HomeContact UsNewsLinks

 Welcome to our website!
    It is addressed to all colleagues interested in quality, honest, responsible and ethical journalism. In journalism that is looking for truth, justice, equality, and that in covering wars and conflicts is looking not for sensation, but for human destiny and possible ways of peace keeping and peace communication. Women reporters work a lot on this peace communication, in all countries of the globe. And we decided to start our discussion sharing reports and analyses of women journalists' experiences. And we hope that this experience of peace communication can help us to overcome hate speech which is so well spread in the media, and create a new language in the media that we need, a language of the future.

Landscape after the Battle: Russian Journalists between Past and Future, Spring 2007 PDF Print
One More April

    I am writing these lines in a rather strange mood, subject to mixed feelings and expectations. A week ago my office  e-mail failed—because, we were told, the  server was somehow connected with the one at Internews, and therefore had been ‘arrested’ along with all the documents and equipment of this NGO after the sudden and unmotivated visit and search by the police and prosecution officials.

Russian Internews (renamed Obrazovannye Media following a new NGO law) was the oldest and most prominent training centre for broadcast  journalists in the country, educating hundreds of professionals throughout the Russian Regions.  Its closure after this episode stunned the media community. It was not involved in political campaigns, did not participate in PR activities, and was wholly devoted to education and training, promoting quality journalism, and committed to  national-level  broadcast initiatives. Though it was criticised for using Western aid several times by the authorities and the Russian president, at a recent public event it was explicitly identified by the same president as an important NGO leader. The official explanation of the search at the Internews office—the fact than half a year ago its chief, Manana Aslamazyan, did not declare  extra  cash at  Russia customs—lacked seriousness in the views of many media professionals and intellectuals, as well as the Russian Union of Journalists, who   published open letters in support of  Internews. The majority of colleagues interpreted this shocking, symbolic event as part of an ideological zachistka (cleansing) of the Russian media prior to the presidential  elections.  That perspective was based partly on many previous, analogous episodes, such as the introduction of a new management in state-owned and state- associated companies, such as Mayak radio and NTV. Though one could hardly characterise the activities of either as oppositional, the power centre apparently found it necessary to remove the last remaining analytical programmes and flickers of independent thought from the air.

            In a similar vein, the newspaper Kommersant Daily and Ekho Moskvy radio (the only national station to criticise the current regime  openly) received official warnings  from the state agency controlling the media about giving the  floor to, or even mentioning, Eduard Limonov’s officially  political party (NBP – the National Bolshevik Party). At the same time, fascist and radical nationalist and anti-Semitic groups continue to distribute their publications freely and no one has been prosecuted for interviewing their leaders.

            This April was a time of unprecedented street violence by forces representing the establishment in Nizhnii Novgorod, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg during demonstrations by opponents of the current national policy.  Violence towards journalists reached such proportions that in Moscow alone 30 media professionals sent complaints to the General Prosecutor’s office about police violence during public protests. At the same time many, the official media presented these incidents as attacks by the enemies of the Russian state and its people, and its participants as marginal individuals, manipulated by enemies or foreign intelligence services.  In other words, elements of stagnation, and old-style Cold War propaganda  are  becoming increasingly  recognisable.

            This April, 6 months after her murder, Anna Politkovskaya received a UNESCO award.  Though announced in professional and oppositional media and mentioned in a few other publications, it was not huge national event. I live in Lesnaya Street, where  Anna’s last apartment was also located, and I walk or drive past her address every day. I remember how right after her tragic assassination in October, for 24 hours people visited and left flowers there. On April 7, only a tiny crowd gathered to commemorate her death at Pushkin Square in the centre of Moscow

            This April was also the twenty-first anniversary of the Chernobyl tragedy, and marked the twenty-second anniversary of Gorbachev’s coming to power.  Neither was widely discussed. One could get the impression that the Russian media, as well as the Russian populace, are afraid of analysing the recent past, for fear of dangerous associations,  questions, and conclusions. The media are becoming more and more primitive, combining propaganda and entertainment, which steadily continue to edge out serious analysis, and free voices are hardly audible.

            Yet I cannot agree with those colleagues from Russia and the West who simply   announce the end of free speech in Russia and the rise of a new ideological terror, blaming Putin’s regime for attacks on the free press.  Without nurturing any illusions about current Russian power and its instruments, as someone from the former Soviet Union who grew up during Brezhnev’s stagnation—with atmosphere of hypocrisy and secrecy, discrepancy between claimed policy and practices, combination of courage and betrayal, idealism and cynicism, sometimes at the same time —and as a lifelong member of the Russian journalist community, I cannot agree that Putin’s regime and lack of civil freedoms  are responsible for our current situation.   I suspect that the origins lie elsewhere.  Moreover, the landscape of the Russian- and post-Soviet media is considerably more complex than regularly presented, with various trends competing among its hills and valleys. To analyse the media’s status and everyday circumstances in today’s Russia rather than to fall victim to media simplification (ubiquitous at all levels—local, national, and global) is difficult, but the time for such an analysis is long overdue.


Dangerous Assignment

  As I noted above, on 7 October 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a staff writer for Novaya gazeta, and a winner of many Russian and International press awards for her courageous reports and stories about the Northern Caucasus, was shot dead in the entrance hall of her apartment in the centre of Moscow. The murder shocked both the city and its diverse journalist community. The unspoken taboo on the oppositional paper Novaya gazeta and Anna herself, with her consistent critique of Russian policy in Chechnya on national TV channels, was lifted for a few days. The journalist community (far from homogeneous, for it includes people of different political views and positions) demonstrated, though for a short period, an exceptional solidarity. Thousands of people attended Anna’s funeral. Many TV viewers who had never read the Novaya Gazeta or heard of Politkovskaya’s reports (according to Dmitrii Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya, the paper’s total readership never exceeded one million, with its customary distribution of 100 thousand),  expressed their solidarity with her colleagues. The Russian Union of Journalists issued a special edition of a newspaper dedicated to Anna’s memory, as well as to the other 211 Russian journalists who had died since 1991 – during the period of free speech. Everybody felt that this criminal killing had to be the last, that society had to do everything in order to prevent any repetition. Unfortunately, such hopes were shattered, for on March 2, 2007, Ivan Sofronov, a military analyst with the political daily newspaper Kommersant died in unclear circumstances in the middle of his investigation on Russian military trade affairs with Arab states.

