I was contacted by al-Jazeera and offered a choice of three questions.
1. What dangers do journalists and activists face in speaking out against the Russian government?
2. What role does the (international) media play in giving Russian regime critics a voice? How free is the Russian media to report on such issues?
3. Is the media attention helping or worsening the situation of activists?
As you can see, I decided to cover Q1. I was not informed that the video would be exclusively about Q2, which I’d have very much appreciated (I, rather foolishly it now seems, assumed it would cover all the above – as it turned out, answering Q2 would have been much more appropriate).
Furthermore, my submission was edited, thus removing context. The full version is outlined below, while the one which was broadcast is in italics.
The issue of personal risk in Russian journalism today only arises when investigating local government and business structures, especially in the ethnic republics like Chechnya. Nonetheless, despite the impression one might get from listening to the Western press, the number of journalists killed under Putin’s administration has actually declined from under Yeltsin’s, from 30 to 17 according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. As such, this has reflected overall crime trends in the country rather than any political dynamic.
So what is your response to the message of the Al-Jazeera video?
For obvious reasons I can’t comment on the specific cases of the anonymous St.-Petersburg student or Maxim Gromov (although interestingly enough, one of NatsBol’s heads, Andrei Dmitriev, fails to mention any ‘singling out’ out of him due to the Putin portrait saga – ‘Maxim Gromov and the other participants in the campaign in Zurabov’s office were sentenced to three years of deprivation of liberty’). I can however comment on the opposition and their relationship to both the Russian and Western media.
The Other Russia “opposition” enjoys very marginal support (c.1-2%) – correlating quite closely with the tiny 3% of Russians who see Putin’s influence on human rights and democracy in Russia as ‘very negative’ (see recent BBC world service poll). The “opposition’s” views can be heard in detail via cable TV and read in newspapers like Novaja Gazeta and sites like inosmi.ru which provide Russian translations from an eclectic mix of Western media outlets (in 2007 Internet penetration in Russia was at 25%). As for the mainstream Russian media, is it democratic to expect in-depth coverage of a fringe group that enjoys negligible popular support?
The reason I put apostrophes around “opposition” is that it’s hard to see how intentionally holding unsanctioned protests (and complaining in English to Western reporters when arrested for doing so, as Kasparov does), rejecting election results out of hand and being a member of Washington neocon organizations is going to excite ordinary Russians’ support (see Why Russian liberals lose). As such, the real opposition (Communists) shun Western media attention, while those who seek it out are widely (and probably rightly) perceived as a pack of jokers milking western sponsors for funds and disinterested in legally effecting real political change in Russia.