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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

All for One and One for All

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Russian media associations have been big news lately. Last week, television star and businessman Alexander Lyubimov announced the creation of a new organization called Mediasoyuz (or Media-Union), which would unite all media professionals throughout Russia. In retaliation, the Russian Union of Journalists, an organization that unites all media professionals throughout Russia, announced that it was convening a national congress next week.

All this got me thinking about the time when the Union of Journalists hauled me before a tribunal. It was September 1998, and the financial crisis had just hit. It was a hard time for the mass media, as the ruble lost its value, bank accounts were frozen and the advertising market collapsed. As if that werenТt enough, the law on state support for the mass media was set to expire in January 1999.

I learned about the looming expiration of this law, which grants a number of tax privileges to the media, from an article in Moskovsky Komsomolets titled, "They Are Smothering Freedom." It argued that some deputies in the State Duma, though pretending to be supporters of press freedom, really intended to destroy the media by voting against a three-year extension of state concessions to the media. Among the villains, the article listed Grigory Yavlinsky, Sergei Kovalyov and Yury Shchekochikhin.

A little investigation revealed that the Union of Journalists, as part of its lobbying effort on behalf of the extension, had sent a "black list" to the media. Now, I know some of these "enemies" personally. Others I have admired from afar. I have never had occasion to doubt their wholehearted commitment to democratic principles. Since I had my own concerns about the desirability of tax concessions to the media, I decided to write my own article.

It happened that, in addition to defending the tax privileges, the union had recently created something called the "Grand Jury," which was a sort of professional ethics board and the brainchild of union secretary (and author of the law on mass media) Mikhail Fedotov. The Grand JuryТs first session was scheduled for Yaroslavl, and I was to be its first guinea pig.

The charge against me was formulated something like this: "The editor of a media magazine should not contradict the corporate opinions of the industry." About 80 editors from throughout the Upper Volga region silently raised their hands in support of continued tax breaks. Only the editor of the private business paper Yaroslavskiye Novosti voted with me against them. Later though, during the smoking break, several editors shook my hand and told me they agreed with my arguments.

After this, I started paying more attention to the union. In 1999, it created the National Audit Service to certify the circulations of Russian periodicals. At the same time, a similar project was started in the city of Kirov. Both organizations applied for "anti-crisis" grants from the Open Society Institute to conduct free circulation audits for newspapers, and the Kirov group won. So the union launched a campaign to discredit the Kirov competitor using among other things the slogan, "Free cheese is only found in mouse traps."

The list of union initiatives is impressive on paper: a publishersТ association, a labor union for journalists, support for the families of journalists who have been injured or killed, a map of press freedom in the regions, etc. But when you look at actual deeds, you see that virtually all of it has been done incompetently.

It simply isnТt possible for one organization to found both a publishersТ association and a labor union for journalists. It isnТt possible for an organization to create an ethics court for journalists while simultaneously handing out prizes paid for by Boris Berezovsky. It isnТt possible for one organization to simultaneously defend the interests of both the state and the private media.

Nonetheless, I wish the union well in its upcoming congress. IТd also like to congratulate Fedotov, who was recently nominated by the government for the post of OSCE representative on freedom of the media. Hearing the news, Fedotov commented: "The mere fact that I have been nominated by my country Е sheds a whole new light on the idea that the government has repressive intentions regarding the press." This contradicts the corporate opinion of the Union of Journalists. With comments like these, Fedotov is risking exile to Vienna and a lonely existence on the meager salary of an OSCE bureaucrat.

Alexei Pankin is editor of Sreda, a monthly magazine for media professionals.