            The investigation of Anna Politkovskaya’s murder continues, but the public has not received any clarification or information concerning the murder since it occurred. In December 2006, the International Federation of Journalists in London organiSed an independent Commission to investigate the murders and unexplained deaths of Russian journalists.  The Commission included representatives of the Russian Union of Journalists, the Centre for risk journalism of the RUJ, the Russian Committee for defence of Glasnost’, and international experts. The purpose of such an initiative is to draw public attention to the problem of violence against journalists in the country, as well as to the impunity of those perpetrating the murders.  The impunity of violence again journalists in Russia was the key issue of the international journalists’ conference in Moscow in late May of this year, and the opening topic of the World Journalist Congress under the umbrella of IFJ, taking part for the first time in a post-socialist country. Russian journalists, as well as colleagues from CIS countries, believe that this Congress could make a difference in the current situation as regards media in former USSR.

            Various explanations have been offered as to why Russia, a country not involved in an armed conflict, is second after Iraq in the number of murders and cases of violence against journalists. The causes of these murders should be thoroughly investigated and analysed. Experts have come up with a few key explanations. Alexei Simonov, president of the Fund for Protection of Glasnost’, Oleg Panfilov, director of the  Centre for risk journalism of the RJU, and the Secretary General of IFJ, Aidan White, have defined at least four main problems: the  lack of political will to investigate the murders (as in the case of Larissa Yudina, the editor-in-chief of the oppositional newspaper Soviet Kalmykia Today); lack of coordination and cooperation between editorial offices and media holdings, on the one hand, and representatives of prosecutors and the authorities, on the other; lack of cooperation between the media and civil society; and lack of coordination between law-enforcement bodies and investigators, on the one hand, and legal structures during the investigation process, on the other.

            Politkovskaya’s dramatic death marks the symbolic end of a significant, energetic, and in many ways romantic period in Russian journalism, incubated during perestroika and the advent of freedom of the press in Russia.   Of course, the romantic idealism at the beginning of perestroika and the first efforts at a market economy during the early 90s have little in common with the media system following the 1999 elections. Ivan Zassoursky, Elena Vartanova, and other scholars analyzing this system note the  widespread  practice of using media in mass manipulation and describe the phenomenon of ‘the mediatization of politics and policy.’ (VARTANOVA, 2007, P 104, Sredstva massovoy informatsii  Rossii , 2006, pp 89-96, Yakovenko, 2007, p pZassoursky, 2004  p 38). Clearly, after the temptation of being the ‘fourth power’ during the early 90s, the media  lost  its real independence and quite quickly became a convenient tool   for  elite power and structures. And the journalist community changed dramatically as well, steadily losing its dignity and independence, serving power or the oligarchs, and forfeiting audiences’ trust.

            Yet in the very heart of that community, among many professionals—not   managers or analysts—still remained an appreciation of the real power of the free and honest word: that is, the belief  that a courageous journalist could and should honestly inform the people,  make a difference, restore integrity to politics and help the nation. I do not mean, of course, that 100 % of media professionals shared this  idea, but many did embrace it. For many, Politkovskaya’s death ended these illusions. Its impact was similar, in some ways, to that of another tragic death in 2003—that of the journalist, politician,  and deputy  editor of the same  newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, YurII Shchekochikhin.  He died from a very strange disease right in the middle of   investigating corruption in the Russian general prosecutor’s office. Many observers and journalists declared his death the end of the romantic era in  Russian politics. Politkovskaya’s murder and its impact on Russian journalism and journalists also pose numerous weighty questions, which are emerging and fueling discussion in Russia and abroad.

The Battlefield 20 Years Later

Does freedom of speech exist in Russia today?  Is the press capable of offering something to oppose the government’s boundlessly increasing control or the pressure of the market, which is almost as strong as the state’s ‘paternal concern’?  What future awaits Russian journalists?  These questions have been widely discussed in recent times by the professional journalistic community, provoking heated arguments and clashes of opinion, most of which clearly sound a pessimistic note.  Indeed, there are more than a few reasons for pessimism.  Recent tragic events in Russia and the threat of new terrorist acts have led, among other things, to an obvious limitation on press freedoms, strengthening already tangible state pressure on independent publications and companies.  Despite the huge number of publications (more than 50,000, including many private ones, according to the Russian Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications, of which around  a half are really active, according to independent surveys) , national television is totally controlled by the state, and broadcasts only the official point of view.  Controversial programs have been banished from national channels, replaced by empty, vulgar variety shows and soap operas.  Many journalists do not hide their conformism, fulfilling various types of political and social commissions, thereby shaming the profession.  The leadership and staff of independent publications, especially those that publish critical investigations, are constantly at risk—the risks ranging from lawsuits to beatings and even murder.  Since 1991, more than 200 Russian journalists have died in the line of duty, and most were not working in hot spots or war zones.

            On the other hand, there is reason for optimism.  Despite the political and economic pressure, hundred of courageous, independent publications in the Russian regions tell their readers the truth; thousands of journalists understand their duty as that of serving justice and their readers, and they actively intervene in everyday life, defending citizens who have been deceived and deprived, and seeking punishment for the guilty.  Meeting these journalists, as I do in practically every town I visit, I feel genuine pride in my colleagues and in Russian journalism as a whole.

