A Dark Day for Press Freedom in Russia

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On World Press Freedom Day, when much of the world celebrates freedom of expression, the Russian media continues to face ever-growing challenges. Most importantly, a new law moving quickly through the legislature could give authorities power to instantly shut nearly every media outlet with little reason.

For the moment, domestic and international criticism of the legal project is mounting, as even the staunchest Kremlin supporters begin to question its validity. Celebrity lawyer Pavel Astakhov, a leader of the movement asking President Vladimir Putin to stay in power, explained that under the proposed changes, “freedom of speech would turn into an empty declaration.” A number of prominent figures in Russia’s Public Chamber, which advises lawmakers, also voiced their outrage, as did journalists and media workers.

Democratic US Senator Benjamin Cardin, the Co-Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, similarly expressed regret for the new rules, calling on Russia’s new president to do something about them. “It is unfortunate that the Russian Federation created legislative penalties for anyone who fails to shape the news to their liking,” he said in a statement on May 3rd. “I urge President-elect Medvedev to lift the restraints on journalists and allow for a greater freedom of expression by the media and to put stronger measures in place to protect the rights of journalists.”

In Russia, many journalists take a grim view of the May 3rd World Press Freedom Day, and the holiday is not commonly celebrated. Victoria Rabotnova, a widely published and respected reporter, explains that the Russian media has little reason to celebrate freedom for just one day of the year (below). Her article, published one year ago today, remains as relevant as ever, as freedom of the press continues to come under fire.

World Press Freedom Day was started by the United Nations in 1993.

Journalist Victoria RabotnovaPlummeting Downward
Victoria Rabotnova
Published May 4, 2007

Long ago, when I first started working at a newspaper, relatives would constantly congratulate me with our professional holiday. Now they don’t offer congratulations: they simply don’t know when, and most importantly, for what.

As to May 5th –the Day of the Soviet Press—I personally have fond memories. The relaxed editorial get-togethers and the inevitable bonuses truly made the day festive for all the journalists and newspaper-writers (employees of radio and TV had their own special holiday on May 7th). During the years of Perestroika, a significant part of newspapers came out of the control of the [Communist] party organs, but this didn’t affect attitudes toward May 5th. The jokesters, truth be told, did suggest renaming it to the Day of the Anti-Soviet Press, but no one wanted to break traditions and renounce the favorite holiday. Yet as a bit more time passed, the traditions broke on their own.

Understandably, after the putsch happened, it became sort of indecent to celebrate the day of the first issue of the Pravda newspaper. So May 5th was changed to January 13th, which took root slowly and with grumbling. But this is beside the point.

Honestly, I don’t remember if we marked the Day of the Press in 1991. This was a time when all the standing journalists wrote much and earned enough to not depend on the holiday’s bonuses. And we sat in the editorial offices well into the night every day, because the newspapers went to print late at night: there was simply no time to sit around a festive table, because we needed to monitor the news, finish writing or rewrite articles, create pages… in short, to work. And the work seemed so much more interesting than some holiday sit-arounds.

The May 3rd Day of the Free Press was definitely never celebrated. This seemed pointless during times when [the Press] was indeed free every day. Today, when the space for freedom has contracted like pebbled skin, this isn’t just pointless, but even cynical –the same as celebrating innocence in a brothel. According to a Freedom House rating, Russia is in 164th place for the degree of media freedom, letting not only Moldova and Kyrgyzstan pass by, but even Iran and Afghanistan. In the previous year, I’ll note, we were slightly higher – in 158th place. [note: The most recent 2008 assessment by Freedom House ranks Russia as 170th.] How is it that [Vladimir] Vysotsky put it? “You can’t hold on at the top – you’re plummeting down”?

Obviously, the Russian press did not become restricted immediately – we are speaking of a protracted process, spanning a decade, the start of which was rooted as far back as [Boris] Yeltsin’s times.

Of course, economic reasons played an important role in this. In the 90s, printed publications, sent floating into a liberal economic voyage, ran into serious troubles. Prices for paper, typographical services and mailings were mushrooming, while the number of subscribers was falling. Those people that had formerly subscribed to three or four newspapers could no longer afford such a luxury. In substance, many publications ended up on the brink of closing, and their leadership, clutching at straws, grabbed at the offers of collaboration coming from the business structures.

