Russia’s Free Press Hoax

Interesting piece by William Dunkerley on In Russia’s Free Press Hoax, he responds to a recent New York Times editorial, one of numerous such articles which claim that Vladimir Putin stifled Russia’s free press. Dunkerley argues that there was no free press to stifle in the first place.

His evidence:

1. The Yeltsin administration nipped press freedom in the bud. It imposed laws that gave media companies little hope of operating profitably. And without profitability, the press had no way of achieving independence. Instead, the media companies became dependent, not free, and most remain so today.

2. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists [CPJ], 15 journalists were murdered during the period of Putin’s presidency. What the “murdered journalist” stories fail to report is that in the previous 8-year period, there were 31 murders! In other words, under Putin, the number of journalists killed was more than cut in half.

While I’d phrase the criticism differently (less emphasis on “mis”information and more on “a particular perspective on” information), I agree that there is a definite shift in the attention paid to killed journalists under Yeltsin (not only CPJ, but also Reporter sans Frontiers (RFS) give a similar number of killed journalists, which they report as having decreased under Putin).

What I find crucial to this discussion is the desired aim. Ignoring hard news for the moment, what do editors hope to achieve when they blame Putin for the deaths of journalists? Putting this more discoursively, what is the function of such editorials; what ‘action’ do they carry out? Editors – and the commentariat in general – generally make recommendations for change, whether explicit or implicit.

If the reason for the deaths is Putin, the recommendation must be to reduce his power. The trouble is that

  • (i) according to the CPJ and RSF websites, the majority of journalists who were killed were investigating stories associated with organised crime and/or business corruption,
  • (ii) this means that when grand sweeping statements are made about these journalists being critics of the Russian regime and/or Putin, the editorial in question completely loses credibility in the eyes of the Russian public and politicians. This in turn means that
  • (iii) no-one feels the need to tackle the problem.

The core problem, according to CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia programme researcher Nina Oganiova, is that murders of journalists are not followed up in the legal system. This is a serious issue in Russia, but it seems hypersimplistic to report this as Putin’s control over the media (although, again, this is not “mis”information, but a particular perspective on a piece of information).


Finally, I must jump to the defence of the journalists (as a proper anthropologist I might say “my” journalists) criticised by Dunkerley. There is a strict distinction to be drawn between

  1. very well informed, thoughtful, perceptive and/or insightful foreign correspondents based in Moscow,
  2. deadline-driven, desk-based, non-expert journalists who turn agency news into printable news stories often in less than 45 minutes, and are therefore thoroughly embedded in locally accepted knowledge of what Russia is doing at the moment and what meanings are to be assigned to these journalist deaths, and
  3. Washington Post editors (who seem to have some particularly deep axe to grind; see the discussions on Johnson’s Russia List).


And very finally. my personal favourite of the NYT editorial comes nearer the end:

So far Mr. Obama has been quiet about Russia’s latest efforts to bully its neighbors. He will have to find his voice. After its war with Georgia last year, Russia defied international law by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Do we really need to go into who bullied who and who started what in Georgia again? Perhaps we could just refer to an old NYT article for details about what could as easily be called Georgia‘s war with Russia. Other articles discussed the hypocrisy of the debate on the legitimacy of recognising the independence of some former communist states but not others.


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