            The shame and the pride of contemporary Russian journalism are direct consequences of our recent history, so accelerated and contradictory that it is even hard to believe it all happened in such a short span of time.  Everyone’s personal recollections are contradictory as well.  Over the last 20 years I have worked with three editors-in-chief: Gennady Seleznev at the semi-liberal Komsomolskaia Pravda at the beginning of the 1980s; Vitalii Korotich at the perestroika-era Ogonek; and VitalII Tret’yakov at Nezavisimaya gazeta [Independent Gazette] in the 1990s.  It is difficult to imagine that these three personalities, and these three publications—each of them symbolic in its own way—are even contemporaries.

            It is widely thought that freedom of speech was the first and perhaps the only real achievement of perestroika, its symbol, and that it was only later, during the chaos of the ‘wild market,’ that that freedom was shaken, and then lost.  People rarely speak about the fact that the very birth of that freedom in the noise and frenzy of the late ‘80s wasn’t irreproachable. The concept of freedom was vague, indistinct, and associated not so much with the democratic principles of respect for minorities and the right to independent views as it was with an impetuous desire, bordering on anarchy, to take liberties.  The independent press, which began to form as a result of the complex and dramatic process called perestroika, was not only the daughter of the liberal discussions of the 1980s, but the granddaughter of Soviet journalism.  That journalism, as is obvious today, despite its strict control and total censorship, was not all that bad.  For that matter, the architects of perestroika’s press emerged from Soviet journalism, bringing with them its best traditions—service to the reader, belief in human beings, and moral priorities.


            According to the philosopher Mikhail Kapustin, (Kapustin,  p. 49)there were not two cultures in the USSR (the exploiters and the exploited, as Lenin claimed), but three: the official (‘the culture of automatons’), the oppositional (dissidents), and the culture that balanced between them, which comprised the majority of the best literary, musical, and other artistic creations.  The same may be said of journalism as well.  Between the official line of Pravda and the samizdat Chronicle of Current Events were the liberal Literaturnaia gazeta (or Literaturka), Yunost’, Sovetskaya Rossiia under Mikhail Nenashev, and Komsomol’skaya Pravda (or Komsomolka) under the editorship of Boris Pankin. These papers published the best minds of the era, which educated their readers in civic awareness, appealing for a better life and awakening a yearning for justice and truth that filtered through the Aesopian language to which the Soviet eye was accustomed.  In fact, all the main tenets and ideology of perestroika were formulated latently in the Soviet liberal press.

            That press demanded that the truth be told about our tragic past, that its crimes be evaluated and that we cleanse ourselves of lies, definitively rehabilitate the victims of the repression and call corruption and stupidity by their real names. It demanded respect for human rights, talent, and independence.  All of this completely corresponded with the high moral standards current among the journalistic community of the liberal press—there was an unwritten ethical standard that journalists honoured as something sacred.  Yea-saying propagandists seeking promotions and ready to curry favour were not respected by the community. 

        A critical aspect of the Soviet press was its connection with readers. Newspapers whose print runs were counted in the millions (17 million for Komsomolskaia pravda, 20 million for Trud, the newspaper of the professional unions) received hundreds of thousands of letters every day. People wrote to them about everything. Trusting neither the courts nor Soviet organisations, they often appealed to newspapers as a last resort for help in establishing the truth.  And the newspapers were often able to help—to get people get their jobs back, get them released from jail, to re-establish justice in concrete situations.  A resolution of the Central Committee required reaction to issues raised in the press, which ensured the effectiveness of these interventions.  Journalists were respected—as a colleague of mine who once lost all his money and documents somewhere in Siberia learned: people were happy to feed and house him at their own expense and to pay for his ticket back to Moscow, out of respect for the newspaper and the journalist’s work.  Not surprisingly, during perestroika many journalists began to be elected deputies to the Congress of People’s Deputies—people believed that these impassioned writers were capable of providing direction for the country.  This was an illusion—neither writers nor musicians nor journalists, even those motivated by the noblest of impulses, were capable of solving all the practical tasks facing us.

       All in all, perestroika was a time of great illusions, of utopias born of the Soviet era.  The iron curtain excited unhealthy fantasies and surrealistic ideas about the surrounding world—often as a counterweight to aggressive, Soviet propaganda. Thus, the ‘decaying West’ seemed a paradise to many; a market economy seemed a guarantee of prosperity for all and wealth for the most talented; freedom seemed the opportunity to criticize Stalin without being punished and to read Playboy. That’s how many serious, literate people understood it—including editors-in-chief and progressive journalists.  And on television, instead of the ruins of the South Bronx (a famous symbol of Valentin Zorin’s reports from New York) there appeared the sparkling shop windows of Fifth Avenue and beauty contests.  In essence it was the same old propaganda as before—only with a plus sign.  The freedom of the perestroika era press was strictly limited—by our own prejudices and imagination.


            Beginning in 1985, the main heralds of the press’s renewal were the weeklies.  Literaturka continued and activated the line it had already begun; with Korotich’s arrival at Ogonek and Egor Yakovlev’s at Moskovskie novosti, these publications were transformed unexpectedly from propagandistic Soviet publications into radical ones. The weeklies competed in the pointedness of their criticisms, in filling in history’s ‘blank spots’ or lacunae, and in the originality of their judgments.  It would be no exaggeration to say that the main idea of this triumvirate up until 1989 (supported widely by all levels of the population) was socialism with a human face.  Ogonek’s publication of Bukharin’s pre-death notes was a symbol and marked the peak of these hopes and expectations. It coincided with the fall of the Berlin wall, with the first, relatively independent elections to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR (with Academician Andrei Sakharov addressing the deputies!), and with the historic decision liquidating article 6 of the Soviet constitution, which affirmed the leading role of the Communist Party.

