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Warriors of the Keyboard

The Problem with Russia’s Free Press Today Is on the Side of Demand. Oleg Kashin By Andrew Roth Russia Profile 12/14/2011

Oleg Kashin was 20 minutes late to the International Jewish Community in Moscow’s Maryina Roschya, and a dull murmur hung over the room as the small crowd anxiously awaited his arrival. When he finally walked into the lecture hall, the room fell silent. “Hello, I am Oleg Kashin,” he said, and without a pause launched into a history of his career. He began with his school days, when he wrote for Komsomolskaya Pravda in his native Kaliningrad, before he headed off to Moscow and made his way through the door at Kommersant by cold-calling the news desks to see if they had any vacancies: politics said “no,” culture said “no,” and society told him to stop by the next day. Since then he has made his name by covering nascent trends in Russia, like nationalist and Kremlin youth groups during the past decade, and continues to lay claim to this beat the way a hipster claims his unique right to a favorite record: “I was writing about Navalny years before anyone else knew about him,” said Kashin.

Yet in his impromptu autobiography, Kashin quickly flew by the one event that everyone in the room knew about: the attack that turned one of Russia’s best-known journalists into a public figure overnight, the physical manifestation of the pressure on journalists in Russia that continues today. A little over a year ago, Kashin was beaten brutally, almost to death, outside his Moscow apartment. Two men were waiting for him—one with a pipe hidden in a box of flowers—and hit him 56 times about the head and body before leaving him to die on the street. As he speaks on the present day in the synagogue, he keeps the hand where half of his pinky was amputated underneath the table. Just what he was beaten for remains unclear: maybe it was youth groups, maybe business interests, or maybe the government.

When Kashin awoke in the hospital, his celebrity had grown—and he himself was surprised by the sudden attention and his new role combining journalism with public activism. “That’s a question I ask myself fairly often,” he said in an interview. “At first I was surprised, but I don’t think that the two roles really conflict with one another. Sometimes my status now makes it more difficult to interview people, but sometimes people will only speak with me because they know who I am.”

If Kashin has grown to embody something larger than himself—a movement for greater liberalism, independent journalism, and hard-talking figures who are critical of the political establishment in Russia—then the audience that evening at Maryina Roshya is also representative of those who consume independent journalism today. First, they are liberal. The questions thrown at Kashin in the course of the evening read like an oppositionist’s wish-list: Anna Politkovskaya, Yulia Tymoshenko, Alexei Navalny, democratic change—and Kashin handled the crowd beautifully, with manicured but nuanced talking points that would not sound out of place in a political primary: “When will Mikhail Khodorkovsky be set free? The day Putin leaves office—not one day before, not one day after.”

Yet for all of Kashin’s charisma, the audience was old and the audience was small. Only 30 men and women showed up to see Kashin speak that evening (admittedly not many Russians visit their local synagogue often), and save for several journalists in the room, few could even still be called middle-aged. At one point toward the end of the evening, a man who looked to be 70 stood up and leaned precariously on a cane to ask Kashin two questions: first he suggested that Putin was leading a secret conspiracy against the Jews (Kashin deftly avoided that one), and then he asked if one of Russia’s most famous journalists could speak a little bit slower and more clearly, because many in the audience were having trouble keeping up.

Who’s Listening?

Unlike during the Soviet period, the problem with Russia’s free press today is not on the supply side. Admittedly government television, still the true opiate for the masses in Russia, has been locked down since the early years of the last decade. NTV, the former flagship television station of oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, which actually stumped against Putin during the 2000 elections, was only recently rebranded “Surkovian propaganda” by the deputy head of the elections watchdog Golos in a viral YouTube clip.

Yet when it comes to print, radio and the Internet, there really is no shortage of nuanced, professional news, said Masha Lipman, an expert on Russian media from the Carnegie Endowment. “To anybody who’s curious to know more, to have an alternative idea of what goes on in Russia as opposed to the government’s view and what’s shown on television, there’s no shortage of information. It’s a demand problem,” she said.

The apathy of Russian civil society is hardly a revelation—the anemic opposition in the country has long had difficulty encouraging any sort of political action. Currently, the options being discussed by much of the politically-minded opposition in the country remain voting for anyone other than United Russia or simply not voting at all. That means that while the outlets have editorial freedom, they simply don’t make a difference politically, said Lipman. “They can run a vituperative critical commentary; they can even run reports exposing wrongdoings and abuses by government authorities, not to mention bitter political satire. But this does not encroach on the monopoly of the ruling elite,” said Lipman.

Just one week after Mikhail Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2005, the business daily Vedomosti published an article titled “Who paid for Yugansk,” which for the first time detailed how the crown jewel of Khordokovsky’s Yukos empire was bought at a knockdown rate by the authorities. In the article, Vedomosti journalists, using a database which purportedly contained Central Bank transfer information, showed how the money that had been used to buy Nefteyugansk was transferred to a shell company from the Russian treasury, while other potential investors (and Yukos’ former investors) were bilked out of a chance to buy the company. In short, the government had purported to be selling off Yukos to cover Khodorkovsky’s tax liabilities, but had effectively bought the company itself on the cheap.

“It was a very substantiated, very well reported story,” said Lipman. “Putin personally said the deal was perfect for Yukos and nothing like ‘loans-for-shares’ in the 1990s. Here was a really blatant violation that was clearly explained, and there was absolutely no reaction.” There are many examples of piercing investigative reporting which have disappeared into the ether, continued Lipman: Sergei Magnitsky, the government’s response to both the Beslan crisis and the investigation into the Nord-Ost terrorist incidents –time and again the government has faced serious embarrassments but has somehow avoided a serious scandal each time. “If you know the government can ignore your work and there’s no opposition to pick it up, that no change will come as a result of your publication, you lose the incentive to do it,” she said.

