Russia’s journalists make rare stand for independent press
Before he could press record, a string of alarming thoughts flashed through Vladimir Pozner’s head. Are you sure you want to do this? Won’t you get into trouble? Somebody upstairs may really not like it.
Then he remembered the advice of a family friend, a Soviet dissident: Make sure you never get to the point where you want to spit at your own reflection in the mirror.
So the veteran journalist, who has his own show on state television’s Channel One, ignored the “little, cowardly, voice” and pressed ahead. In his video, he compared the persecution of Russian journalist Ivan Golunov on drug charges to being spat in the face. “I refuse to be afraid,” he explains.
In Russia, where state media are expected to toe the Kremlin line, such unsalted criticism of the authorities is rare. And it is even more unusual to hear it employed in public to support an investigative journalist who has made it his mission to expose the corrupt and powerful.
And yet, in the drama-filled days following the detention of Golunov earlier in June, dozens of state media employees, including the biggest names in the industry, rallied to his defense, likely accelerating his eventual release.
That perfect storm of solidarity required several factors to come together. First, there was Golunov’s flawless reputation. Then, there was the mistrust of law enforcement at all levels of Russian society which acted as a catalyst. Finally, the Kremlin’s slow response provided a window of opportunity.
On most days, Russia’s media landscape is a tale of two countries. State-funded media and outlets which are critical of the Kremlin, such as Golunov’s employer Meduza, each have their own narrative and audience.
When those worlds intersect, the outcome tends to be unpleasant. In October 2017, the state-funded Rossia-24 network accused journalists at the liberal radio station Echo of Moscow of being on the payroll of the U.S. State Department. Not long after, one of the journalists was stabbed in the neck.
Most of the time, however, the two camps ignore each other.
That changed on Thursday, June 7, when news broke that Golunov had been detained a day earlier in central Moscow, beaten, and then slapped with a charge that could see him serve up to twenty years behind bars. Predictably, Golunov’s camp saw it as an attack on independent journalism. More surprising, however, was that many journalists at state media agreed.
The chief editor of RT, Margarita Simonyan, was among the first high-profile public figures to speak out. “The authorities need to respond to all of society’s questions concerning this arrest. For the simple reason that there are very, very, VERY many of them,” she wrote on her Telegram channel that day.
Nailya Asker-Zade, a well-connected TV anchor for Rossia-1, has described journalism as “a dangerous profession where influential enemies are easily made.” But even she posted a photo of herself on Instagram wearing a T-shirt with the protest movement’s slogan, “I am Golunov.”
Even Pozner, a self-professed former Soviet propagandist, says he was “shocked, but in a pleasant way” when he saw mainstream media stars like the glamorous Tina Kandelaki joining the pro-Golunov cause. In the past, fear of career damage and pragmatism have outweighed the instinct for solidarity among journalists, he says. “There was always this thought: Why should I do this?”
It wasn’t just a handful of celebrity journalists who broke ranks. In the days that followed, dozens of journalists at all levels and across the spectrum of Kremlin-sympathetic outlets joined pickets оr put their names under an open letter by the Russian journalists’ union demanding Golunov’s release.
With its 6,588 signatories, that letter might well go down in history as a relic of a unique consensus in Russia’s highly charged and fragmented media scene.
The list includes journalists from Russia’s state television media behemoths, but also smaller outlets such as the Russian Orthodox site Pravmir and even Nevskiye Novosti, a site linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man behind the infamous St. Petersburg “troll factory.” How to explain this sudden change in tone in a country more versed in the use of behind-the-curtain blacklists?
A journalist at a state news agency who asked to remain anonymous said the public statements from state media stars early on will have encouraged lower-ranking journalists to feel safe to air their own views. “But maybe that would have happened anyway because of how outrageous this case was,” the journalist adds.
Immediately following Golunov’s arrest, state media appeared to take a freestyle approach to how to handle the crisis. While people like Simonyan posited themselves as Golunov’s defenders, others stuck to the usual spiel of sowing doubt and misinformation.
Rossia-24 erroneously reported Golunov’s blood had been found to contain high levels of alcohol. And true to form, two of state media’s biggest stars, Dmitry Kiselyov and Vladimir Solovyov, dismissed the spontaneous protest movement forming around Golunov as a ploy by the political opposition.
