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Regulating the Moscow hack pack

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While journalists have a certain fondness for gallows humour, it often lands them in trouble. But new moves to institute a code of ethics at Russia's leading talk radio station could be more than a question of taste. 

Formal codes of ethics for journalists are rare in Russia. Yet in recent months, guidelines on how to behave have swept the rank and file of Moscow’s journalists; and the increasing attention to how Russian journalists should (and should not) act on social media is at odds with the profession’s taste for macabre humour.

Even the funeral of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov on Tuesday at the Sakharov Center didn’t prevent Lesya Ryabtseva, a journalist at the popular radio station Ekho Moskvy, from quipping at the deceased’s expense on Twitter (‘Nemtsov and Novodvorskaya meet @ the Sakharov Center …’). Ryabtseva, a close aide of Ekho’s editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov, was making a reference to Valeriya Novodvorskaya, a prominent activist in Russia’s liberal camp who died in July 2014, and for whom a ceremony was held at Moscow’s Sakharov Center.

As the Twittersphere erupted, the irony of Ryabtseva’s poor attempt at humour is that, only a few months ago, she was charged with developing a code of ethics for Ekho after another scandal broke out last November.

Codes of ethics or remote controls?

When the news broke that Sergei Ivanov’s son Aleksandr had drowned in a swimming accident in November 2014, Ekho journalist Aleksandr Plyushchev asked his followers on Twitter whether they thought this death was ‘proof of God’s existence’, referring to a dark chapter in Aleksandr Ivanov’s past. In 2005, Aleksandr Ivanov allegedly knocked down and killed a 68-year-old woman in Moscow. He was never formally accused of manslaughter or reckless driving. Such a throwaway comment by Plyushchev may well have passed many by, save for the fact that Sergei Ivanov happens to be the Presidential Administration’s Chief of Staff.

The story quickly became one of the highest trending topics on social networks. The following day, the general director of the station fired Plyushchev, and it was announced by him online. When I asked Ekaterina Pavlova who had demanded the journalist’s dismissal, she said that it had been Mikhail Lesin, head of Gazprom Media – and Ekho’s parent company.

Plyushchev was punished simply because his boss’s boss wanted to punish him – there was no other justification. Coincidentally, Pavlova’s husband, Aleksei Pavlov, works in the press office for the Presidential Administration – the same administration, which is headed by Ivanov. However, in response to accusations of informal pressure, Pavlova replied that she had not discussed the situation with her husband.

Aleksandr Plyushchev with guests on-air. Alexander Plyushchev via Wikimedia Commons. All rights reserved.

The éminence grise of the Russian media (and former Minister for the Press), Mikhail Lesin openly acknowledged that Plyushchev’s dismissal was illegal, and insisted that Ekho’s charter include clauses on ethics. According to this very charter, though, personnel changes can be made only with the agreement of the editor-in-chief. A provision which was rudely and demonstrably ignored.

‘I am ready talk about codes of conduct, but I don’t think this will achieve anything'

Following much virtual indignation, heated exchanges between Lesin and Venediktov, and the involvement of the board of directors, Plyushchev’s punishment was substituted with a suspension from broadcasting for two months. In the interim period, Lesin threatened to fire Venediktov (who has said publicly that only President Putin can dismiss him), and the board of directors even threatened Venediktov with the possibility of reforming Ekho into a music-only station. Moreover, Lesin discussed including an ‘ethics’ clause in Ekho employment contracts. Understandably, Venediktov resisted.

As Venediktov explained, one can always write under a pseudonym on the internet, and there are restrictions on revealing internal station politics on air. Several anonymous forums for discussing journalism’s dirty laundry already exist. ‘I am ready talk about codes of conduct, but I don’t think this will achieve anything,’ Venediktov told me.

