Nadya Azghikkina and I worked together for many years editing a Russian-language feminist newsletter called Vyi i Myi. (You and We was founded by Colette Shulman, who has worked tirelessly for decades on behalf of women and NGOs in Russia.) Today, Nadya is with the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ), working to train journalists, especially women, in Russia’s underserved provincial cities and regions. Her work also involves defending not only the free speech rights of journalists but what we might call bread and butter issues–ensuring, for example, that journalists get paid and receive the pensions owed them. (A few years ago, Nadya also worked on an issue close to my heart at the moment: organizing a petition to fight an increase in postal rates that would have bankrupted some publications.)
More recently, Nadia has been working at the Union’s headquarters on Zubovsky Boulevard to organize the 26th World Congress of Journalists, an international gathering of media professionals, scheduled to open on May 28th in Moscow, (Nadia’s office is tiny, crammed with regional newspapers and magazines, old clippings, suffused with cigarette smoke and used tea cups.) But now, on the eve of the World Congress the Federal Property Management Agency, or Rosimushchestvo, is trying to evict Russia’s largest journalist association in favor of Russia Today, a state-run English-language satellite television channel created to boost the country’s international image. While the dispute centers on the validity of a presidential decree issued in the 1990s that gave the RUJ use of the offices for “infinite and free of charge use,” the action and its timing send a disturbing message.
The eviction notice comes on the heels of several other actions aimed at curbing media independence and the dissemination of alternative views.
In mid-April, the police raided the offices of Internews Russia (recently re-registered as the Educated Media Foundation.) EMF has been a Russian-run NGO since the mid-1990s, specializing in training broadcast journalists, technicians and managers. It’s also helped local journalists launch television news programs and a documentary series focusing on their own cities and villages, as an alternative news source to the state and Moscow-based channels. The raid on the groups’s Moscow offices, during which the police took away all the computers/servers, and boxes of financial documentation, forced them to suspend all training activities. Similarly, on May 11, police raided the offices of the Samara regional edition of Novaya Gazeta, one of the few national independent newspapers left, and confiscated three journalists’ computers. (The police claimed they were in search of illegal software.)
In these bleak times for independent media in Russia, what is heartening are signs of solidarity among Russian journalists. A few weeks ago, for example, Tv2, located in the Siberian city of Tomsk, posted an open letter to President Putin in defense of independent media (and specifically in support of the Educated Media Foundation.) Within a few days more than 2000 journalists from almost all Russian regions had signed the petition.
And just a few days ago, all four of the radio correspondents for the Russian News Service, which provides news for three major radio stations serving about 8 million people, submitted letters of resignation. Artem Khan, a correspondent for the Service, said that he and all of his colleagues have walked out because of “censorship” and “pressure” to disseminate pro-Kremlin material from the company’s news executives who took control in April.
It is Russian journalists who will wage the most effective protests against attacks on media freedom. It is, after all, their country and their citizens who are being deprived of the independent and free flow of information.
However, these are also times when the support and solidarity of Western colleagues–journalists and editors–is of value. (That path is certainly less intrusive and more welcome than a human rights-challenged US administration lecturing a human-rights challenged Russian government.)
For Western journalists and editors and publishers who wish to support their Russian colleagues, please email to [email protected].