            It was a time of hopes, a time of unprecedented enthusiasm; there was a surge of creativity, journalistic euphoria. The favourite joke in Ogonek was, ‘Who will they come to get first if things go back to the old ways? This relative freedom came unexpectedly. No one was accustomed to it, and the feeling of novelty and adventure excited ardent supporters of change as well as retrogrades; the level of polemics rose, political newscasts and the most recent publications of literary journals were discussed around the clock by academicians and collective farm workers alike. This continued right up until the famous putsch of 1991, when the White House became a symbol of democracy for three days, and the faces of young and old people gathered around it were unbelievably beautiful and inspired. Our magazine, like many liberal publications, was closed by the authorities for several days; we prepared for underground publication, tried to stop the soldiers around our building, rushed back and forth between the White House and the editorial offices, and felt that we were part of history, being made right before our very eyes.  None of us will ever experience that again. And no one who lived through that time will ever forget it. (Azhgikhina , 1999, p.132)

            The market caught the press unawares.  I remember that in Ogonek in 1990 we sued for the right to manage our own budget independently (our ideological opponents were published by the same publishing house—owned by Pravda—on the money made from our popularity; their journalists received much higher salaries, in keeping with the practices of the Soviet press economy).  We won the case—the first in the history of the USSR—and we seriously supposed that independence would bring economic well-being to the magazine.  However, the first decrees of the market period set such high prices on the use of state printing facilities that we had to completely forget about prosperity. Many publications were obliged to immediately find sponsors—most often in the guise of that very same state.  For the first time, many people saw an unexpected side of the market.


            The post-Soviet independent press dates from 1991, when the     

new law on the press appeared (before the new Russian constitution) and guaranteed freedom of speech and journalists’ right not to be forced to write against their convictions. Every citizen had the right to register any form of mass media.  In 1992 alone more than 400 publications and companies were registered, i.e., more than one newspaper, magazine or radio station a day!  Needless to say, only a few survived economically.  Beginning in 1991, thousands of non-professionals rushed into journalism, which immediately lowered the fairly high standards of publications and broadcasts; tabloid journalism appeared (and flourished); our first pornographic magazines materialised, as did ladies’ magazines (part of the tendency professionals call the post-Soviet patriarchal renaissance—society joyfully threw the idea of women’s active participation in the country’s life onto the dust heap of history).  The Western press became accessible—and its clones arrived in Russia, capturing market space and putting down roots; native publishers tried to copy the Western models and turned their backs on traditional forms, more and more often sliding toward the tabloids.  ‘Entertainment value’ replaced ‘popularity’; and in the eyes of editors-in-chief, ‘quality’ lost its value—these phenomena were also the result of the perverse understanding of freedom current at the time.

            After 1991 the weeklies lost their former significance, and newspapers moved to the fore—above all, new ones such as Kommersant  (an ambitious, avant-garde project designed to form a new class, the concept of the ‘New Russian’ first appeared in its pages); and Nezavisimaya gazeta [Independent Gazette] (thereafter NG), which more than the others inherited the liberal and intellectual traditions of the best Soviet periodicals.  During the putsch of 1993 and the election campaign of 1996, NG was the only national press organ that dared to protest the reigning point of view—that is, to come out against the tank attack on the Russian parliament and against the ‘Vote or Lose’ campaign (which cost a year’s budget) to support Yeltsin’s bid for the presidency when he had almost no support in the polls. The popularity of the newspaper Moskovskii komsomolets rose dramatically, and under the leadership of Pavel Gusev it became the first nation-wide tabloid.

            Television began to develop energetically after 1991, assimilating new forms, actively engaging with society and participating in business and political life; new radio stations popped up like mushrooms; companies and programmes carried on a lively discussion in which the position of their owners became more and more evident—economic censorship became a reality.


            By about 1996 the entire system of the press had acquired an almost Soviet-like stability—it was divided among the empires of the oligarchs, and increasing reflected the interests not of society, but of financial-political groups.  No trace of the former romanticism remained. For many journalists their profession had become a business.  They competed for choice commissions, and journalism was transformed into PR—basically the same old propaganda—which was not always very selective about the means it used.

            The election campaign of 1999 had tragic consequences for the profession—and the public’s attitude toward it.  The war between Berezovskii’s empires and Gusinskii’s that was broadcast daily on ORT and NTV, respectively; Sergei Dorenko’s aggressive programs, bordering on denunciations and provocations; the widespread reliance on kompromat or mudslinging accusations—all this shocked the public.  Trust in journalists had never been so low in the country’s history—according to opinion polls in 2000, more than 70 percent of Russians did not believe Moscow journalists.

            The beginning of the new century brought a new turn of events—the growth of self-censorship.  The strengthening of the government’s ‘vertical line of power,’ the battle against terrorism, the state’s attack on civil freedoms, and the interests of business unrelated to the state reminded many people of the Brezhnev period of stagnation.  The virtual liquidation of independent television deprived millions of Russian citizens of the opportunity to hear a range of opinions about events in the country and the world.  Though discussion remained on radio, in the print press, and on the Internet, the audience for those media is not that large—for largely economic reasons, the majority of Russians prefer television news.  During the Soviet period each family on average subscribed to 5-7 publications: a party newspaper, local paper, youth magazine, women’s magazine, and a literary, sports or popular science publication. Today, however, in some regions there is only one subscription per 50 families, and even then it is usually to the local paper, which covers news of the region.  The state has a basic monopoly on the news; it owns approximately 80 % of all the press.  Besides the state, the main players in the press are the corporate giants Profmedia, Svyazinvestbank, and Gazprom [the partially state- owned gas company].  The largest circulation among newspapers is Komsomolskaia pravda’s Sunday supplement (2.8 million; their daily circulation is 700,000), which has turned into a tabloid paper.  Quality oppositional publications such as NG have small circulations and are not well known in the provinces.  The regions have their own empires, including independent ones (Alta press,  Provintsiya, and others), whose influence is increasing (though 80 % of the advertising money still remains in the capital).  More than seven thousand raien (district) newspapers (founded largely in the 1920s) are mostly controlled by local authorities, and their fate is not entirely clear yet—the new law on the reform of local self-government does not define their status, and conditions for their financial autonomy do not exist everywhere. (Yakovenko, 2006, p 54)

