyrov was expelled from the union — and given a medal of honour instead. Vsevolod Bogdanov personally visited the Chechen capital Grozny to apologise to Kadyrov for the misunderstanding.

Nowadays, Bogdanov lists among his many achievements the fact that the Journalists Union provides support for families of 350 journalists killed in the line of duty, organises an annual festival of journalism in Dagomys, Sochi, and sometimes organises investigations of killings of journalists. Over the last 20 years, Bogdanov says, the union has often worked with parliamentary deputies, suggesting amendments to media laws. The union also puts on an annual press ball.

Bogdanov says wishes the new trade union well, and even sounds sincere about it. “I will be very happy to see the creation of an organisation that will defend the status of the press, provide help for journalists and protect their jobs”, he adds. “God bless them. I am simply amazed by these people’s courage — after all, every attempt to set up a trade union over the last 20 years has led to nothing.” 

Bogdanov sees the main reason for failed past attempts as financial: “Successful members of the media are unlikely to want to pay a monthly membership fee,” Bogdanov says, and adds that, as a journalists’ association, his own union gets no government support. “We don’t have the financial resources that a trade union should have.”

“I am simply amazed by these people’s courage — after all, every attempt to set up a trade union over the last 20 years has led to nothing” 

Yakovenko lost his job at the Journalists’ Union in 2008, and he also thought about starting a new trade union, but had little success. “We set up an organisation and registered it, but we needed some source of financial support. And it simply didn’t and doesn’t exist,” Yakovenko tells me. Like Bogdanov, Yakovenko wishes his young colleagues well, but warns that it is impossible to protect journalists from the authorities without having some established contacts with the latter.

Journalists’ scepticism about the creation of the new independent trade union is well-founded. Russia has been one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the press since the 1990s.

Today, ordinary Russians no longer react to reports of attacks on journalists, or even to murders. The basic issue of journalists’ safety is one of many issues: there is a decade and a half of increasing government interference in the media, Kremlin pressure on independent media, the emergence of internet censorship and, since November 2014, official lists of banned websites. 

Do journalists even need a union?

Leonid Bershidsky, the first chief editor of Vedomosti and Slon.ru, isn’t against trade unions in principle, but feels they could only work if they were strong and could, for example, conclude a collective wage agreement with media owners. “‘Journalists’ unions have lost a lot of power even in America,” Bershidsky says. “What hope do they have in Russia? And if they have no power, what’s the point?” 

“Journalists’ unions have lost a lot of power even in America. What hope do they have in Russia?” 

Sergei Brilyov, a prominent Russian state TV presenter, has never even heard of the new union initiative, and can’t remember any positive examples of trade union activity in Russia ever. The only exception he can think of is hostile environment training courses for journalists and courses in media law.

I asked Yelizaveta Osetinskaya, editor-in-chief of the major RBC multimedia company before her departure whether she would join join the new union. No, Osetinskaya told me, she was an employer. When asked whether she would approve of her staff joining, Yelizaveta said she hopes they would restrict any union activity to outside working hours. Now it is clear that no single journalist union could help Osetinskaya in her conflict over RBC’s independence.

Journalists and human rights campaigners working in the Caucasus are, however, are more positive about the new initiative. Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch wishes its members well, and Yelena Milashina of Novaya Gazeta agrees that any initiative is better than none. 

“I am a supporter of collective action,” Milashina says, “and that includes action to protect journalists. The question is whether the new union will ever be able to do that.” 

Collective letters, single pickets 

Collective action is a rare thing in the Moscow media world: some people believe that attending protest meetings is not part of their job, others are not sure of their purpose. And many journalists won’t join a protest against their employer — the state. 

Actions demonstrating journalistic solidarity are extremely rare. In 2012, journalists, among them prominent figures such as political commentator Sergei Parkhomenko and Filipp Dzyadko staged single-person pickets in front of the Investigative Committee’s headquarters, following an open letter from Novaya Gazeta’s editor Dmitry Muratov. Muratov wrote that after an Investigative Committee meeting in Nalchik, to which Sergei Sokolov, Novaya Gazeta’s deputy editor, was invited to attend, he was taken for a conversation with the Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, in the middle of a forest.

June 2012: Sergei Parkhomenko protests against the threats to Novaya Gazeta editor Sergei Sokolov. (c) Alexey Nikolaev / Demotix. All rights reserved.“You then crudely threatened my deputy’s life,” wrote Muratov, demanding a guarantee of Sokolov’s safety. Bastrykin told an interviewer from Izvestia that: “No one took anyone anywhere — these is are the wandering ravings of an inflamed delirious brain.”

If these cases were honestly and effectively investigated and the perpetrators and those behind them punished, there would be fewer attacks

The problem was solved surprisingly quickly at a meeting between Bastrykin, Muratov and other members of the Moscow press. “No one is threatening Sokolov. The issue has been resolved,” wrote Muratov, leaving the public in confusion. Some journalists had expected a lawsuit over the threats. 

“It’s not easy to protect journalists from attacks,” Olga Allenova, who also took part in the 2012 protest, says. “But if these cases were honestly and effectively investigated and the perpetrators and those behind them punished, there would be fewer attacks. If we can’t help ourselves, no one else will.” 

The violence continues 

One of the most shocking attacks on a journalist in Russian history is yet to be fully investigated. In November 2010, Oleg Kashin, a journalist for Kommersant, was severely beaten with a steel bar on a street near his home, suffering several broken bones and losing a finger. 

After the attack, dozens of journalists staged pickets outside Moscow’s police headquarters, and more than 2,500 journalists wrote to president Dmitry Medvedev, demanding those behind the attack be identified and convicted. The attack was the latest in a long and infamous tradition of murders and attacks against Russian journalists, which includes the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the 2008 beating of Mikhail Beketov, and many others.

In January 2011, Dmitry Medvedev met Kashin “by accident” in Israel, where the journalist was recovering from his injuries. Russia’s president promised to “rip the head off” of the person who had ordered this attack. 

In September 2015, it was revealed in a interview by Grigory Tumanov that Kashin’s attackers had allegedly operated on the orders of Andrei Turchak, governor of Pskov region, who had felt insulted by an aside (“shitty Turchak”) in a blog post of Kashin’s. Amazingly, six months later, Turchak still holds his position as governor of Pskov. No information has emerged about whether Turchak was even questioned after the emergence of new evidence. 

I asked Kashin whether he would join the new trade union, and he replied that he already had. Kashin hopes that “if [he] is ever in a sticky situation, [his] union colleagues will support him.”

“If the situation involves violation of the right to free speech or workers’ rights, the Union of Journalists and Media Workers is ready to offer our colleagues legal and organisational aid,” reads the union’s latest announcement regarding the situation at RBC. 

There is, however, still no real solution to the problem of protecting journalists from iron bars, or interference in media management, in Russia.


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