After an editorial meeting with Lesin, Venediktov’s 23-year-old assistant, Lesya Ryabtseva, arrived on the scene. Ryabtseva announced that she would manage the project of writing an internal code for Ekho’s journalists. In an interview with TV Rain (Dozhd in Russian) Ryabtseva set the bar high, remarking that she would create a ‘gold standard’ for all journalists: ‘a golden law, which can be incorporated by any editor around the world, not just in our country.’ Potential candidates included, for example, the BBC. But the BBC has had a code of conduct on social networks in place for at least four years (in addition to the 200-page main code), and Ryabtseva is yet to publicise any plans to draw on the BBC’s experience further.

Just how far the BBC is ready to learn from Ryabtseva’s experience is a rhetorical question at best. When the latest scandal around Ryabtseva erupted, she wrote on Twitter: ‘if you haven’t yet realised, venediktov has a remote control installed under his desk, which controls him, and i’m in charge of that remote' (author's punctuation retained). 

Most employees of Russian media organisations understand that internal affairs should not be made public. 

Exceptions to the rule

If codes of conduct do exist, then they are likely to be products of administrative pressure. Examples of self-organisation, such as business daily Vedomosti’s ‘Dogma’ (1999) or the Moscow Charter of Journalists, adopted in February 1994 by a group of well-known liberal journalists, are exceptions. (Funnily enough, Venediktov was involved in this charter.) More often than not, attempts to codify journalists’ behaviour are caused by external pressure on journalists and political circumstances.

In any case, without specific requests, most employees of Russian media organisations understand that internal affairs should not be made public. There are no on-going attempts to encourage journalists to unite, or write their own code of ethics. There has been, however, encouragement from above – albeit stilted.

In April 1999, the year of parliamentary elections and imminent transition of presidential power, even the Presidential Administration's Chief of Staff Aleksandr Voloshin and Vice-Premier Valentina Matvienko were present during the signing of the Charter of Television and Radio Broadcasters. The charter proclaimed ‘the authenticity of information’, the ‘protection of citizens’ and organisations’ rights’, and ‘respect for privacy’. In short, these were principles which, without any charter, were contained in state legislation and which do not apply to the age-old practices of Russian journalism.

In July 2006, leaders of Russia media signed the Charter of Broadcasters’ statement ‘Against violence and cruelty’. But the signatures of heads of parliament and State Duma committees were also included in the same document. The code of ethics for professional Russian journalists, adopted in the summer of 1994 at the Congress of the Union of Journalists of Russia, was written several years before in collaboration with professional lawyer and former Minister of Russian Press, Mikhail Fedotov and veteran theorist Dmitry Avramov. But the code, like all the others, has not been implemented in the majority of Russian media outlets – in conditions where management have been subject not to professional standards, but external control.

However, the lack of written rules on conduct does not confer impunity. In January 2014, Vesti.ru fired the entire social media team from the State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, after a quotation from Joseph Goebbels – a great admirer of Lenin – appeared under the tab ‘Quotations from great men’.

The disconnection of private channel TV Rain from cable networks in early 2014 emerged as one of the most controversial stories to unfold because of a tweet. On 26 January 2014, the channel posted a question on its Twitter page: ‘Should Leningrad have been surrendered to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people?’ Less than half an hour later, the editor of the station's website Ilya Klishin apologised on Twitter, labelling the question ‘incorrect’, and saying that what happened was ‘an error on the part of the producer of the programme, as well as the social network editor.’

The tweet was deleted, but it was too late. A couple of days later, President of the Cable Television Association of Russia, Yury Pripachkin, suggested disabling the channel from cable networks. After the subsequent disconnection from the largest operators, the channel lost its advertisers, and soon lost the lease on its premises. In the end, TV Rain had to change its business model by launching a premium channel, reducing staff and cutting salaries. There are no doubts that this manouevre was orchestrated to silence the last remaining critical television channel operating in Russia.

Journalism and politics

In late December 2014, Ekho journalists voted in favour of an employee code of conduct on social media, proposing it to the public at the same time. Formally, the document contained amendments to the station’s charter, and will be put to the station’s board of directors for approval. On the side-lines, however, Ekho has asked its fellow journalists to join the charge for ‘ethical journalism’.

