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In a time where freedom of information is on decline all around the world, the Nordic states remain on top of the list over countries with the highest level of press freedom.
Hundreds of Norwegians and Russians arrived in the first week of February in the town of Kirkenes on the Russian-Norway border to see the spectacular installations, to visit unusual exhibitions and to speculate about the future of the Arctic territories at the international art festival Barents Spektakel.
Journalism in Russia: study experience (continued)
Kjersti Lien, Beth Mørch Pettersen, Ida Kroksæter from Norway made a study of present situation in Russian mass media with the focus on press freedom issues. The article is devided in two parts and the first one is presented here.
Secretaries, not journalists
- Look! - says Maxim Troepolskiy. From the roof outside the editorial premises of Ren TV, he points to the place where policemen made their own fines a few years ago. The money was collected, and went straight in the policemen's own pockets.
Some critics says that there are no Russian journalists, they are only press secretaries or information workers. This description is not foreign to Anastassia Yakonyuk.
- Yes, unfortunately. Sometimes we are explained that we have to write about this or that just because it has connections with the governor or some of the officials. Even if it is not interesting for ordinary people, we have to show the governor, his work, and that he ''eagers to make our life better''. We call it ''official chronicle'' and try to find balance.
Back in Moscow Maxim Troepolskiy steps out on the edge of the roof, pointing, eager to show.
- Look, he says.
On the horizon the gold domes of the famous Cathedral of Christ the Saviour shines in the afternoon sun. But Troepolskiy’s finger is pointing downwards, towards Zubovsky Boulevard, thirty feet below his feet. About three years ago, the Ren TV reporters did not even need to leave the building to make the evening news.
- Journalists and photographers were standing on this roof, filming policemen standing right over there. Some of the policemen conducted a control only to put the ''fines'' in their own pocket.
There was no big scandal. Corruption is common in Russia. It is claimed that the vast majority of public employees have no problem supplementing their wages with black money.
The absence of reactions in such cases is frightening, but well known also to the employees of Novaya Gazeta.
- The lack of reaction is the main problem in Russia's journalism. One of our biggest challenges is that we do not get any response from the state, says Roman Shleynov.
There is resignation in the editor’s eyes. He is thinking aloud that it is only his own madness that makes him continue.
Yet, the Kremlin show signs of a growing interest to the situation of the Russian media. Medvedev gave his first big newspaper interview as president to Novaya Gazeta. He wanted to show his moral support to the newspaper that never have been sucking up to the state.
- We are a small newspaper. Perhaps the interview with Medvedev signals that politicians now must respond to our requests, says Shleynov.
Nadezhda Azhgikhina also sees small signs of improvement after the change of president:
- Medvedev's performance is a good sign. Some believe it is superficial, and that his statements in recent months only have been a show off. But we live in a society where all signs are important. It is a good sign that he chose to give an interview to Novaya Gazeta. He has also had a meeting with the journalist federation's own president to discuss the situation. That is an important and a good sign of development. Now he has promised improvement for journalists, and we can push him on that.
Supress the freedom of speech
It is the last day of april 2009. In the city of Rostov-on-Don, chief editor of the local and independent newspaper, is in coma. Vyacheslav Yaroshenko’s head injuries are serious.
The doctors believe that yesterday’s operation was successful, and that his condition will stabilize. As Yaroshenko opened the front door to his home, someone brutally assaulted him. The government supposedly refused to register the assault. Few question the motive for the attack.
While Yaroshenko is recovering from his operation, Roman Shelynov is sitting at a conference table at Novaya Gazeta, just a few kilometres from the president’s office in Kremlin. He is sure of his opinion: it is not dangerous to be a journalist in Russia. Like most Russians, politicians turn the other cheek.
- The journalists who have been killed, have been murdered for various reasons, but not by the government. They wrote stories from the Regions, small stories they would not care about.
In Shleynov’s opinion, journalists working in the Regions are in much more danger than the ones working in Moscow. The capital gets a lot more attention from the rest of the world than the country’s regions, and it is harder to get away with murder in Moscow. Still, it happens.
