News: Dangerous News

The perils of journalism in the 'new' Russia

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Ben L. Kaufman

Alexey Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Fund, responds to a question as Fred Weir (left), Russia correspondentfor The Christian Science Monitor, and Andrei A. Zolotov Jr. (right), editor of Russia Profile magazine, listen

American reporters worry about subpoenas. Russians journalists fear assassination. Only Iraq and Algeria have been deadlier in recent years.

Too many colleagues have been killed for anyone to suggest the Russians' anxiety is fanciful. Killings have gone beyond those attributed to powerful businessmen and organized crime; journalists fear that President Putin's government also is avenging itself on reporters who look too closely into sensitive subjects.

That and the impunity with which killers operate were themes of a two-day conference on "Russian Journalism Under Fire" at Miami University last week. As if to prove the point, one of the invited Russian journalists, investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, was killed in October.

Politkovskaya is one of hundreds of slain Russian journalists. Whether every killing is retribution for their reporting is irrelevant; the government does not investigate journalists' deaths adequately and there have been few arrests and convictions.

Presentations were so depressing that one listener asked, "Is there no hope?"

Responses were meager, and they also included such old jokes as, "In Russia, a pessimist says, 'It can't get worse.' An optimist says, 'Yes, it can.' "

Blood talks
The program was presented by Miami's Journalism Program and Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. Patricia Gallagher Newberry, a Miami journalism program lecturer and former Enquirer reporter, led the planning.

Speakers were Nina Ognianova, European/Central Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists; Oleg Panifilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations; Alexey Simonov, president, Glasnost Defense Fund; Igor Zevelev, Washington, D.C., bureau chief of RIA Novosti, the Russian news and information agency; Andrei A. Zolotov Jr., editor of Russian Profile magazine; and Fred Weir, the Christian Science Monitor's Russia correspondent.

There was broad agreement among them about Russian journalism beyond the omnipresent danger:

· Most dangerous stories deal with money, and money leads to corruption.

· Facts are much more tightly controlled than opinion.

· Russians rely on government-controlled TV for their news.

· Print media have much greater latitude because of their relatively limited impact.

· Disunity and even corruption among journalists undermine their ability to protect themselves and protest killings.

· Ever-less information is available from government but, that said, this is no return to Soviet-era control of the news media.

· Post-Soviet civil society — those voluntary associations that characterize much of American life — is weak, and there is little inclination to protest the fate of an individual homicide victim. (Hundreds marched in Moscow after Politkovskaya's death; thousands marched abroad.)

It is a measure of the Russian journalists' predicament that they were grateful when Putin publicly acknowledged Politkovskaya's slaying. Even more important, he conceded that her killing might have responded to her reporting and that journalists need protection. That was a huge advance in what speaker after speaker called the "impunity" with which killings are ordered and executed since communism collapsed.

There was consensus that, after a decade of anarchic post-Soviet turbulence, Putin restored traditional Russian autocratic, highly centralized control over the government plus growing intervention into the economy. That has brought a degree of stability but "nobody ... will call it 'democratic,' " the Monitor's Weir said.

There also was agreement when Weir said the "main story in Russia today is the '2008 Problem' " when term limits end Putin's presidency. It is uncertain whether the Constitution will be amended to allow him another term.

"Putin says he will in fact obey the Constitution," Weir said, so the president's role is to manage the succession with a "democratic facade."

Can his deeply personal regime deliver? "My own gut tells me, 'No, it can't,' " Weir adds. "He has not created a system that will outlast him."

Weir said Russians fear that Putin-era stability will evaporate, as did czarist and Soviet stability. "It just went, 'Poof.' "

Weir elicited one of the few outbursts of laughter, adding that such turmoil is "very good for journalists."

Zolotov said a third Putin term "does have a lot of popular support," in part because of his restoration of a familiar Russian autocratic, centralized government.

That reflects post-Soviet uncertainty whether Russia is an ethnic state or remnant of an empire. Coincidentally, nationalism and its handmaiden, traditional Russian xenophobia, are resurgent "in a very, very dangerous way (when) the blood begins to speak," Zolotov said. As if to make his case for him, Russian officials recently banned non-ethnic Russians from retail trade.

Zevelev also attributes some of Putin's popularity to his predecessor: After President Yeltsin, anyone "would look good." However, Zevelev said, a third Putin term "would be a disaster" for Russia, and he dismissed the so-called debate over a constitutional change as artificial and managed.

'Don't push us'
In response to "what is to be done," the Committee to Protect Journalists' Ognianova said groups like hers will continue to publicize the killings and lobby Russian officials inside Russia and abroad. She said this has met "very limited success." She said Putin's comment that journalists must be protected was welcome, despite inadequate investigation of killings.

Zevelev agreed that pressure on the government, whomever is in power, is a must if journalists are to be protected. Without that pressure, any government "tends to do very not nice things."

"Journalists need to be taught how to resist, how to protect their own rights," Panifilov adds, in part because "the journalists' community is in a knockdown" by government while "society" watches passively.

Simonov, who lives in Russia, disagrees with the Committee to Protect Journalists' focus on cases in which reporting clearly led to killing. He refers to hundreds of killings, adding, "Impunity doesn't need detailed investigation."

Simonov, invited after Anna Politkovskaya's death in October, said the outcry over her death provoked an uncommon probe.

A "cynical and very professional general procurator" is leading the official investigation and cooperating with journalists digging into her work and death.

"It is done together. ... I hope by May we should have the results of this investigation," he said. "The killer is known."

So are the three "watchers" who tracked Politkovskaya with help of the security service from which Putin came and from which he draws so many key associates.

Simonov criticized Americans who keep demanding that his organization and similar groups come up with new solutions, especially in requests for funds. That's impossible, he said.

"We had old problems. ... Don't push us to have new approaches to these problems," he said. ©

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