Through the Looking Glass

Russia is a through-the-looking-glass kind of country. The type of place where virtually overnight someone like Boris Berezovsky can become a staunch defender of freedom of the press. A place where Sergei Dorenko, arguably one of the most odious and irresponsible people in public life today, can become an anti-censorship icon. A place where in the course of just a few months someone like Oleg Dobrodeyev can go from being the widely respected director of the nation’s only nonstate national television network to personally sitting in the broadcast truck in Vidyayevo while President Vladimir Putin meets with relatives of seamen from the submarine Kursk and overseeing the maintenance of the president’s image for state television.

What is black today becomes white tomorrow, and vice versa.

Nonetheless, I am still constantly amazed when these things happen. Some of the most reliable sources of this amazement are discussions with journalists about some of the most fundamental questions determining the environment in which they work. Frankly, when I hear some of the things they say, it really makes me wonder if we are communicating at all.

For instance, I recently had an exchange with Alexei Novikov, a lawyer who is also the editor and publisher of a private newspaper in Saransk called Shestoi Nomer, about the existing law on the mass media. I approached Novikov with the suggestion that, as a lawyer, he might take it upon himself to suggest changes to the law that would benefit privately owned newspapers. Much to my surprise, he responded to me that "the existing law is one of the very few in our country that has proven its effectiveness and sensibleness." He said that no modifications were needed, quoting the Russian proverb "ot dobra — dobra ne ishchut," the equivalent of "if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it."

However, what Novikov said next was truly astounding. "I have worked as an editor for 10 years," he went on. "For the first five, I edited a state-subsidized paper, and for the last five I have been co-owner and editor of a private paper. I can say from experience that the existing law on mass media completely satisfies me, except for a few small gaps. I would only add, though, that state subsidies to the media corrupt editors and journalists and lead to unfair competition and unprofessional disputes between publications."

Even after I pointed out to him that these two positions seem to be in direct contradiction with one another since the existing media law is the basis of the state press, Novikov continued to argue both sides. After a few more minutes, it became clear to me that he simply was not capable of imaging a scenario in which a state-controlled press did not feature prominently.

Such discussions often boil down to a debate over whether the private media’s main problems are political or economic. And when the question is phrased this way, one also runs into some rather bizarre statements. At a recent round table of media professionals and experts in St. Petersburg, I heard a number of statements that really made my ears perk up.

"All the mass media are dependent on the authorities," said activist Yury Vdovin, "and this is the source of the lack of freedom of speech. This situation can be corrected by creating a normal economic environment for the mass media." Maybe this is a chicken-and-egg question, but resolving it is crucial if any real change is to be made. Unlike Vdovin, I don’t see how economic solutions are going to solve a fundamentally political problem. In fact, I don’t even see how such solutions can be effectively undertaken without the precondition of resolving the political questions.

A journalist from a private paper at the round table continued Vdovin’s theme. "In the last year, our newspaper has undergone eight tax inspections, as well as inspections from a number of other social funds. In short, they are trying not merely to extract taxes but to undermine the economic foundation of the paper."

Did she view this as a political or an economic problem? "It would be good if we could just find people who would be willing to invest money in the creation of independent publications," was her solution. It seems to me that investment is not something one finds, but something one attracts. Is the current law on mass media or any of the revisions being discussed in the Duma really capable of doing that?

Robert Coalson is an independent media analyst based in St. Petersburg.