Are independent journalists a thing of the past?
What is the current state of independent journalism in Russia today? How is the ever-increasing, hard-boiled communication landscape effecting human rights activists? And what about the every day Russian – who tells their story? Does anyone really care?
This was the focus for the second Global Bar this autumn. In light of recent developments in Russia, it is argued that very few independent journalists are actively reporting from within the country. Including neighbouring countries with ties to Russia: Ukraine being an eminent example.
The panellists were Anna Nemtsova, Moscow correspondent for Newsweek and one of few active outspoken journalists from the region. Martin Kragh, head of the Russia and Europe program at the Swedish institute of international affairs, and Fredrik Wadström, journalist at Sveriges Radio and former Russia correspondent. The moderator was David Isaksson who kicked of the event by introducing the experts and asking the following:
What is happening in Russia? What has been reported and what is it like reporting from Russia?
”I have been a reporter since 1999 and I witnessed the war in Chechnya. This spurred my desire to tell stories, to share my peoples story. I realized the need to build bridges between Russia, Ukraine and the western reader. The development in Russia has affected the way journalists are viewed, the reporters are seen as warriors who either protect the country or attack it. I know a lot of reporters today who want to cover Russia but are not allowed to, the climate is tougher, and reporters who publish in for example, American media, are basically considered agents”, explains Anna Nemtsova.
She further develops her thoughts on the Russian reporter, many of whom consider themselves ‘soldiers protecting the motherland’. Anna Nemtsova is well travelled within the region and seemingly fearless in framing her observations from Russia, Ukraine and Crimea.
”A lot of people in Russia think we are being sent from our editors, why else would we be there? But I am actually the one asking to go, to be able to tell the stories, to witness the realities. My colleagues are the same”.
Fredrik Wadström was correspondent in Russia between 2008 and 2011. He finds the discussion on independent journalism and the media landscape in general to be quite repetitive.
”We are in fact still talking about the same phenomenons as we did 15 years ago. Independent journalism, information warfare and trustworthiness of the news have been, and still is, a hot topic when it comes to the Russian context. Although, what can be said is that the context has changed. I used to use Moscow news agencies as reference to see what it is they are trying to say. Of course I would have my own sources and compare all my sources. But today I wouldn’t use Moscow news agencies in the same way. Today it’s impossible to know whether the news from agencies is real or not, the lines are blurred. You need to be able to navigate in this specific landscape, and this is nothing new.”
David Isaksson posed the question of whether the trend of embedded journalists, drawing on examples of US reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan, effects what is being reported. Anna Nemtsova replies:
”Of course, we are to some extent reporting differently now. One example is my work that I have done for The Daily Beast, where the headlines basically have been ’Putin, Putin, Putin, Trump, Trump, Trump’. Once the election is over I can get back to my real job, reporting from Russia, telling the Russians own stories, they deserve it”.
Anna Nemtsova gives an example of a story that especially exemplifies her motivation when reporting on ‘the everyday Russian’.
”I remember a Babushka, around 80 years old, sitting on her porch with her dog beside her. It was minus 25 degrees and everything hurt, she said. She had no money to buy bread, no energy left. ’Do you think a nuclear bomb would make my life worse? My life is already a disaster.’ I remember her saying this. So many Russians already suffer from the simpler things in life, but they are also suffering from Ptsd. almost, four generations that have lived and suffered. We need to respect this”.
The threat of a potential war lurking in the horizon and the decades passed; position the Russians in a preparative state. Does a real fear of war exist in the country? Anna Nemtosva answers her own question saying, her good friend has timed her walk from her house to the closest bunker, carries her passport at all times, and has a stock of water just in case.
So then who is the biggest loser in Russia? David Isaksson asks.
Martin Kragh finds that the average Russian has the unfortunate luck of constantly drawing the shortest straw. He describes the economic growth, although stifled by the crisis of -09, was in its glory days a development of great benefits within the country.
”Although these benefits didn’t reach the average Russian. To this day we see big socioeconomic challenges, strong differences between cities and countryside and a people that struggle in the face of these challenges”.
He is not surprised by the development in Russia. The social, economic and political arenas that are increasingly complex in nature and tougher to the tone, are ultimately affecting the every day lives of Russian citizens, not to mention domestic journalists.
”Russia evolved after the Soviet fell in -91. There was a democratization process for a while, followed by ten years of authoritarian leadership, but Russia has followed this trend for over 150 years. As a historian I am not surprised. The polarisation of Russia and ‘the west’ is an extension of this development. Where Russia gains power within the country and then spreads to neighbouring countries. Syria exemplifies this gain in power”, Martin Kragh says.
He finds that confrontation in some form with western nation states is inevitable. The current state is characterized by sanctions, conflict, disinformation and bribes. Martin Kragh exemplifies by mentioning Russia’s economical support toward Brexit and the Trump campaign in the US.
”As of today I cant see a way to brake this cycle, I don’t think there is a diplomatic way to solve this development.”
Fredrik Wadström wonders whether the current western view on Russia is an actual reality or perhaps an exaggeration playing in Russia’s favor?
”I find it difficult to know if their imperialistic plans are for real or if they want us to be consumed by it, constantly discussing it? Because it does actually effect me and my journalism: by always attempting to not be consumed by it”.
What is then considered a reliable source?
Russia Today is the government funded news channel and is mentioned as one of the biggest news sources from Russia, both domestically and internationally.
”But honestly, who watches Russia Today? It is very entertaining, I know, but is it news?” Anna Nemtosva, wonders.
Martin Kragh agrees although stating several countries consider RT a reliable source, Swedish viewers not included.
”They possess a soft power, they are trying to influence the debate. But there are legitimate and illegitimate ways of doing that. Russia Today is not a news channel in that sense; it is entertainment and at times disinformation. The problem is that Russia is falling back to patterns we saw during the cold war, by spreading disinformation and bribing influential people. In the past two years, there has been a high spread of disinformation on social media and now the classical media too.”
An audience member wonders to what extent Russian citizens are aware of the possible spread of disinformation.
”Ninety per cent of all Russians get their news from television. Russians are genetically composed to read between the lines. Russians are very intelligent people and have evolved this ability to read between the lines, history has forced us to”, Anna Nemtosva concludes.
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