Questions Are Tougher in Life After Journalism

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Just 18 months ago, when I thought of my many television journalist colleagues who had been placed on the blacklist of "undesirables" and deprived of the right to work in their profession, I thought of how hard it must be for them to find meaningful work. It is difficult, but Radio Liberty and Ekho Moskvy are still on the air, and there are Internet and print media, such as Vedomosti, Russian Newsweek and Forbes, that were founded by foreign companies and are still more or less free. Finally, the private television channel RTVI broadcasts Russian language programming abroad and therefore isn't seen as a threat to the current administration. As long as these opportunities exist in Russia, it is still possible to fulfill your professional duty as a journalist honestly.

On the other hand, I recently met a well-known television and newspaper commentator -- a very good journalist -- whose career is over. Today he works as a tailor and is generally satisfied with the changes that fate has wrought in his life. He strongly recommended that I follow in his footsteps.

In October 2005, the television channel I worked for, Ren-TV, was sold, and the founders, Irena and Dmitry Lesnevsky, left the station. The team that had been producing independent news knew immediately that the new owners -- Severstal and Surgutneftegas, companies close to the Kremlin -- would try to get rid of this hotbed of sedition. We were ready for anything, short of them physically trying to prevent us from going on the air.

But that's exactly what they not only tried, but succeded in doing.

At the time, we thought that this move was in our favor: It was clearly a crime, under Article 144 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits the "hindering the lawful professional activities of a journalist," and it was all caught on film. But our complaints were rejected by law enforcement agencies, including the Prosecutor General's Office. They said they had no proof that we worked as television journalists at the channel. It turned out to be very hard to prove that we existed, worked, had contracts, had received professional awards and that viewers remembered us.

In the end, we couldn't prove any of this.

Now we are all television viewers, and our new profession has turned out to be very educational. At first we watched everything, but then we realized that there was nothing to watch. In December, the last of the television Mohicans, news anchor Mikhail Osokin, was banished from NTV -- although now he is now doing brilliant work on RTVI -- and the last oasis of information on weekdays disappeared without a trace. So we switched on the television on Sunday evening, Russia's traditional slot for news and analysis. Last Sunday, we watched all of the programs and then called each other to discuss them. We watched "Vesti," with Sergei Brilyev, on the Rossia channel and "Vremya," with Pyotr Tolstoy, on Channel One. The two shows were absolutely the same: the same news and features, the same people, the same interpretation, even the same order in which the pieces were aired. Everything was the same, as if it all had been scripted by the same person.

We watched the new English-language channel, Russia Today, which has been given the task of propagandizing the country's achievements to foreign audiences. It is an ambitious project that is reported to have a $30 million budget, the money coming straight from state coffers. Our question was: Why does it look so cheap? Our answer: Russia Today, Money Tomorrow.

There are also striking changes taking place in the newspaper industry. After Vladimir Potanin, chairman of Interros Holding , sold the newspaper Izvestia to state-owned Gazprom-Media, the paper has changed beyond recognition. A new editor was brought in, and in a mere two months the paper changed from a liberal publication to virtually the press arm of the prosecutor's office. Take, for example, the paper's two-day spread on Mikhail Khodorkovsky's crimes against humanity. All they left out was the charge that he had eaten Christian children -- not because they didn't believe it, but simply because they couldn't back it up.

Gazprom-Media has a new radio station called Relax FM. Its name is more than symbolic. "Relax, citizens. Everything's fine. Nothing's wrong."

It wasn't surprising that President Vladimir Putin spoke at the opening ceremony of the World Association of Newspapers conference in Moscow in this very same relaxed tone. Responding to the rather mild criticism of Russian mass media in the speech made by WAN President Gavin O'Reilly, he said, "Mr. O'Reilly spoke about the growing state presence in the mass media. I have other information on that. The share owned by the government in the Russian media market has steadily decreased. This is easy to check."

Technically he is right. Ren-TV, for example, was purchased by the private companies Severstal and Surgutneftegaz from the state-owned holding company Unified Energy Systems. But what about the fact that Severstal is controlled by Alexei Mordashov, a close associate of Putin? Or that Surgutneftegaz is often referred to as the wallet of Igor Sechin, deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration? Are these just minor details?

No one in Russia will be surprised to see the hand of the state play a role in the upcoming sale of the Kommersant publishing house. Until recently, two possible buyers had been cited: Russian Railways and Gazprom. But just before the conference, rumors began circulating that the buyer would be Roman Abramovich. This is convenient: No one at the conference or at the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg in July can say that another leading Russian mass media outlet is being bought by a state organization. Sure, Abramovich isn't exactly what you would call part of the opposition, but that's his personal business.

Neither is anyone surprised that the Public Chamber is developing a journalistic code of ethics to be ratified by the State Duma. God only knows what they are writing, how journalists will be penalized and for what violations. Actually, it doesn't really matter. Journalists have been removed from their professions, and very successfully indeed, without any recourse to the law. Besides, when a state television channel triumphantly airs propaganda programs in the spirit of the Cold War (the British "spy rock" scandal and embassy connections with nongovernmental organizations, or and an alleged CIA camp in Ukraine); when the newspapers with the largest print runs -- such as the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda -- are not ashamed but, on the contrary, proud to function as Kremlin leak tanks, then who cares about how journalistic ethics are defined on paper?

At the Higher School of Economics, where I teach business journalism, a group of students once approached me with a question. "You were lucky," one said. "Your generation was able to achieve its professional goals. You had your day in the sun. What are we supposed to do?"

I'm still trying to think of a good answer.

Olga Romanova is a professor in the department of business and political journalism at the Higher School of Economics and a former news anchor at REN-TV.