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Needed: Better Western Coverage of Russia

Message Nicolai Petro
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Western media coverage of three recent incidents-- the state's demand that the Union of Russian Journalists vacate part of its premises, the resignation of journalists from the Russian News Service, and the detention of Garry Kasparov and others as they were on their way to the city of Samara to join a protest rally--illustrates the need for some serious changes in Western reporting about Russia.

All three took place over a short period of time, so Western press accounts have tended to lump them together, as the latest in series of efforts by Russian president Vladimir Putin to suppress democracy and muzzle the press. This interpretation rests on the omission of several key facts that, curiously, the Russian media has done a much better job of reporting.

For example, in the first incident, Russian news sources reported that the journalist's union was subletting office space that it had been given rent free by President Yeltsin. Since the commercial use of space given pro bono publico has in the past been deemed contrary to the intent of the donation, and a possible violation of the tax code, the state property agency exercised its right to unilaterally change the terms of the lease, albeit in a very lenient manner. Instead of revoking the lease entirely, it merely insisted that the territory currently used in commercial use, 929 square meters, be returned to the state.

Western accounts, by and large, described the conflict as an act of journalistic defiance, but scarcely mentioned the commercial issue at its heart. Since the territory at issue, one-third of what the union leases, is not being used for anything related to journalism, however, it is hard to see how its loss can be deemed an imposition on any of its journalistic activities.

The second incident concerns a rift between journalists and the general management at the Russian News Service (RNS), one of the nation's largest news providers. It too received widespread media coverage, both inside and outside Russia, but whereas western media focused almost entirely on the disgruntled journalists, the Russian media also reported management's side of the story.

Thus, Russian readers learned not only that Alexander Shkolnik, RNS's general director, categorically denies imposing any estrictions on the coverage of opposition politicians, but that during the past three weeks his news service interviewed leaders from the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and the Union of Right Forces--literally the entire political spectrum!

To be fair, many western media accounts did mention, in passing, Shkolnik's claim that his decisions have been purely commercial. But since no evidence was provided to back up his claim, it was made to appear flimsy and implausible, particularly in contrast to the extensive coverage given to the journalists who had resigned.

Since it has not been mentioned in any Western press account, Shkolnik's explanation for his new policies deserves to be quoted in full:

"The problem was also that, when I came to RNS, we had very low ratings. We were in 33rd place. Looking into the matter, we found that our audience is a specific category of people who listen [to us] while in their cars on errands. That is to say, [they are] more-or-less successful and well-to-do people, who are positive and socially active. Putting some sort of dreary pessimism ["chernukha"] on the air for this audience would be the same as putting an article about homeless people into a glitzy magazine. We, the leadership of RNS, asked that our correspondents think, first and foremost, not about their own personal political interests, views, or attitude toward what is happening in our the country, but about the interests of our audience." [source]

The final, and most notorious, incident concerns the detention of Garry Kasparov and more than two dozen others as they were on their way to Samara to join a protest march there on May 18, 2007. Although their accounts differ slightly, all those detained regard their delay as nothing but a pretext to sequester their tickets until it was too late to get a flight to Samara that day. This view has been dutifully seconded by all mainstream Western media outlets.

This version of events, however, is hotly disputed by the transportation police, which says that the group was detained because at least one of their tickets could not be processed by the airport computer, since it had been purchased under a different name. Security considerations, they say, then required that the entire party's travel documents be checked. Most importantly, they insist that these were returned to the group by noon, at which point there were still two flights they could have taken to Samara, one at 1:30 P.M. from Sheremetyevo airport, the other at 3:25 P.M. from Domodedovo airport.

Russian media accounts thus reveal what most western accounts obscure, namely that the essential facts are in dispute. Rather than getting to the bottom of this discrepancy, however, most western reports of the incident chose to simply accept Kasparov's version of events, and use it as a platform from which to decry Putin's ostensible pattern of political repression.

The omission in all three incidents of relevant information is very troubling, for it suggests the erosion of the crucial distinction between objective reporting and advocacy when it comes to Putin's Russia. The editorial sympathies of leading Western news outlets like the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Economist are quite transparent--they regard their hostility toward Russia's president as a badge of honor, and that is their prerogative. But the assumption that, regardless of a paper's editorial stance, its day-to-day reporting strives for greater detachment, no longer appears warranted.

Paradoxically, those looking for more balanced reporting would do well to consider some of the Russian press outlets that now have good English language web sites. Among the most interesting are the RIA Novosti and Interfax news services, newspapers like Kommersant and the Moscow Times, and Russia Profile which, although it receives partial funding from the state run RIA Novosti, is editorially independent.

Not only do they offer a richer and more interesting variety of sources and commentary, but increasingly they provide information that one simply cannot find in the Western media.
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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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