            The potential growth of independent media depends above all on the development of the media market, including that of the regions, and on the level of engagement of the journalistic community.  Unfortunately, it is still too early to speak of serious professional solidarity among journalists.  Russia’s journalists are not rich: the average salary is about $100 a month; a paltry sum even for poor regions, this average includes the astronomical salaries of Moscow broadcasters and the miserable salaries of regional journalists. One result of this low pay has been a sharp rise in the number of women in the profession.  According to the Russian Journalists’ Union, as many as 80 % of journalists today are women; many are the directors of a regional and local press, and some have manifested rare courage and principles.  The editor of the opposition newspaper Sovetskaya Kalmykiya (Soviet Kalmykia), Larisa Yudina, who died at the hand of hired killers, has become a symbol of journalistic integrity, and the prestigious Vopreki prize was named after her.  The Russian Journalists’ Union, the largest organization of journalists in the country, is fighting for freedom of speech and greater integrity in the media market, as well as defending the rights of journalists.


            The twenty years that have passed since perestroika’s blast of fresh air have taught us not to believe in quick promises and not to deceive ourselves with eloquent phrases. They have taught us to renounce illusions – and, one would like to believe, have turned us toward practical actions.  We have been reminded that nothing should be completely obliterated, that we cannot live by utopias.  The naked freedom that suddenly confronted Russian journalists has begun to acquire a proper appearance—at least in some publications and radio broadcasts, and on Internet sites that attract more and more readers and listeners.  An era of civic journalism, which rushes to aid the humble and restore downtrodden justice—an era of journalism for the people—will come to Russia, despite everything. It is impossible not to believe this when one looks back on the stormy and dramatic last 20 years, with all their overthrown idols, phantoms, and mirages.  Society’s need for such journalism is too strong, and the desire of very young journalists to practice precisely this kind of journalism is obvious—I see it in the students at the journalism department in Moscow University, in my young colleagues who work in the regions and who will not leave corrupt officials or the powers that be in peace.  These are colleagues who prefer the more traditional values of the Russian intelligentsia—civic service and loyalty to truth—to those of mass culture. I would like to believe that these young people will look at the world without the rose-coloured glasses and surrealistic spectres of perestroika, and will break through the bastions of the predatory market and administrative interdictions just as grass pushes up through the asphalt.

300 Years of Russian Censorship

It is no exaggeration to say that the 300 years of the Russian press that our country celebrated five years ago are also 300 years of Russian censorship. Our first newspaper, Sankt-Peterburgskie vedomosti, (Saint-Petersburg News), established in January 1703, was published exclusively for state purposes—it included the Tsar’s Decrees, mandatory for all state officials, and informed readers about the will of the state. Censorship was born together with the Russian journalism and developed alongside it, becoming increasingly sophisticated. Yet the history of Russian journalism is a long record of overcoming censorship. Soon after the Saint-Petersburg News appeared, Moskovskie novosti (Moscow News) as launched under the aegis of Moscow University.  It became the disseminator of not only scientific ideas, but also of free thought; and it elaborated artistic methods of thwarting censorship institutions—mainly, a clever Aesopic language and allegory.

            Censorship in Russia was officially abolished only twice: for a few months in the spring of 1917 by Decree of the Provisional Government; and in 1991, by the first Russian Law on Media, which established freedom of the press and the right of journalists to refuse to write against their own principles and values.

            However, the official elimination of preliminary censorship (later on, formally secured by the Russian Constitution) did not guarantee its complete disappearance in reality. According to Martin Dewherst, one of the most consistent researchers of censorship in Russia, Alexei Simonov, president of the Fund for Protection of Glasnost’, has identified several types of censorship in Russia today: that of the publication’s  owner; that of the editor-in-chief; financial and political censorship; the personal opinion of the editor of a department; and self-censorship. And this is by no means a complete list.  (Bogdanov, Zassoursky, 2007 p 12)

            From the very beginning of the active anti-terrorist campaign in Russia (or, more precisely, after the tragic events involving the seizure of  hostages and badly organised operations to release them, when several people died in a Moscow theatre in Dubrovka), the government introduced a new Doctrine of Informational Security. Like similar documents in other countries, this doctrine restricts freedom of speech in the coverage of anti-terrorist operations.  The reasoning is that open broadcasting from the site of an attack allows terrorists to adjust their plans and to learn about those of Federal Security forces.

            In fact, the Doctrine has marked the beginning of a new epoch for freedom of speech by officially restricting that freedom. The Secretary General of the RJU, Igor Yakovenko, has repeatedly stated that today the Russian media are working not in compliance with the Law on Media, which had been approved by many leading experts in Europe, but in compliance with the Doctrine of Informational Security.  The Doctrine has much in common with analogous documents in other countries. Speaking of anti-terrorist activity in Russia, which has complicated already existing problems with freedom of expression and independence of the media, it is worth noting that the Russian media are increasingly becoming a part of the global media.