Pictures of four journalists and one lawyer are hanging above Shleynov’s head. These five pictures are of former colleagues, who all have been killed. Shleynov talks about the murders as if it were something ordinary, and with a face void of emotion. These things happen in Russia.
- The murder of Anna Politkovskaya was a shock for Europe. Here in Russia, no one cared. The murder came as no surprise, it was almost a normal event here. I understand the way Europe reacted, but I have not seen that it changed anything here in Russia. We are not afraid, and it is not dangerous to be a journalist in Russia. But Russia is unpredictable. Things happen, he says.
The online newspaper editor Grigory Shvedov, on the other hand, thinks that a dead journalist can be inspirational.
- It may sound strange, but sometimes a murder can be helpful. It can motivate others, so that you avoid an apathetic attitude in the society.
Fear does not help
Oleg Panfilov has dozens pictures of his closest journalist colleagues hanging on his office wall. He names them person, by person. - Half of them are dead now, he says.
- I have been arrested, hit and beaten so badly that I needed an operation.
Oleg Panfilov points to the crown of his head. The mark from the assault sixteen years ago is still visible. He thinks most journalists are aware of the dangers that come with the job. In 2008, Russia was ranked as the world’s third deadliest country for journalists by the Committee to Protect Journalists. According to the organization, fifty journalists have been killed here since 1992. Panfilov is no longer afraid.
- Why should I be? Fear does not change anything. They tried to kill me in 1993, but that was for my extremely well written articles, he says with a smirk.
The murder attempt was one of the reasons he initiated his work with Journalists in Extreme Situations.
- KGB knew everything that happened, and they did not investigate it. It was a big scandal. I needed protection then, as others need protection now, he says.
A couple of floors beneath Panfilov’s office, the deputy chairman of RUJ, Nadezda Azhgikhina, is sitting in her office. She shakes her head when she starts talking about the dangers of being a journalist in Russia.
- The question of whether or not it is dangerous to be a journalist in Russia, is hopeless. We live here, and we have made this choice ourselves, she says with a sigh.
An unpredictable future
Russian journalism faces many challenges that come from a variety of sources. Among them, the country lacks a tradition for free public information. Maxim Troepolskiy has no hope for a speedy change to the situation for journalists and journalism in Russia. Democracy and freedom of press are still too young.
- I doubt that the situation for the media will change the next years. Look at Europe. They have had 150 years to get where they are today, we have had twenty. It will take time.
Grigory Shvedov agrees:
- It is not the state’s fault that the situation is what it is today. It has to do with culture. It will take time to get over the Soviet Union. We had slaves in Russia only 150 years ago, imagine that. Because of all this, people are more apathetic today, he says.
Even though the situation seems grim at the moment, the Novaya Gazeta editor does not believe that the future is totally dark.
- Today’s situation is not hopeless. It is a start. Maybe twenty, maybe thirty, forty or fifty years from now our democracy will be on the same level as Europe is today, Roman Shleynov says.
Educates propaganda journalists
Oleg Panfilov gives lectures on safety for journalism students at Moscow State University. Here, he teaches students how to act in war and how to behave in relations with the police.
I have to say that I am disappointed in the students. Out of twenty, maybe two or three become good, independent journalists. Most of them already know that they are going to work with propaganda. I always say that they have to be both free journalists and free people. To me, that is a serious goal.
Narmina Geybatova and her classmates are half way through their journalism education. After five years of studying in Murmansk, they will begin working in one of the world s most dangerous country for journalists.
Narmina Geybatova is in her third year of journalism studies at Murmansk Pedagogical University. According to her, she is one of few who really wants to work with news about the problems facing average Russian citizens. Still, she does not think that her future profession can contribute to the big changes in her society.
- I do not think that journalists can change the world. At least not in Russia. We are not the fourth state power here, like the media is in many other countries.
Even the students, who are the future, are sceptical to what it has to offer. But Narmina knows how the future should look:
- The ideal situation for Russian journalists would be when they can write what they want, without pressure from the government. They also have to become more independent from their editor. But we will not see any changes the next few years, she says with a look of uncertainty and a smile.
Kjersti Lien, Beth Mørch Pettersen, Ida Kroksæter
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