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Russia boasts a dynamic press despite risks to journalists | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A couple passes coin-operated newspaper vending machines in the metro in Moscow. (John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)

A couple passes coin-operated newspaper vending machines in the metro in Moscow. (John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)

A couple passes coin-operated newspaper vending machines in the metro in Moscow. (John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)

Moscow, Asharq Al-Awsat—The way some circles in the West put it, Russia has all but returned to the Soviet era with an omnipresent Vladimir Putin in tight control of the media. Putin, we are told, has built a cult of personality which, though not as brazen as Josef Stalin’s, is at least as distasteful as Leonid Brezhnev’s.

However, a stroll around Moscow, where more newspapers are on sale than almost any other capital, offers a different picture. To be sure a number of newspapers, directly or indirectly linked to the Kremlin and its oligarch allies, try to keep the numero uno as visible as possible.

A closer look reveals that even if Putin wanted to revive the Soviet Union he would only conjure up a caricature of the old beast. The genie of journalism that came out of the bottle with the fall of the Soviet empire can’t be pushed back in. At most, the Putin system might be described as a populist autocracy, a far cry from the totalitarian Soviet regime with the KGB intelligence agency—Putin’s first employer— at its heart.

For every newspaper that sings Putin’s praises there are at least two that are either not so sure of his charms or find him to be a danger to himself, to Russia and to the world. In the past couple of days I have read articles with the titles “Russia is playing with fire” on Putin’s policy of provocation or “Putin should not support the secessionists in Ukraine.”

Today, Russia boasts more than 28,000 dailies, weeklies and monthlies, not to mention the 332 television channels listed in 2013. Add up other media outlets, including radio stations and news and opinion websites, and you get closer to 100,000.

Believing that newspapers are doomed, Putin focused his attention on television. He now controls the three main TV channels with the largest audiences. Outside that, however, Putin is forced to use a mixture of bullying and bribing to keep the media more or less in line.

However, three things have happened that, fingers crossed, might make a return to Soviet-style censorship and propaganda difficult, if not impossible. The first is the establishment of journalism as a bona fide profession.

Twenty-five years ago the International Press Institute ran its first two-day journalism seminar to introduce Soviet media people to the Western vision of journalism. In that very first workshop, editors from Britain, France, Portugal and Sweden spoke on a range of issues including journalism and ethics, investigative reporting, and the management of relations between the media, government, and businesses.

As one of the speakers at the seminar I read a paper on the art of interview. From the discussions that followed it became clear that few in the audience, which included other people from Warsaw Pact nations, regarded themselves as professional journalists. They were party members with journalistic missions. The subtext was that they could end up doing other things as the twists and turns of careers dictated.

At the time, in meetings with some leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), including Alexander Yakovlev, the architect of Glasnost and Valentin Falin, head of the CPSU’s Central Committee international department, our delegation pressed for the abolition of a law that obliged Soviet journalists to obtain a party card to exercise their trade. The leaders were ready to accept many reforms, including even changing the name of CPSU into the Social Democratic Party, but would not budge an inch on the necessity of a “link between the party and the media.”

Today, however, Russia has a remarkably vast pool of professional journalists, people who do not think of careers outside the media.

In fact, UNESCO estimates show that Russia, with over 100,000 newspaper journalists, is ranked first in terms of the number of people working in the industry, ahead of China and the United States. To be sure there are some bad apples in that barrel. But the good news is that the semi-open market developed over the past quarter of a century is capable of sorting things out. Passion for journalism is a bug that, once caught, is not easily gotten rid of. A genuine journalist would not drop a good story or a biting criticism even if they could otherwise curry favor with dictators or business tycoons.

In 1989 we found only a handful of Soviet journalists, most of them in their early thirties, who had caught the bug. Today, there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, as even causal leafing through newspapers and magazines quickly reveals.

To be sure, some of them end up in prison, are beaten up or, at times, even murdered. But the majority of Russian journalists regard all the risks as the expected dangers of a profession that remains risky even in more advanced democracies, let alone a Russia still trying to expiate old demons.

The second reason is that the media market allows a measure of economic independence unthinkable in the Soviet era. Media outlets know that unless they make money they are doomed and that to make money they need to satisfy their audiences and to satisfy audiences they cannot offer propaganda disguised as journalism.

The third reason is that reliable information has become important for Russians at all levels. During the Soviet era it mattered little what the average citizen knew about most things. Now, people know that, if properly informed, they could affect decisions at local and national levels. In other words, there is a growing market for genuine information and a growing number of journalists ready to supply it even at the risk of their lives.