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Russia: Journalists Not United In Defense Of Press Freedom

  • Floriana Fossato

Across Russia these days, individual journalists are increasingly concerned about the state's apparent crackdown on independent media. But so far, there is little solidarity among them -- and little sympathy for the journalists themselves among the public at large. RFE/RL correspondent Floriana Fossato reports.

Moscow, 7 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the past 10 years, according to opinion polls, public trust in the Russian media has plummeted. A 1990 survey conducted by the Commission for Freedom of Access to Information -- a Russian NGO -- found that more than two-thirds (70 percent) of respondents said they believed what the media reported.

Six years later, a poll by the same organization found that only 40 percent trusted journalists. Today, that figure is a paltry 13 percent.

Iosif Dzyaloshinsky is the commission's founder and a Moscow University journalism professor. He spoke to RFE/RL about the survey results.

According to Dzyaloshinsky, several factors explain the Russian media's loss in public trust and interest. In most Western countries, he notes, news media developed in parallel with a flourishing trading class, willing to make decisions based on information. Historically, he says, this was not the case in Russia. "The press in Russia developed, from the beginning, among thinkers. They were writers, they were opposition activists or, on the contrary, they were people close to the government. These people started publishing newspapers, writing in newspapers, not because they wanted to disseminate information, but because they wanted to influence the situation. [Since then] a journalist in Russia cannot simply act as an informer. It is an accepted fact that a journalist [is somebody who] must teach how to live."

When Russia started its experiment with democracy after the breakup of the Soviet Union, journalists were eager to meet the challenge, if poorly prepared for it.

Many journalists regard the period from 1989 to 1992 as a golden age of the Russian press. They say that in the turmoil when the communist state apparatus was crumbling, reporters had unprecedented access to all kinds of sources. But, Dzyaloshinsky says, this was also a period of great confusion and superficiality, when few journalists could figure out what kind of information was out there and who would be interested in it.

Gradually, a new wave of promising young journalists appeared, interested in presenting facts gathered in a professional way. The sector of the public most interested in their product was the elite, the new businessmen and economic reformers.

This stage was followed by the rise of large media companies controlled by business and political leaders. They were interested in hiring professionals, and they were willing to sustain money-losing newspapers and broadcast stations in order to acquire tools of influence. Journalists, in turn, were interested in finding financial backers. It seemed a fair exchange, but some now say it turned to the journalists' disadvantage.

Leading journalists started being associated -- both in the eyes of the authorities and of the public -- with their outlets' owners and backers. Many were regarded as little more than well-paid propagandists engaged in slander and misinformation.

According to Dzyaloshinsky, until very recently, most Russian journalists took little notice of the public's negative perception. But when the government last year began moves to control the press -- banning certain coverage of Chechnya, requiring licenses for newspapers, raiding a prominent media company -- journalists realized that the public was not on their side. Yet most exhibited little solidarity towards their colleagues. "At the moment, everyone believes that he or she is personally good. [In this view] there are some negative figures, but it's up to them to justify their conduct. What we are now witnessing is how [people's negative] reaction to the bad work or to the immoral conduct of some journalists falls on all journalists," he says.

Dzyaloshinsky says that to defend themselves, journalists should unite and act as a professional class -- especially if the government starts to tar them all with the same brush.

But he says this has yet to happen. A huge gulf between Moscow-based journalists and their provincial colleagues has not been overcome. Blatant and often dramatic cases of intimidation against by local authorities against regional journalists have received publicity in Moscow, but haven't led to solidarity among journalists. Moscow journalists often show disdain for the skills of their regional colleagues. In turn, regional journalists resent what they call the "rich Moscow caste."

Sergei Parkhomenko is the editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based weekly "Itogi." He says that Russian journalists are wary of banding together because of bad Russian experiences with solidarity.

"In Soviet times," he says, "solidarity among workers was compulsory and false. Everybody was aware of this. That created antibodies that will last for a long time." In recent times, Parkhomenko adds, Boris Yeltsin called on Russians to show solidarity for the new cause of creating capitalism and democracy. Many felt they had been misled.

After all this, Parkhomenko says, expecting solidarity among people belonging to the same professional category, or solidarity in society on humanitarian issues, democratic freedoms and access to information, is next to impossible.