Of the code’s 11 clauses, three are prohibitive: journalists should not conceal their place of work, criticise ‘editorial policy, colleagues, shareholders or guests of the station’ (but ‘this does not apply to criticism of their public position’), and not to campaign or engage as a political activist during the period of election campaigns. This last point changes Ekho’s previous policy, whereby its employees enjoy the freedom of political association outside of working hours.

The clause on a journalist’ political activity is of particular note in the current environment. Among other groups, journalists were fundamental in driving the protest wave of 2011-2012. Figures such as Dmitry Bykov, Oleg Kashin, Leonid Parfenov, Yuri Saprykin, Sergei Parkhomenko and Olga Romanova did not only report what was happening, but made it happen. They organised and led demonstrations, and gave speeches to crowds, large and small. Likewise, other writers found themselves at the heart of 2011-2012, such as Grigory Chkhartishvili, better known as the detective and historical writer Boris Akunin, and Alexei Navalny – whose fame was built on the back of his well-known blog.

Sergei Parkhomenko protests against threats to the editor of Novaya Gazeta, June 2012. (c) Alexey Nikolaev / Demotix

In a Russia where ‘real’ politics is far from public, and there is no separation of powers, it is journalists who channel political hopes and take the place of analysts, politicians and civic activists. For instance, the evening opinion show on Ekho, which has been running for years, gives a platform to journalists who desire pluralism and to express political views beyond the mainstream. Political expertise is disappearing, and only opinions are left.

Traditionally, Russian journalists are involved in politics more than might be acceptable in western democracies. After all, Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, was a journalist. Fast forward to 1989 and the first truly free elections in the Soviet Union: roughly 50 working journalists and editors were elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989. Most of these newly-minted deputies didn’t put their pens down. Gennady Seleznev, the former editor-in-chief of Pravda and Komsomolskaya Pravda, was Speaker of the State Duma from 1993-1996.

The confluence of journalism and politics continues today. The editor of leading tabloid Moskovsky Kosmolets Pavel Gusev is not only chairman of the Moscow Union of Journalists, but acted as a close confidant to Vladimir Putin during the 2012 presidential elections. This role is circumscribed by law, and obliges Gusev to campaign on behalf of his candidate. Putin offered a similar role to Venediktov, who was courageous enough to resist the temptation.

As such, in Russia, a consensus has formed to the effect that working in journalism and politics simultaneously does not constitute a breach of ethical norms, making the new clause on ‘political activity’ in Ekho’s code of conduct all the more noticeable.

Anatomy of a protest

The murder of Boris Nemtsov took place in an atmosphere of anti-liberal hatred (‘Fifth columnists!’ ‘National traitors!’), whipped up by Russia’s mainstream media. Indeed, the TV channel NTV had scheduled the third episode of Anatomy of a Protest – a conspiratorial documentary about the Russian opposition – for 1 March.

This episode was to follow how Nemtsov was involved in ‘preparing a “Russian Maidan”’, and was designed to discredit the opposition by suggesting that protests are funded from abroad: ‘Why do our revolutionaries travel to Switzerland, what do their instructors teach them in Kiev and why do they meet conspiratorially with foreign diplomats?’

Though the programme was removed from NTV’s website after the murder, the channel devoted a 50 minute programme to tales of ‘Nemtsov’s women’ instead (‘The Art of Loving’): political sensation is easily exchanged for personal details. Only hours before his death, Nemtsov gave an interview to Ekho Moskvy. As the radio anchor later wrote on her Facebook page, Nemtsov noticed Anatomy of a Protest was to be broadcast. Laughing, Nemtsov commented: ‘Have you seen the TV listings? Take a look, they're very impressive!’

Standfirst image: Aleksandr Plyushchev with guests on-air. Alexander Plyushchev via Wikimedia Commons. All rights reserved.

About the author

Nataliya Rostova is a visiting scholar at the Kennan Institute and author of the GorbyMedia project.


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