The businessmen were willing to finance the newspapers, but under the condition that the controlling stake of shares ended up in their hands. Naturally, they assured the editors and journalistic collectives that they wouldn’t interfere with editorial policy. And as a rule, they actually didn’t interfere… at the start. But afterwards, it turned out that the esteemed shareholder was interested in keeping up nice relations with the authorities, and categorically didn’t want to support a publication that kept him from doing so. That’s why critical materials about bureaucrat A (B, C, D – make your selection) must be removed from the newspaper’s sheets. And instead of them, write and print a different, praiseful article.

The need to keep earning funds quickly increased the role of advertising departments, who were searching for and finding clients. The interests of these clients, if they were looking for a long-term campaign, would also have an affect on editorial policy: It was clearly explained to the journalists, that you can’t bite the hand that feeds you, and so no critical speech regarding businessman or politician A (B, C, D – make your selection) were allowed at the moment. But to write something positive about them is actually very needed. It’s worth noting that orders from the advertising department (just like the special assignments of shareholder), were paid with a special rate, and that those willing to write them were always easy to find. And those, who categorically did not want to do this, sooner or later started to feel like “superfluous people” in the editorial offices.

Of course, you could stand by your principles, refusing to write “as needed” and continuing to write what you were thinking. But more and more frequently, such principled behavior would lead to a simple result: articles were lain on the editorial “table” and remained there forever. And then it came time to receive your wages – and involuntarily, many thought: isn’t it worth the sacrifice? That is, isn’t the income (necessary to live yourself, and often to feed your family) worth enough to assuage your commitment to your principles and go for the compromise? Ultimately, there are more than enough topics which you’re allowed to cover –and you can always choose less biting ones, or simply don’t walk out “past the flags.”

Truth be told, there was another choice –to try to change one newspaper for another, where the editorial policy was different. At first, many did just that –since different media depended on different commercial structures, which had different interests. But afterwards, a growing number of these structures began to themselves depend more and more on the authorities. And critical overtones in their corresponding media became less and less frequent. The number of newspapers where you could freely state your opinions was rapidly melting away — and consequently, so did the number of work-places where you could transfer when it became completely odious…

And afterwards… afterwards a news generation of journalists grew up. And those, who didn’t go to a PR-service or a political consulting structure directly after college, but stayed in journalism, already perceived “the air of non-freedom” as the only one they were used to breathing. Many journalists of the previous generation came to peace with [the situation] as well – some grew older, some became tired, some decided that it was impossible to spit against the wind their whole lives, some changed their topic –for instance, to cover sports, where it is still possible to speak absolutely freely, where, as-yet, no teams, sportsmen or trainers exist that are closed off from criticism. Possibly, however, this omission will soon be corrected.

And what’s left in the outcome? Well, that people believe less and less what the majority of newspapers (and television all the more so) [are telling them]. The reader-viewer is not quite so stupid and naïve as they possibly assume in the power structures, where they are so interested in narrowing the “extent of freedom.” [The reader] sees that one life is happening around him, while much of the media are telling him of a completely different one, as if they’re speaking of some parallel world. He takes the Peterburgsky Dnevnik (the St. Petersburg Journal) newspaper, published by the St. Petersburg administration with a circulation of 200 thousand, out of his mailbox and sees, for instance, that “the news of the week” from the 9th to the 15th of April 2007 is the approval of a new draft law by the city government, which bans gambling machines starting in July 2008. The violent crackdown of the “March of Dissent” on April 15th, which proved to be at the center of attention of the majority of the world media, isn’t considered as news of the week by the paper. It isn’t even mentioned. This event just didn’t happen…

At one time, in the distant Soviet past, there was a popular joke about a person who visited a psychiatrist with a complaint. He says, “I see one thing around me, but on the television – it’s completely different.” “We don’t cure socialism,” the doctor replies to the poor fellow. Can it be that we’re reverting?

Altogether, we have nothing to commemorate on May 3rd, because you cannot be free only one day of the year. You are either free all the time—or constrained every day…

Victoria Vladimirovna Rabotnova is a St. Petersburg based journalist. She completed the Journalist Faculty of the Leningrad State University in 1984. Since then, she has worked for a number of publications, and has been widely published around Russia. From 1991 to 2005, she was the parliamentary commentator for the Nevskoe Vremya newspaper. At the present moment, she serves as a columnist for the Novaya Gazeta, and is a staff writer for the Rossiyskaya Federatsiya Segodnya (Russian Federation Today) magazine.

translated by theotherrussia.org