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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Taking Journalism to the Extremes




Oleg Panfilov has found time to be a journalist, a free press activist, an Asia scholar and the author of 17 books - four about the peoples and cultures of Central Asia, the others about journalism. He used to live in Tajikistan, where he reported for Nezavisimaya Gazeta and The Associated Press. But in 1992 he was declared to be "an enemy of the people" after he worked on the campaign of a losing candidate for president drawn from Andrei Sakharov's Interparliamentary Group. So he fled to Russia. Matt Bivens talked to Panfilov at his newly founded organization, the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.


Q:


Are you still a citizen of Tajikistan?


A:


Yes. As a matter of principle I did not bother getting Russian citizenship, although I'm [ethnically] Russian. I feel it's better to be a citizen of my banana republic than a citizen of the country that forced me to flee my homeland. For it was Russia that brought to power the regime that is now in Tajikistan. That regime declared me an enemy of the people, and I ran away.


Q:


As an ethnic Russian, how did you end up in Tajikistan?


A:


I was born there. My mother was sent to work there after she graduated from school - true, she was forced to go, as it was done in the Soviet Union. My father was there in a prison camp as "the son of an enemy of the people": my grandfather had been shot dead in 1937 in the Urals, where he had been chairman of a collective farm; and when my father turned 14 he was also [targeted] ... He got out in 1955, met my mother and in 1957 I appeared.


Q:


You've written 17 books, including two about how journalists covered the first war in Chechnya. (One of them is available on the Internet at www.internews.ru/books/infowar/) Do you have plans for any other books?


A:


A book that I will certainly publish this year will be about Tajik journalism over the past 10 years. Those are my colleagues who have been getting killed - 72 journalists were killed in Tajikistan over the past seven years.


Q:


What's the situation there now?


A:


It's true, unfortunately there's little in the Russian press [about Tajikistan]. Other than my wife [Viktoria Panfilova], who writes for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, no one reports on it. As to the situation ... A civil war broke out in 1992, and the Tajik opposition [to then-president Rakhmon Labiyev] generally attacked from Afghanistan. There were almost no government troops then, and generally it was the Russian Army that moved in to fight the Tajik opposition. ... Then, in December 1992 there was a parliamentary putsch. The parliament, which was made up mostly of communists, selected a new chairman - as per a proposal from Russia ... and then that man, Emomali Rakhmonov, became the new president. Rakhmonov was then elected president in 1994, and then in December he was re-elected to a seven-year term.


Q:


Seven years?


A:


Yes, that's already the fashion. They all think they are like the president of France and can be presidents for years. Tajikistan is now the poorest country in the Commonwealth of Independent States and one of the poorest in the world, despite its potential. There is gold that can be and is being extracted, but only British and Canadian companies mine gold in Tajikistan. There is also cotton, which, unfortunately, brings in very little now, because everything has been destroyed by the war and there is no one to work. There's an aluminum works and there's also some light industry, such as a big factory that makes rugs.


Q:


There are also 30,000 Russian peacekeeping troops quartered there.


A:


Actually now it's more like 25,000-26,000. There's a large Russian border patrol that protects Tajikistan from Afghanistan.


Q:


Since coming to Moscow in 1992 you've worked at various human rights and journalism advocacy groups, most recently the Glasnost Defense Foundation. In February, you left the foundation to create the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a wing of the Union of Journalists. Why?


A:


I've long thought that we need to help journalist who are working in military conflict zones ... [or] in CIS countries under unstable political regimes. For example, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Belarus. Now it's even getting dangerous to work in Ukraine, in Kazakhstan, and the situation is changing rapidly in Kyrgyzstan. So I decided to set up this organization ... Many Russian journalists don't know what safety is. They don't even want to know. They don't know first aid. You can see when Russian journalists file reports, they're sitting on tanks as they do so. That's categorically forbidden by every rule of journalism in the book. It's unsafe and it's unethical. It's also forbidden to wear military uniforms as journalists, but Russian journalists often do so.


Q:


What makes you say Russian journalists don't want to know what safety is?


A:


In 1995, during the first Chechen war, a Russian company presented me with 12 bullet-proof flak jackets. So I wrote a note to Interfax, which they put out on their wire, that Chechnya-bound journalists could come borrow these vests. Over the next two years, I loaned the vests out more than 60 times. The first who came to borrow were Japanese. Then there were Americans.Then Poles, Germans, Hungarians - all told only 10 Russian journalists came to borrow them.


I can offer you another example. In 1993, I was working for CPJ [the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists], gathering information about how journalists worked in October 1993, during the shelling of parliament. Ultimately seven journalists were killed and 65 wounded or beaten. At that time I also wrote a note to Interfax asking journalists who had been beaten or who had seen a colleague get beaten to call me and report it. I sent off the letter, and in two hours a German journalist called ... And then again the Americans started calling, the Italians, the French, and there was not one Russian. At one point I asked one American: "Did you see any Russian journalists in trouble?" And he replied: "Of course I did," and he named one. So I called that Russian journalist and asked, "Have you had problems in recent days?" He said, "No." I said, "How's that? I was told you had problems, you'd been beaten!" And he said, "No, I was just hit twice with the butt of a machine gun, it's nothing."


Q:


The Union of Journalists concluded in October 1999 that there is no freedom of speech in Russia. What do you think?


A:


The problem is that in Russia, even now, there is a government monopoly on the printing presses and on the means of broadcast communication. About 80 percent of all printing presses in Russia - in the provinces, in Moscow, in Petersburg - are government property. And 90 percent of all transmission equipment used by independent television companies and radio stations is also state-owned. And as in Russia we don't like to obey the law, it's very easy to punish the independent press.


The usual mechanism - and there have been very many such cases - works like this. An independent newspaper in one of the provinces publishes an article critical of the work of the governor. The governor picks up the telephone and calls the director of the printing press - because the printing press is subordinate to the governor. And he says, "This newspaper must be punished." The director of the printing press already knows what to do. He picks up the telephone and calls the editor of that independent newspaper and says: "You know, tomorrow our electricity rates are going up, the price of newsprint is going up, the price of ink - so the cost of our printing services is going to rise three- or four-fold." And that's it. That's the end of our independent newspaper.


The powers-that-be have forced the Russian press to be politicized ... Both Yeltsin and Putin sometimes gather the editors of all of the Moscow newspapers and explain to them what Russian politics is. That can't be imagined happening in the West, but it's a tradition here.


Q:


You mention the West. I can't help noticing that many prominent media have some foreign partner or ownership. Artyom Borovik's Versiya newspaper is a joint venture with U.S. News & World Report, for example; the business daily Vedomosti [a sister paper of The Moscow Times] is a joint venture with the Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times; NTV is partly owned by an American mutual fund. Do you see any significance in this?


A:


I think that young journalists like Artyom Borovik, who created the Sovershenno Sekretno holding, needed practical help. Obviously, you can't just carry a structure from America to Russia, it's a different soil, different land. But nevertheless to learn proper management skills, how to sell advertising, how to find advertisers - that's all important.


Q:


In January, Alexander Voloshin, the Kremlin chief of staff, ordered security services to "make sure that foreign citizens and organizations do not play any part in the election campaign." Are foreigners too influential in media?


A:


My new organization has always worked on the money of others, including foreigners, that does not mean that we are working against Russia.