The Velvet Glove

There are two reasons today why the Russian government cannot simply do away with independent media and, as Lipman pointed out, actually allows some critical press to continue to exist. The first is that the growth of Internet newspapers and blogs makes information so widespread that actually trying to do anything about the papers would not make much sense at this point. While the government may be able to silence bloggers at a critical moment, a sustained lockdown on electronic press and social networks in the country is a tall order, and that makes shutting down papers a moot point.

The second is that while the perpetrators (and especially the financial backers) of violence against journalists are rarely punished in Russia, the cases raise Russia’s international profile as a country that fails to protect its journalists. What’s more, the journalists themselves have been particularly game in the face of attacks: when Kashin woke up in the hospital after his brush with death, he said that there was “no question” whether he should go back in to journalism. Violence against journalists in Russia, as anywhere, is designated to send a message. Yet whatever that message was, and whoever sent it, Kashin seems not to have paid it much attention.

At the same time, most of the Russian press today does not actively define itself as pro- or anti-Putin, or as pro- or anti-administration. While there are papers that provide what media expert Alexander Morozov, who heads the Moscow-based Center for Media Studies, called a “civic-minded” portrayal of politics, including liberal newspapers Novaya Gazeta and the New Times, others, like Vedemosti and Kommersant, have focused on cultivating a reputation for taking critical views of the government when necessary. Nonetheless, maintaining an aura of respectability is key for them, Morozov said, and they will, on occasion, support initiatives put forward by the ruling party, as well as the ruling tandem.

The issue of reputation remains paramount for papers to keep a steady readership, and some broadsheets that have previously had a reputation for their candor have been slowly reined in over the years. The current reputation of Nezavisimaya Gazeta is intertwined with one man: oligarch Konstantin Remchukov, who acquired the paper in 2007 and, who, according to Morozov, runs it as a “pet project.”

In today's Russia it is often difficult to differentiate between independent and opposition-minded media.

Print press today is not a growth industry, so when it comes to finding financial backing for newspapers and magazines, someone with deep pockets often stands behind the project, and for many of Russia’s oligarchs, media outlets provide a useful mouthpiece for their political and business interests. Mikhail Prokhorov, the abortive leader of the Right Cause pocket opposition party, recently created the liberal Snob magazine and funds it lavishly. Even at larger papers known for editorial independence, like Kommersant, meddling from the financial backers has led to serious problems in the past. In 2005, Kashin himself left Kommersant for some time when oligarch Boris Berezovsky removed the paper’s Editor in Chief Andrei Vasiliyev, and replaced him with someone Kashin recognized as a “commissar.”

Yet independent backers with deep pockets also promise some form of independence from the government. As the politics editor at Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Alexandra Samarina, said: “We see ourselves as independent because we take no money from the government at all.” Samarina asserted that a political agenda plays little role in the paper’s coverage of politics in Russia; nonetheless, the paper has engendered criticism from both the liberal opposition to the Putin regime and the firmly established state media. “We get the same responses from both sides,” she said. “Oh, there goes Nezavisimaya Gazeta again, but one side says that we’re supporting the government and the other side says that we’re supporting the opposition, so we get attacked both coming and going.”

Last month, President Vladimir Putin made a rare PR blunder. When he went into the ring to congratulate ultimate fighter Fyodor Emelianenko with a title win over American Jeff Monson, the crowd didn’t seem as pleased as usual to see Putin—rather, they booed and whistled. What really happened is pretty much up to the viewer: state television showed the match live, but toned down the booing and catcalling in their later reports—liberal media and blogs saw it as the first clear insistence that people were finally fed up with Putin after his recent decision to return to the presidency.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta wrote nothing—not because the paper had any political stance, argued Sarmarina, but “because I wasn’t at the event, I can’t say whether they were whistling at him or at someone else. If I had been there and I could have said for certain what was happening, I would have written something about it.” Samarina’s point on journalistic ethics here is fair—watch the show yourself, and you can’t really tell what’s going on—many suggested that the fans were booing Monson for a poor performance, others said that they were booing the prime minister, but only because the bathrooms had been closed off during his speech. Nonetheless, as many in the blogosphere noted, once state television tried to minimize the sound of the hollering, whistles and jeers, the general reaction was that the catcalls were meant for Putin.

The story of Putin’s trip to the match is just one example of why it can be so difficult to differentiate between independent and opposition-minded media in Russia today: the supply of information out of the Kremlin is so controlled that any journalist trying to expose as much information as possible naturally comes into conflict with the administration. And the situation is getting worse as the administration becomes more regimented and political leaders become more and more inaccessible. Kashin said that whereas five years ago he had access to high-ranking figures, say Moscow ex-Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who at one time was seen as the third most powerful man in the country, today, “it’s difficult even to get definitive statements from press secretaries or even set up the necessary interviews,” he said.

The same situation is playing out in the investigation into Kashin’s case. Medvedev promised to bring the attackers and those who ordered the assault against Kashin to justice shortly after the attack, but recently the lead investigator on the case was replaced, and with Medvedev increasingly being pushed to the side in Putin’s comeback to the presidency prospects seem bleak that there will be much political will to solve the attack. Kashin, noting the complexities of the case, said that he had a straightforward means for deciding whether the government was doing a good job or not: “If they make any progress in the case, then I believe that they are doing a good job,” he said. “So far this year, they haven’t made much progress.”

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