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Russia: Journalists Union Head Laments State Of Media

Russian Union of Journalists head Igor Yakovenko (file photo) (RFE/RL) MOSCOW, May 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In the run-up to the  International Federation of Journalists' annual World Congress, which takes place in Moscow from May 28-June 2, the general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists today lamented the state of press freedom in his country. Igor Yakovenko has high praise for the eight journalists who recently resigned from the Russian News Service in protest against a new editorial policy that requires journalists to portray the government in a "positive light." He speaks with RFE/RL correspondent Chloe Arnold.

RFE/RL: What has happened at the Russian News Service?

Igor Yakovenko: Yakovenko: What happened there is what has happened to the whole of Russian journalism, just in a slightly starker form. What happened is censorship. Over the past seven years, Russia has been transformed from a country with partial freedom of speech to a country where there is no consistent media freedom. The example of the Russian News Service is a classic example of the imposition of censorship. New managers have been brought in, who are openly pro-Kremlin. They came from Channel One [a state-run national television channel]. And they brought with them very clear instructions.

Ekho Moskvy is really just an oasis, an air vent for freedom lovers, for the intelligentsia. It's not real freedom of speech.

Yakovenko: The first instruction is that there is to be more good news. It is a very characteristic thing. All authoritarian and totalitarian regimes use the media as an influence to make everything seem good. In Germany, when the fascists came to power and in particular when Hitler, or rather [Propaganda Minister Josef] Goebbels, started to make use of the radio, the director of German radio went to see the staff at the radio station, under Goebbels' instruction, and told them that the main ideology of the radio station would be joy and national unity. And the first instruction that the new management [at the Russian News Service] issued was that 50 percent of the news should be positive. If something bad has happened in the country, there is no need to broadcast it. You must only broadcast good things. That's not journalism. That's not working with information. That's called propaganda. The second innovation introduced by the management is that blacklists have appeared. That is, lists of people who are not allowed to be put on air. Initially this became known to me because I was not allowed on air.

RFE/RL: Do you mean a list of guests who are not allowed to be broadcast?

Yakovenko: I mean a list of those experts and guests who -- well, how does radio normally work? They discuss some subject, and then in order to comment on the news or some event, they invite people on air. The blacklist that was introduced is a list of those people who should not be allowed on air at the Russian News Service.

RFE/RL: And when you say this list "appeared," what do you mean?

Yakovenko: As soon as the new management arrived they introduced this list. I found out about this completely by accident. They phoned me and said they were inviting me to comment on World Press Freedom Day, then they phoned again and said, "You know, it turns out you are on the list of persona non grata, a taboo person, therefore you are not allowed to set foot in the Russian News Service." I was not that upset and here is the reason why. The thing is that on the blacklist with me is a fairly large number of very pleasant people, one can be proud of being in their company. People like Dmitry Oreshkin, from my point of view the most interesting and influential electoral political scientist in Russia, sociologists from the Levada Center, one of the leaders of our human-rights movements Lyudmila Alekseyeva. If you end up in this company you can be proud. As for who is allowed to comment on news and events, it is first and foremost members of Unified Russia, the Public Chamber, experts who comment on events as you might say "correctly" and in the same vein as the current authorities.

RFE/RL: Approximately how many names are on this blacklist?

Yakovenko: Of course I haven't actually seen the list, I only know about it because of my own personal experience. And also because the actual journalists there told me about it. They told me there were "several" names on the list -- maybe there are more. I don't know. But after this, anyone who considered himself to be a journalist at the Russian News Service and wanted his name to be linked to that radio station, those people handed in their resignation....

...In principle I agree with the international media-rights group Freedom House, which has placed Russia on a list of nations that are "not free" -- countries where there is censorship and no media freedom. But there are different kinds of "not free." And of course the level of lack of freedom and censorship in Russia is categorically different from what we had in the Soviet Union. And of course I admit without any doubt that the level of media freedom in Russia today is a lot greater than it was in the Soviet Union -- there is of course less censorship, and more opportunity to speak freely. More than, for example, modern China, North Korea, or Belarus. So if this was the Soviet Union, these people [who resigned from the Russian News Service] would most likely have to change their professions. But in today's Russia, they may be able to find new work, though it will be difficult.

