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Russia: Media Play Key Role In Fanning Racist Tensions

  • Claire Bigg --> Are Russia's media fanning the flames of race hate? (AFP) When Moscow's Baumansky market collapsed in February 2006, crushing to death almost 70 people, Russian newspapers were awash with reports expressing shock over the accident.

But the media's reaction was not all benign. The cave-in also prompted a number of hostile remarks about the victims -- most of whom were traders from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

"Thank God it didn't happen during the afternoon, when there would have been many more people, more Muscovites. These were merely people from the Caucasus," one reader observed in comments published in the high-circulation tabloid "Komsomolskaya pravda." The reader went on to argue that the financial compensation allocated for the victims' families would be "better spent on pensioners."

The newspaper quoted another reader complaining about how "blacks" -- the blanket terms used by some Russians to denote many non-Slavs -- once barred her 81-year-old uncle from selling his homegrown apples at a Moscow market.

Unleashing Violence

Human rights groups have long warned that xenophobic tendencies in Russian mainstream media are feeding into a nationwide surge in racist attacks, which have already claimed 57 lives since the beginning of the year.

"Xenophobia itself is not on the rise. If you look at polls by the Levada Center, xenophobia remains very stable at 55-57 percent of the population," says Galina Kozhevnikova, the deputy director of the Sova center, a Moscow-based organization monitoring hate crimes. "But the mass media is contributing to maintaining this degree of xenophobia, to provoke conflicts, and to transform latent xenophobia into open aggression."

Kozhevnikova, who co-authored a book last year about xenophobia in the Russian media, says "Komsomolskaya pravda" remains one of the worst publications in terms of the frequency of racist comments.

In December, it published an editorial in response to the conviction of an Azerbaijani man on murder charges in Russia's Far East.

"This happens in other Russian cities -- road disputes with firearms and the inevitable participation of people from the proud Caucasus," wrote the daily's deputy editor in chief, Sergei Ponomaryov. "It's also possible to slaughter offenders with a dagger, slice them in two with a saber. Mountain customs, you know. But then what kind of treatment, dear Caucasus people, do you expect from the native inhabitants of inner Russia?"

'A Complete Nonentity'

Smaller, local publications aren't much better.

A newspaper in the northern city of Murmansk in January published a test offering readers to evaluate their level of culture.

One of the questions was: "Do you have Jews in your family?" A positive answer prompted the following conclusion: "Don't be upset. You are a complete nonentity. But people nonetheless adore you."

And Moscow's "Vechernaya Moskva" recently published an article blaming Roma for the country's rampant crime. "Being illiterate, they cannot set up a legal trade," the author argued. "So what's left? That's right: criminal goods, from which gypsies choose the most lucrative: drugs and 'live meat' -- prostitutes."

Nazar Mirzoda, a spokesman for the Tajik community in St. Petersburg, says racist remarks in the press do particular damage to migrant workers, the vast majority of whom perform unwanted jobs for a pittance.

"Some journalists and tabloids accuse migrants of all ills, they write lies about migrants violating everything and spreading diseases," complains Mirzoda. "That's not true. Migrants are not criminals and thieves, 70-80 percent of them work on construction sites, they are workers, simple people. But newspapers don't write about that, about the fact that countless square meters [of construction] in Russia were built by Tajik workers."

Russian lawmakers have yet to vote on a bill introduced last year in the State Duma that would ban media from mentioning the citizenship of victims and perpetrators when reporting on a crime.

The draft law has received a mixed response from ethnic minorities and rights campaigners. While many support it, others like Kozhevnikova point out that journalists will be able to bypass the law by using broader derogatory terms such as "blacks" and "southerners."

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​