Imagine a respected American financial newspaper such as the WSJ writes an article investigating elections fraud in favor of the Democrats. To illustrate the rightness of their point, they include a photo of a ballot for the Republicans that – they allege – wasn’t tallied by the dodgy Solyndra machines rolled out for use in California in 2012. The ballot has “Obama, Go Fuck Yourself!” written out in big red letters. The captions below read: “Correctly filled out ballot, ruled spoiled.” A few days later, the newspaper’s owner fires a high-ranking editor and a CEO at the paper, noting that the publication of that photo “bordered on petty hooliganism.” The paper then apologizes to its readers and advertising partners. The Russian business paper Vedomosti titles its account of this episode “Washington Editor Fired Over Election Coverage”, while Russia Today does a documentary on the retreat of press freedoms in America without even bothering to mention the source of the controversy. You’d think this was a case of severe journalistic bias and incompetence in Russia, no?
I’m glad you do, because this is basically the saga of Kommersant Vlast’s publication of its investigation on falsifications in the Russian legislative elections. It has not been removed from the Internet, to the contrary you can still read it on their site and comment on it. It is an extensive work, titled “United Stuffers” (a play on United Russia) featuring a collection of twelve articles. The only part of it that was subject to “censorship” – and the reason given by its tycoon owner Alisher Usmanov for the dismissal of the editor who approved it – is the photograph below:
“PUTIN, GO FUCK YOURSELF.”
The literal translation is different, it sounds something along the lines of “Putin go to the cock” but the meaning is as above. Okay, you might think this is edgy, controversial stuff; perhaps grounds for a warning, but probably not a firing. But then consider the caption: “Correctly filled out ballot, ruled spoiled.” If you think this is anything but a double entendre used by an editor to spell out his feelings for Putin, I have a bridge to sell you to Russky Island. Needless to say, whatever your personal feelings about swearwords, there is no doubt that this would be completely unacceptable in a major newspapers in reference to any Western political leader. This is the Russian version of the NYT we’re talking about, not The eXile.
What this would have looked like in the US… How long would the editor who approved the photo to the right keep his job? Hmm… a few minutes?
It is telling that even in the comments to the article (which was left unchanged apart from the removal of the offending photo) most readers – and Kommersant’s readers tend to be relatively liberal – agree that it was unacceptable.
And now you can’t find Putin’s cock on Kommersant! (Yes, the file was literally called that)
Incidentally, this particular article itself was about the voting in London. It was pretty interesting. Our good man Andrei Sidelnikov, the Strategy-31 Abroad organizer whom I’ve written about here, makes an appearance. There were clear violations of the electoral law (e.g. anti-United Russia political campaign materials close to the polling station). The ballot with big orange letters “addressed personally to the Prime Minister” (as the writer calls the ballot that is the subject of this post) was marked spoiled, which apparently is “in contradiction of the law” because, despite its defacement, there was nonetheless a clear cross next to Yabloko. Nonetheless, that one “stolen” vote didn’t stop Yabloko from voting 43% of the vote in that station, followed by 21% for the Communists, 16% for Fair Russia, and 10% for United Russia. Pretty much what one can expect of Londongrad.
Courtesy of our Strategy-31 Abroad friends and great champions of free elections like Berezovsky.
In reality, this entire ridiculous episode was made out to be like Putin’s oligarch henchmen clamping down on Russian criticism of the elections (which in reality has been widespread and with no serious consequences for the journalists involved to date).
Possibly the most dishonest reporting of this came via The Telegraph (Russian media tycoon Alisher Usmanov fires two after reporting election fraud), which implies that journalists were fired for fulfilling their journalistic duties whereas the actual facts of the matter is that it was a senior editor and business manager getting the boot for things like breaking Kommersant’s own code of conduct. The other photo that The Telegraph alleges the Kremlin / Usmanov took a dislike to – “another photograph from London of a spray-painted image of Putin with the slogan in English “Public Enemy No. 1″” – was unaffected and remains online.
A recent analogue in Western coverage of the Russian media’s “persecution” is the case of the translator who left Inosmi because – according to him – they forbade him from translating “harsh stories” about Putin and United Russia (or to least not feature those stories on the front page). His case was likewise championed in the Western media as evidence of the endless and permanent disintegration of media freedoms in Russia. My guess is that he thought his job sucked and decided to go out with a bang. Whatever the case, a single visit to Inosmi and use of Google Translate will reveal thus story for the absurdity it is; Inosmi not only posts regularly anti-UR and anti-Putin material but positively delights in doing so as it provokes the most voluminous and salacious responses from its varied audience.
Now that’s a wise and tasteful vote.
There are two further points I want to make.
First, Kommersant is privately owned, and theoretically Usmanov can hire and fire pretty much as he pleases. Though parts of his career are shady to say the least, his claims that he does not interfere in Kommersant’s editorial policy are valid, as evidenced by the fact that they had some of the best and most critical coverage of the elections and falsifications. But weren’t the Western commentariat claiming that all Russian media is Kremlin-controlled anyway? Ah, but Usmanov is an oligarch who serves the Kremlin, so there’s no difference. Not unlike our free and independent watchdog press. (To appreciate the scorn in that last reference just read any Glenn Greenwald article on the Western media).
Second, it is especially ironic to see these criticisms coming from American media, where many journalists have been dismissed for far more circumspect criticism of Israel (i.e. not using schoolyard insults) or trying to consider Arab or Islamist viewpoints (not endorse them; just consider them on their own merits). As a general rule the mass media is subservient to the taboos established by power in all societies, but I would venture to say that in 2011 the Russian media, especially print media, has proven to be a much better watchdog of freedoms – as evidenced by the generally excellent coverage of the elections and protests – than has been the case in the US (and much of the West) for years. Which reminds me. Shouldn’t outlets like the WSJ or NYT be covering shit like this as opposed to Russian editors losing their jobs for acting like teenagers?
I guess not. A Russian editors’ obsession with Putin’s cock is far more important.