Journalism education and tips for journalists

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Journalism in Russia: lessons for developing democracies
[short version: When the press dances with the devil it gets burned to a cinder and looses its soul]

In a very interesting article on the problems facing Russian journalism - especially TV-journalism - FT correspondent Arkady Ostrovsky shows how Russian journalists helped to drastically curtail freedom of the press by allying themselves with "forces of democracy".

The Russian governments hold on television news was shown during the Beslan hostage crises. As the situation developed foreign networks such as CNN and the BBC broadcast events live. In Russia, on the two state-controlled TV channels, normal programming continued. Channel One, the main national network, spent 10 minutes on Beslan before returning to a Brazilian soap opera called Women in Love.
The Russian networks continuously underreported the number of hostage's (typically around 350, while international media reported over 1000) and reported that the siege is the work of an international terrorist organisation whose numbers include ethnic Arabs and even an African (he later turns out to be Chechen).

So how did Russian journalism end up here?
In the early 1990:s the Russian NTV channel (НТВ in Cyrillic) pioneered post-Soviet independent television media. Vladimir Gusinsky's company attracted the best journalists and news anchors of the time: Tatiana Mitkova, Leonid Parfyonov, Mikhail Osokin, Yevgheniy Kiselyov, Victor Shenderovich and others. The channel set the high professional standards in the Russian television, giving live coverage and sharp analysis of current events. NTV quickly proved it was capable of objective and powerful reporting. A year after its launch in 1993, Russian troops went into Chechnya. This was the first full-scale war for newly independent Russia and NTV’s coverage was unprecedented: its reporting was vigorous, unrelenting and - up to a point - objective.

It became the main source of information about the war, exposing the understatements and lies of the government. The BBC and CNN bought its footage. State channels were left far behind. NTV’s coverage earned the trust and respect of the Russian audience and doubled the number of viewers.

So what happened? Jeltsin happened.

Ostrovsky writes:

With his rating close to zero, a war raging in Chechnya and rebellious factions within the Kremlin, Yeltsin needed all the help he could get to be re-elected. Russia’s oligarchs offered to help and bankroll the elections in return for shares in the country’s most valuable companies. The deal would later become known as “shares for loans” privatisation.

[Journalist Yevgeny] Kiselyov suspended his principle of independent and objective reporting and began to promote Yeltsin.

Each program began with a summary of Yeltsin’s heroic political career, followed by extensive coverage of his campaign. Yeltsin was shown visiting the ancient city of Yaroslavl, promising to give its cash-strapped citizens “everything and take back nothing”. He was shown in the newly restored cathedral of Christ the Saviour near the Kremlin, “ruined under the communists and restored under Yeltsin”.

Kiselyov today says.
“We were defending ourselves. You can’t judge us from the point of view of western democracy. Russia was at a critical crossroads. When a house is in flames you don’t think that by throwing water or using an extinguisher you would damage the books and spoil the carpets. You use whatever means possible.” (my italics)
Not all journalists saw things that way. Irina Petrovskaya, a television reviewer for the daily newspaper Izvestiya and a noted observer of media issues in Russia, said at the time:
“If they manage [to get Yeltsin elected], will television be able to return to those democratic principles? Will the new (old) power allow it? Or will it turn a temporary love affair with the media into a compulsory admiration?”
And she was right. One result was evident to viewers. A year after the election, Petrovskaya wrote: “Kiselyov in his Itogi program is preaching, rather than broadcasting. He is speaking, not even on behalf of the presidential team, but as one of its fully accepted members.”
And so it went. Kiselyov was among the winners, and having crossed the line that separates journalists and politicians, he found it hard to step back. But the final price was high. It is the attitude instilled in a generation of journalists who can say, as does Konstantin Ernst, one of the most powerful and influential media bosses (I hesitate to call him a journalist):
“Any stabilisation makes news calmer. If news works like a constant nerve irritant - as it did in Russia in the 1990s - it is a sign of instability rather than of the freedom of speech,”
”Nobody calls me and orders me to do anything. But the government has the right to explain its action to the people and it does so through the channel where it is a shareholder.”

There is much here that needs thought. If we as journalistis, in a situation where there seems to be a choice between fettering free speech for what seems to be a "good cause" or fighting for free speech and risking a complete loss, chose the former, we do democracy and a free press a great disservice.
The "lesser evil" argument is one I have heard from journalists in several countries in the developing world. But it is also the rational behind much of the reporting from the US press post 9/11. Journalists see themselves as fighters in a just war, and as such are prepared to accept the "lesser evil" of the rules of embedded engagement. CNN’s decision to force war correspondent Kevin Sites to stop posting items to the popular blog he created while on assignment in northern Iraq was one such example. See also Democracy held hostage by David Talbot for a view from 2001, and Now They Tell Us by Michael Massing from 2004.

The gag journalism allows to be placed, or even worse places on itself is the same gag that will hide our screams as our throats are cut and our larynx ripped out. In the name of "the lesser evil".


  • intersting site a chara
    i had the exact same answer to the dig a hole to china question !

    By Blogger watery_joe, at 3:52 PM  

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