RFE/RL: What happens next? Perhaps now is the most difficult time for journalism in Russia because there will be parliamentary elections in December and a presidential vote next year. Perhaps after this it will be easier, or do you think this shows there is no media freedom?

Yakovenko: For me, even in a period of prohibition, there is some hope. Russia is an absolutely unpredictable country. Let's remember the situation in the country in 1988 and 1989. There surely wasn't a single person who could have predicted that in the blink of an eye in historical terms, the Soviet Union would cease to exist on world maps. And then in the mid-1990s, even the late 1990s, people would have laughed if you'd told them that the next president of Russia would be an ex-KGB agent. And so today's situation is absolutely unpredictable. And that is very bad; it puts Russia in a bad position with regard to its neighbors. But it also shows, once again, that everything depends on us. We'll see whether the situation with the media will develop in the way we are seeing at the moment -- that's to say a constant decline in media freedom, and we are seeing that every day -- [and] this tendency will continue if journalists and society as a whole allow this to happen. If society and journalists say emphatically "no" to the government, then I think this tendency can change.

RFE/RL: The fact that journalists, even if it was only eight, have, as we say, voted with their feet, they resigned of their own accord -- doesn't that show that they are not willing to work under state controls? And that since they don't agree with the way things are being run now, the situation can change.

Yakovenko: The fact that these Russian News Service journalists formed a collective protest against censorship -- that's a very good thing. The trouble is that many people working in journalism here today have the impression that what is happening now is unstoppable, that this is the way they should work from now on. A huge number of journalists, particularly those that work in the state television channels, but also in other areas of the media, consider their profession as a return to how it used to be [in the Soviet period]. They feel that they need to be servile to the state, to lie, to cover up information that's not acceptable to the authorities and so on. These people from the Russian News Service have shown it doesn't have to be like that. That it is possible to stand on the principles of your work. And that's good. And I think that they have definitely won, that their time will come.

Yakovenko: Russia at the moment doesn't have a real notion of which direction it is going in. Russia can't become a bigger version of Belarus. There are certainly parts of Russia where human rights and freedom of the press are in fact worse than Belarus -- Kalmykia, parts of Bashkortostan, and other regions. But Russia is fated, however slowly, however controversially, however difficult it might be, to follow the path of civilized development.

RFE/RL: Finally, some people here and in the West point to the example of the Ekho Moskvy radio station -- how can there be no media freedom in Russia if a radio station like this exists that can be rather critical of the government?

Yakovenko: Even in the most stagnant days of the Soviet Union, in the 1970s, there were so-called "air vents," which allowed some freedom of speech. They were like pipes that allowed the steam of disgruntlement and criticism to escape, little islands for lovers of freedom and pluralism. And in the Soviet Union, this "little island" was "Literaturnaya Gazeta," which was granted permission, from on high, to print the sorts of things that were forbidden to everyone else. This newspaper was able to carry out investigative journalism. They even made comments on the mafias that existed at the time in the Soviet Union. And so these air vents, these oases in the middle of a desert of censorship, are now in the hands of Ekho Moskvy radio and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. And they really do enjoy relative freedom. One can say that Ekho Moskvy undertakes about 90 percent of the journalism in this country, because it has employed all the people who were sacked from state television channels, who have now become presenters. Journalists of all inclinations have flocked there. It really is the only free, pluralist radio station in Russia, you could say a quasi-social channel, I mean in terms of content.

Yakovenko: But this is very different from the real situation regarding media freedom because, with all due respect to Ekho Moskvy, it simply doesn't have the influence that state television channels have. If you put the first, second, and fourth television channels on one side of some weighing scales and on the other you put all the other, approximately 20,000 [television channels, radio stations, and newspapers], including Ekho Moskvy and Ren TV, which is much more liberal than its state-run counterparts, then of course the influence of those three television channels will tip the scales. So Ekho Moskvy is really just an oasis, an air vent for freedom lovers, for the intelligentsia. It's not real freedom of speech.