But a tumultuous weekend of public protest silenced those spouting disinformation.
Like falling dominos, Russia’s flagship current affairs shows on Monday took Golunov’s side. Propagandists like Olga Skabeyeva, co-host of “Sixty Minutes,” adopted an unusually neutral tone, pointing to a “whole range of discrepancies in the evidence” and calling for a “fair and objective investigation.” Similar statements of support were made on programs on Channel One and on NTV. Suddenly, Solovyov changed his tune, saying there was “nothing worse than an innocent man in prison.”
When Golunov was eventually released on June 11, this strange mix of symbols of journalistic independence and state propaganda were captured in a single frame. State TV’s tri-color embossed microphone was held just under his mouth while he made his first public speech.
A day earlier, the investigative outlet Proekt Media had cited a Kremlin source as saying that Alexei Gromov, deputy head of the presidential administration, had given “loyal media” the green light to back Golunov. The Kremlin wanted a swift resolution to the case ahead of Vladimir Putin’s yearly live question-and-answer program on Channel One scheduled later in June.
Certainly, Putin would have had practical reasons to allow his favored media to side with Golunov. Politically, it was more expedient to back the everyman Golunov over rogue officials who had spoiled what the Kremlin had hoped to be an unblemished visit with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. It will have also helped that Golunov was largely unknown to the wider public before his arrest and was therefore free of political stigma.
But if there was a directive from above, it will have been informed from below — not the other way round. By Monday, revelations of glitches in the case against Golunov and mounting public pressure had closed off any alternative routes.
“It was impossible for pro-Kremlin media to take the side of the Interior Ministry, it was clear to everyone that the case was a fabrication,” says political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, who served as Putin’s adviser in his early years as president. “So they had to choose Ivan’s side. First carefully, and then more openly.”
Marina, a producer at Channel One, was among those who joined the crowd of protesters outside the Interior Ministry in Moscow over the weekend. She and many of her colleagues were also planning to attend an unsanctioned protest march on June 12.
Like two other journalists at state-run outlets who spoke to Coda, she says she acted on her own initiative. “The events developed too quickly for any system of control to be implemented,” she says. She attributes the wave of solidarity to two basic emotions: empathy and fear.
“We’re all human. It doesn’t matter who you work for. We share the same fears and we see the dark side of law enforcement, too,” she says.
News had spread like wildfire that Golunov had been working on a corruption investigation into the funeral services industry that implicated security officers. Like many others, Marina and her friends were convinced the case against Golunov was an attempt to silence him that crossed a psychological red line. What was to stop someone from planting drugs on them or coming after someone they knew if they turned a blind eye now?
“This crisis showed that the divisions between loyalists and critics [of the Kremlin] are not as big as is often thought,” says political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov. “On issues like the overreach and the growing influence of law enforcement, they have similar concerns.”
However, even in Golunov’s Russia, it seems, old habits die hard, as Oleg Dilimbetov found out first-hand. The day before Golunov’s release, a friend sent him a link to an online statement saying he had been fired as night editor from Nevskiye Novosti. Then he noticed he no longer had access any of his work’s group chats.
He says his firing was retribution for his signing the journalists’ union open letter in support of Golunov and then describing the case as “suspicious” in an anonymous comment to another outlet. According to his employer, Dilimbetov had acted in an “emotional” manner and his point of view had contradicted the outlet’s neutral position, which consisted in awaiting the outcome of the investigation.
Dilimbetov thinks he just got unlucky. He had signed the open letter on Saturday, before state television’s unequivocal statements of support and suspects his superiors were covering their own backs.
Nevertheless he considers his firing a blessing. While closing one door, his public stance on Golunov has opened others. “It’s like being released from captivity. Finding another job, when you have an outlet like Nevskiye Novosti on your CV is not easy. You’re treated like a leper.”
That stigma is likely to remain in place — even if state media portrays Golunov’s release as a shared victory. During his weekly news round-up, Kiselyov, the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, summarized the general sentiment as follows: Golunov’s case was “a test for society, the police and the government. A test and an opportunity.”
“Overall we have become better than we were,” he concluded.
Just minutes earlier he had slammed those who attended an illegal march against police abuse a day after Golunov’s release, at which hundreds were detained, as troublemakers intent on violent regime change.
Since Golunov is now free, it may just be that state media has reverted to the old status quo.
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