Safety of journalists in Russia: A personal account

Russia has a very lively journalism scene. Source: RIA Novosti / Alexey Maishev

Russia has a very lively journalism scene. Source: RIA Novosti / Alexey Maishev

While scribes need to be wary of rubbing some powerful people the wrong way, journalism is by no means more hazardous than many other professions in the country.

It’s usually around October 7, the death anniversary of Anna Politikovskaya that I am asked about how safe it is to be a journalist in Russia and about how much professional freedom I had in the country when I lived there full-time. My answer usually disappoints the non-Russians who ask me this question since they’d be much happier to hear a story about me living in fear and being completely careful about offending government authorities or criminals.

Before going on with this article I would like to clarify that I condemn the cold-blooded murders of Politikovskaya, Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov and other lesser-known colleagues. The common pattern in many of these murders is the fact that no one really knows who was behind them.  It is very easy for the Russophobic international press to pin the blame on the authorities without a shred of credible evidence. Many of the 4000-plus strong foreign correspondents based in Moscow who have never faced any kind of personal threat would be more than happy to call out what they perceive as the lack of freedom in the country since that is what their own governments want to hear.

It’s true that the television channels are state-run but to accuse them of engaging in nothing but propaganda is facetious to put it mildly. I have seen enough reports that highlight less than ideal situations in different parts of the country, coverage that wouldn’t please the authorities but that hasn’t resulted in the concerned reporter losing his or her job. There’s a vibrant print journalism scene in the country and this publication often translates articles from the Russian print media. Many of these articles are also highly critical of the authorities.

Many a times, I’ve been personally accused of being an apologist for the Russian government. It’s not that I agree with all the policies of those in power but I believe that not every journalist should be a cynic, pessimist or sceptic. It’s true that bad news sells and many people outside Russia wait for tasty morsels that reinforce their stereotypes about the country. However, the fact is that Russia like any other country has so many positive and unknown stories waiting to be told. In this age of pessimism and negativity I’d rather be a journalist who focuses on the positive aspects of life.  The world most certainly needs optimists in this profession: Those that use the pen to spread goodwill and bring people together rather than drive them apart; those that promote tolerance instead of hatred...

When I lived full-time in Russia, I most certainly did rub some people the wrong way. It’s an inevitable part of the job. One particular “target” of the independent publication that I edited, The Sakhalin Times, was the mayor of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Our reporters were often critical of his neglect of important local issues such as clearing the mounds of snow and ice that would pile up on the roads and pavements of the city after snowstorms. The articulate, suave and English-speaking mayor Andrei Lobkin took note of the criticism and presented us a special diploma on the Russian holiday for those in the publishing and journalism industry!

There was also a time when I had to deal with the agency once known as the KGB and now called the FSB. This was at a time when the authorities were suspicious of the British Council in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. I remember receiving a phone call about an article written by one of my reporters on foreign NGOs in the region. The caller said he was from the FSB and wanted to have a word with me. When I did meet him, my misplaced fears from watching too many Western films about the KGB were put to rest. The officer just wanted to know about the sourcing of the article. Although the article didn’t quote any anonymous sources, my reporter apparently had better information on the non-profits on the island than the intelligence service!

When we passed on the information, the grateful officer said that he was available if we ever needed his help in any way. Although I thanked him for the offer, what I wanted to say was that the best way for him to be of help was to not call me in the future. Perhaps I had been too brainwashed by the James Bond films. The British Council on the island, which was accused of indulging in activities incompatible with its diplomatic status, was closed in 2006. There was irrefutable evidence against the organisation, which had no business encouraging political NGOs or promoting the business interests of British companies on the island. 

If there was any dirty business when it came to being a journalist in Sakhalin, it had to do with some small western company or the other trying to “plant stories” that maligned competition around the time when big contracts were awarded by the oil and gas project operators.  I was even offered a generous sum by one foreign company to publish a completely false report on its direct competitor.  Something I laughed off!

Foreign journalists, who often cry foul about the lack of freedom of the press in Russia, enjoy cushy jobs in the country. The Russian authorities could care less about what many of these journalists write in their own languages for their own audience. I appreciate the fact that the Russian government pays far more attention to what the local press writes than what some foreign correspondents would file. It actually shows that the government cares about what its own people think. This is in stark contrast to my own country, where the prime minister is least bothered about critical articles written by Indian journalists but gets seriously offended when a foreign publication goes after him. An article critical of Manmohan Singh in the Washington Post made the prime minister’s office send a strong rebuttal. All that achieved was making the journalist a household name in India! None of the arguments in that article were new and the journalist just parroted what Indian scribes have been writing since 2008.

Tailpiece:

The Russian authorities definitely take violent attacks against journalists seriously.  According to a bill that is expected to be passed this year, the punishment for violence against a journalist will be the same as that for violence against a public official.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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