With timing that couldn’t be better planned, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is holding its annual World Congress in Moscow this week.
The meeting, focused on highlighting the escalating threat to journalists in Russia, has several recent examples to chose from: mass resignations at a radio news agency, Russian News Service, after pro-Kremlin management installed new editorial policies; an eviction order for the Russian Union of Journalists to make space for the feel-good Russia Today television channel; the Educated Media Foundation (formerly known as Internews Russia) suspended operations following a police raid on its headquarters; and the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Ivan Safronov, the respected military correspondent for Kommersant.
Hopefully, the delegates who gather from around the world to discuss those high-profile, Moscow-based incidents won’t lose sight of how difficult it really has become to function as a “normal” journalist throughout today’s Russia – normal in the sense of earning a decent living reporting the news.
For the sharpest of contrasts, let’s choose a freelancer for our example and one not from Moscow, St. Petersburg, or another major city in Russia. This one is from the North Caucasus, an area largely out of the public eye except when terrorists attack. We will call him Igor, because using his own name might cause him additional trouble.
The life of a freelancer is tenuous in most places in the world. Some people like the flexibility of not having one paymaster calling their shots, and wallow in the luxury of inviting big media outlets to bid for their services in the hotspots of the day. Many, however, tire quickly of living from one article fee to the next and covet more secure staff jobs, especially once they have families.
In many parts of Russia, the decision to write freelance isn’t so much a matter of choice; if you want to do any “serious” journalism, there is no other way. Igor said he could have played the double life of some of his colleagues: cozying up to the local authorities at their daily jobs for local media, then writing more critical material for foreign media on the side. But he didn’t want to play that game. Instead he writes for a Russian Internet site and reports for foreign media.
A few local independent newspapers do exist in his republic, but they are too weak to cause any real change. They lack qualified journalists – often a single reporter’s articles make up most of an issue – but can’t afford to pay freelancers such as Igor to spice up their copy. Brave, well-financed publications, such as The Free Course, a Siberian newspaper profiled by TOL (Wrestling With Bears), are only a dream in these parts.
Journalists can write critically of local problems, but do not dare to take on individual politicians in the local government for fear of their lives. In some ways, Igor said, it is safer to criticize President Vladimir Putin than a local politician, because the local authorities themselves find criticism of the central government useful for their power games with the center.
Arrests and beatings are rare in Igor’s part of the Caucasus. The authorities assume more refined tactics, designed to encourage self-censorship. They generally speak to representatives from the national media; they never invite freelancers to press conferences; and they spread unfounded rumors about “unfriendly” reporters who stray from the standard, official line on issues such as Beslan. “It’s enough to work for Western media instead of local media and you will be called a spy or accused of taking bribes to write a certain way,” Igor says.
As if such interest among the local authorities wasn’t enough, journalists, especially freelancers who write for foreign media, also demand the attention of the FSB (the KGB successor in charge of domestic security). The FSB monitors “active” journalists, Igor says, and arranges meetings with troublesome reporters, suggesting what to write and what not to write. “Our phones are always tapped,” he says.
Igor felt training of journalists might offer a way out. The pressure is intimidating, he said, but it’s also an easy excuse for people still trained in old Soviet-style journalism at local universities, who learn few methods for fighting back against abrasive politicians and corrupt bureaucrats. “With 10 active freelancers in the North Caucasus, we could break the information vacuum here,” he says.
Otherwise, Igor had few solutions. In his area at least, the low level of civic involvement precludes demonstrations or other forms of protest for media freedoms. It’s an opinion heard throughout Russia. And neither Igor nor anyone we have spoken to over the past few weeks put much stock in journalist solidarity. Too weak, fragmented, and already compromised, the media community is unlikely to be the driving force for change – even with the support of their foreign colleagues now gathered in Moscow.
And the Kremlin knows that ever so well. To kick the country’s largest journalism union out of its offices shortly before the arrival of over 1,000 foreign guests – who are debating precisely the state of the media – is really the height of impunity.