            We are talking not only about the media market, though there are more and more  international players on the Russian field, as well as Russian investments in international projects. According to an analysis of the globalisation of mass media conducted by the American publication The Nation, and by supporters of freedom of expression in the media, the globalisation of media has some distinctive characteristics:  the monopolisation of media; the disappearance of many independent smaller and medium enterprises, which have been taken over by international mega-corporations; and a concentration of capital as a result of monopolisation. (Nicols, 2004, p 64) A consequence of these developments is a simplification of content, with infortainment replacing elaboration and analysis, as well as investigation and serious programs and texts. Nicols has called contemporary news  ‘power shorthand’ or ‘power stenography’—meaning, that as prime news, a trip by President Bush to a ranch has virtually the same meaning as President Putin’s visit to a military parade, a procession of the Russian youth movement Nashi, or taking out the presidential dog Konnie to a Bocharov  brook (president’s  summer residence). Reduction in financing of analytical programs and international press offices results from concentration of capital, aimed at quick profit. The other consequence is a decrease in value of journalistic work, and today the deterioration of journalists’ status is a worldwide phenomenon. Journalists’ former roles as genuine pursuers of significant seekers and as the creators of public opinion have been reduced to that of an ordinary employee, lacking both the public’s respect and social protection.

            Many Western analysts have reported on this development, which unquestionably is prevalent in Russia, with the addition of several national peculiarities. The anti-terrorist campaign caught the Russian media unaware, unprepared, in disarray, without any strategy for protecting their interests and integrity under the pressure of state power. Unsurprisingly, direct censorship of the media was swift and comprehensive.

            During the tragic events in Beslan in September 2004, our colleagues and readers were shocked by the removal of one of the most outstanding editors of Izvestiya—Raf Shakirov: the paper’s owners considered inappropriate the publication of some materials and photographs that did not correspond to the official version of those events.  Formally speaking, the state authority had nothing to do with Shakirov’s dismissal, for the decision was made by the owner (the Interros company), but the significance of this move was obvious to everybody. The Caucasus issue involved another scandalous case: when Leonid Parfenov, the most stylish and highly rated TV reporter (in the opinion of most experts), lost his job because he attempted to broadcast an interview with a wife of a Chechen leader.

            The elimination of analytical programmes on that same channel (NTV) at the beginning of the 21st century leaves no doubt about the comprehensive ‘verticalization’ of the national broadcasting networks. This term is used in the professional media as an analogue to ‘the power vertical’—one of the main ‘sticks’ of Putin’s policy. That policy immediately extended to the media, which underwent re-structuring, acquiring a more powerful  management and losing the independence of regional branches and programs. The years 2005-2006 witnessed the forced unification of the proprietors of the press and privatized TV channels.

            The replacement of the owner of the traditionally oppositional Novaya Gazeta in the summer of 2006 has also started to show an impact on the paper’s content (though not so obviously upon first glance). The range of topics has narrowed down, some features are omitted, and even the writing style has changed. Mr Lebedev, the main investor, has assumed the stance of a ‘soft owner,’ demonstrating tolerance to the newspaper’s policy, but at the same time he  regularly writes open letters to the editor on the front page and expresses disagreement with the coverage of oppositional initiatives, such as the ‘marsh nesoglasnykh’ (‘dissentors’ march’) in Moscow and other cities.

            The beginning of election year 2007 has been marked by a new replacement campaign in the media—a few top managers of companies have been fired, including even the head of the loyal, apolitical radio channel Mayak 24, which produced more than 20 analytical programmes on social and cultural issues, on problems of inter-ethnic relations, on science, health, and education. At the beginning of January the channel closed down all the analytical programmes and talk-shows, replacing them with informational propaganda and entertainment programs.  Angry phone calls from listeners and complaints by journalists had no effect.  The same tendency can be observed in other media.  Informational space, it seems, is being prepared for the upcoming elections as a site for propaganda unchallenged by any opposing views.

            At the same time, the aggressive wave of propaganda is gathering its forces. The absence of discussion and exchange of opinions has created a uniform informational space recalling the Soviet period. The recent survey by the Public Opinion fund shows that half of the population watches national channels One and Rossiya, 32% watches NTV, and about one-third of Russians watch regional channels. Regional TV has practically lost its independence after the reorganization of 2005; the departments of the VGTRK (state TV and Radio Company) have lost their independence and private TV stations can hardly compete with the state giant.

            In the regions, direct censorship and violations of the Law on Media and the rights of journalists have become common practice. The Fund for the Protection of Glasnost’ and the Centre of Risk Journalism of RUJ issue weekly reports about dozens of such cases. And brainwashing accompanies the spread of state censorship, the latter also directed at protests against such violations. For example, last June, the Saratov newspaper  Saratovsky Reporter (Saratov Reporter) and its chief editor, SergeI Mikhailov, were brought to trial in a VolzhskII local court for having printed a sharp critique of United Russia’s  (the country’s governing party) damage to journalism’s dignity and business reputation. Regional party representatives demanded that the journalist pay R500 000 or promise to stop criticising United Russia until the end of the year. This episode led to a street demonstration and the publication of a letter, carried in my papers, by the 14 chief editors in the Saratov region.

            Kindred events and even strikes also took place in Arkhangelsk and Altay. Unfortunately, it is not realistic to expect a genuine, widespread journalists’ movement to protect journalists’ rights; Russian trade unions are rather weak, and journalists usually appeal to the Grand Jury of the Russian Union of Journalists or call the hotline of RUJ, but do not orchestrate large-scale protests. Journalists are not allowed to establish trade union branches in the majority of national media (it is unofficial, of course), and in the biggest national broadcast company, VGTRK they are officially prohibited from even talking about company policy and working conditions (that clause appears in the work contract). It is easier to control personnel that is divided and threatened, such as poor journalists, especially if their income consists of a symbolic official salary (called a ‘white’ salary) and unofficially ‘editor’s monthly subsidy’  – regular practice in Russia for many years now.

            In March 2007 Kommersant Daily received a warning from the national agency  in control of media and culture (Rosohrankultura) for having mentioned on its pages Eduard Limonov’s unregistered party (the radical NBP—National Bolshevik Party).  This episode surprised many, for the well-known lawyer Pavel Astakhov and other experts after him found nothing illegal in the publication.  There are no restrictions on mentioning the CPSU or the German Nazi party in the press, so such a notification looked quite strange in the circumstances.

            Yet warnings of this sort are not a new development. In recent years there were several attempts in the State Duma to introduce legal restrictions on erotic production and violence on TV. At the same time, the Law on public broadcasting—the direct outcome of the legislators’ concern about the quality of broadcasting—had never been adopted in Parliament. At the same time the voices in support of state censorship are growing louder and more insistent every day. This phenomenon is linked to fundamentalist and nationalist tendencies in society, as well as the increasing aggressiveness of the Orthodox Church.

            One of the most dramatic episodes demonstrating the power of such forces was the court trial of participants in the art exhibit ‘Beware! It’s Religion’ in the Sakharov Centre.  The artists, who tried to express their vision and ideas through art, became victims of fundamentalist fanatics, and after the intervention of the second most influential figure in the Russian Orthodox church, Metropolitan Kirill, they were legally prosecuted and publicly denounced for insulting the feelings of believers. The trial lasted for more than a year. This blatant case of injustice and dogmatism, which violated the principles of freedom of consciousness and freedom of expression, awakened awareness among many of the growing fascist tendencies in our society (described in the book of the Moscow philosopher Mikhail Ryklin, The Swastika, the Cross, and the Star.

            Many editors today, however, do not dare to even mention the Orthodox Church’s violations of law or abuses of power, assuming that immediate revenge for such a critique will ensue in the form of tax inspections or legal suits in ‘defence of honour and dignity.’ Moreover, laws against intolerance, which is widespread, sometimes are used as tool to prosecute  independent media.  For instance, the independent Volgograd region newspaper Nash Region (Nash region) was closed down for publishing two cartoons about Mohammad borrowed from Western media—also the reason for shutting down the Volgograd city newspaper  Gorodskie vesti (City News). Both episodes constituted a violation of media law and censorship. The National Ombudsman’s annual report in 2007 included a long list of  similar cases in the Russian regions. At the end of 2006 the Glasnost’ Defence Foundation published a new Glasnost’ map of the Russian federation, according to which, the media’s freedom of expression exists in only 21 regions; in 43 regions that freedom is limited; and in 17, the media lacks any and all freedom.

            The law protecting reputation, honour, and dignity has become a useful instrument of control over the press. As a rule, public officials demand no less than 1 million USD as compensation. There were 5,000 suits of this sort in the last two years. Some individuals file suits against several media simultaneously: for instance, Vladimir Zhirinovskii brought action against 147 newspapers at the same time, but did not pay a kopek for legal costs, whereas the newspapers had to spend their money and waste their time in these procedures.  Novaya Gazeta alone had to go through more than 50 trials for its publications, with demands of up to 2 million dollars in reparation. A well-known case associated with Alfa bank against Kommersant Daily, accused the paper of reporting about the bank’s secret negotiations and demanded $10 mln.  Fortunately, the bank failed, and a skilful lawyer won the case for the paper.

            Of course, all these episodes promote what is a very old kind of censorship that has been revived in recent years: namely, self- censorship, which exists in all media and challenges the very notion of freedom of expression. According to a survey conducted by RUJ in 2005-2006, more than 80 % of Russian journalists at both national and regional or local levels faced different forms of censorship in their everyday work, and almost all admitted to self-censorship in their writing and broadcasting.

            What also militates against the development of freedom of expression is the lack of self-regulation in the media, and the inability to understand that self-regulation is the only realistic way of establishing quality media discussions and protecting ethical standards in the profession.

            Lack of respect for journalists as professionals is another problem, one that is quite new in Russian history and its traditions.  The humiliation of journalists, belittling of their image, and ridicule of their role in society started quite some time ago. On October 2, 2000, the ex-minister of the press in Yeltsin’s administration, known throughout the world as a media tycoon (owner of the largest advertising company on TV), said in an interview on Radio Mayak: ‘If a minister’s wallet is stolen in the metro, it’s considered a threat to freedom of speech; if he slips and breaks an arm—then that’s an attack on him.

            One might compare these words with those of President Putin at a memorable press-conference where he praised the Israel president for his sexual prowess. When challenged on account of his sexism, he blamed journalists, implying that they had misrepresented his comments. He also quoted a saying from his KGB past, noting that his KGB colleagues used to joke: ‘Journalists were invited to peep, but they started to eavesdrop. These words reminded many of his highly inappropriate statement on the day of Anna Politkovskaya’s funeral; he said that her death caused more damage to the country than her articles.


‘Incomparable Mister President!’

Respect for journalists, which always functioned as an indicator of the nation’s  public morals in the Soviet Union and Russia, has dropped to an unprecedented low. Never before have journalists been blamed so much for corruption, bribe-taking, dishonesty, and even collaboration with the enemies’ intelligence services. Nor have they been subjected to the ridicule and grotesque representation as at Putin’s press conference in spring 2007. During that event women flirted with the president, openly admiring him, and one journalist from the provinces prefaced her question with the bizarre address, ‘Incomparable Mister President!’ Many viewers and professionals saw this episode, with its fawning and disregard for serious issues, as symbolic of the country’s disturbing condition. Journalists inviting Putin to pay them a visit, stupid questions, frivolous words, sensationalism, and lack of interest in people’s genuine needs and concerns—this was the show prepared and designed in advance by political PR producers. This year’s show had little to do with the real situation in journalism and with the press conference the previous year, which addressed bona fide issues.

         At the same time, at a meeting of the Human Rights Committee this spring Putin had positive things to say about journalists. Replying to questions by Ella Pamfilova and Alexei Simonov about journalists who had been killed, Putin declared that journalists who work honestly should be under the state’s protection. Those were the first positive words about journalists in the seven years of his presidency, and it made an impression on the profession

        The professional landscape is chaotic and contradictory now, and many newcomers, prominent TV and newspaper reporters, have no concept of civil duty, which entails protecting ordinary people and sacrificing personal gain the free word. Many young journalists prefer to earn (or make) money and are prepared to ‘do what it takes,’ without much hesitation. But at the same time many journalists in Russia still think about dignity and real freedom. National contests conducted by the Russian Union of Journalists gathered hundreds of courageous authors from all over Russia. Even after the closure of Internews, a couple of international projects continue to operate, teaching journalists professional skills, independent investigation, and the main principles of free media.              

         On 17 December 2006, the other day in the year besides the traditional Russian Day devoted to the memory of killed journalists, five women journalists from Moscow media companies organised a volunteer action to commemorate them. The dreadful murder of Anna Politkovskaya prompted us to summon people to Pushkinskaya Ploshad in the city centre. Many media covered this event. Only one newspaper described the killing as a drunk brawl. That this shameful publication in Komsomolskaya Pravda (a propagandist  tabloid reflecting both the official position and  the worst of boulevard  pop culture) received a strong reproof from colleagues gives cause for  hope. (CUSOMISE REFERENCE: AUTHOR, PAGE NUMBER)

         Another cause for hope is the IFJ World Congress what will take place in Moscow in late May 2007. We journalists believe that dialogue with colleagues all over the world will lead us out of longstanding isolation and help us to better understand our opportunities and ways to resolve  our problems. It is important to maintain hope—not to continue our old tradition of blind optimism in the midst of hopeless situations, but to find realistic ways of solving our difficulties.



            It is all too obvious today that the golden age of a new Russian independent media  has ended. In fact, we never had real freedom, defined as responsible choice and the result of effort and struggle. We experienced great battle with censorship, ideological pressure, a sort of civil war in the media,  and grand illusions of happiness without serious work or knowledge of democracy. On the one hand, romanticism failed, for its representatives did not achieve real results, and lost power, influence, and even the trust of the population. On the other hand, I think that we—that is, journalists—have learned enough to jettison our illusions and now have a chance to start working again in a new atmosphere, with a clearer vision of the political and economic situation.  We can fruitfully analyse the last decades and finally have the contemporary tools of the international journalist community and its practices. Total control of the media is impossible, for new media are developing at a fantastic rate, and especially digital media holds out a promise for many committed journalists. It is important to see different trends and forces in Russian media—and in Russia as a whole; the experience we have gained should help us to avoid simplifying the situation, which  is harmful and dangerous.   Media are a global phenomenon, and Western media should not be pitted against its Russian counterpart in black and white terms. It is possible for a Russian journalist  to watch  Gleb Pavlovskii’s propaganda show on Russian TV with scepticism—a scepticism with which that journalist may also read serious articles in Western media  about ‘new Russian dissidents’ such as Russia’s former prime minister, Kasyanov, notorious for corruption, or the  leader of the United Front party,  Kasparov. Real dissidents and ordinary people never trust such opponents to the Kremlin, for they  represent not the Russian people, but simply different elites. People would like to trust independent media—and they could have such media if journalists and society at large  were ready to work towards that goal. I hope to live long enough to witness  this moment.


Kapustin ,M,( 1989) Konets Utopii ( Moscow ,Izdatelstv Politicheskoy Literatury)

Ovsepyan, R.(2005) Istoria Noveyshey Otechestvennoy Zhurnalistiki ( Moscow, Nauka)

Ryklyn , M ( 2006) Svastika, Krest,Zvezda( Moscow, Logos)

Yakovenko, I ( 2007) Razorvannaya professia( Moscw, Institut Obchshestvennaya Ekspertisa)

Zassoursky, I (2004) Media and Political Power in  Post-Soviet Russia ( London, M.E.Sharpe)

Edited volumes

Zassoursky, Y.  ( ed) ( 2006) Sredstva Massovoy Informatsii Rossii (Moscow, Aspect-press)

Zassoursky, Y, Bogdanov, V ( eds) ( 2007) Az, buki, vedi (Ceboksary,Press)

Vartanova, E( ed)(2007) Media and Change ( Moscow, Mediamir)

Zassorsky, Y( ed) ( 2005) Teleradioefir (Moscow, Aspekt press)

Yakoveno,  I ( ed) ( 2006) Ne mesto dlya diskussii( Moscow, Institut Obchshestvennaya Esspertisa)

Yakovenko, I( ed)  ( 2004) Sredstva massovoi Informatsi ( Moscow, Insitut Obchshestvennaya Ekspertisa)

Azhgkhina, N, Grishina, E( eds) Marsh Pamyati Pogibshih Zhurnalistov.Posleslovie( Moscow, Aslan)


Articles in journals

Azhgikhina, N.( 1999) ‘ A Taste of Freedom in Russia’, Media Studies Journal vol13 number 3, fall 1999

Azhgiihina, N( 2006) ‘Dvadstat’Let Spustya”, Zhurnalist, June

Nic$ols, J( 2004) ‘ Svoboda Slova I Globalizatsiya’ Zhurnalist, July


Lukin, V Doklad Upolnomochennogo po pravam Cheloveka v Rossiyskoy Federatsii, April 15, 207, available at www. cjes.ru

White, A, Bogdavov,V. Otkrytoe pis’mo premieru Rossii, May 10 2007. available at www.ruj.ru

Nadezhda Azhgikhina

Secretary of Russian Union of Journalists, PhD

4 Zubovsky blvd, Russian Union of Journalists 119992 GSP 2, Moscow, Russia

Tel 7 495 627 21 46, 637 22 57 e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


< Prev