Res­cu­ing Rus­sia’s jour­nal­ists

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - ANNE AP­PLE­BAUM ap­ple­baum­let­ters@wash­post.com

When I first met Yev­ge­nia Al­bats, it was the 1990s, the Soviet Union had just ceased to ex­ist and she was a ris­ing star in the new Rus­sian jour­nal­ism— one of many. The ex­plo­sion of cre­ativ­ity in Rus­sian media in that era is one of the post-Soviet mir­a­cles that no one has ever quite ex­plained. The gray and men­da­cious Soviet press sud­denly col­lapsed be­neath the weight of its own tedium. Into the vac­uum stepped witty writ­ers, se­ri­ous colum­nists and ded­i­cated jour­nal­ists such as Al­bats, one of the first real in­ves­tiga­tive re­porters in Rus­sia. Where did they all come from?

Equally im­por­tant, how­ever, is the ques­tion of where they all went. De­spite the aus­pi­cious begin­nings, al­most all of the Rus­sian media have since come un­der di­rect or in­di­rect con­trol of the Krem­lin. Most of the witty writ­ers ei­ther learned to con­form or left the coun­try. Some stayed but were forcibly si­lenced. Anna Politkovskaya, one of Al­bats’s jour­nal­ism school class­mates, was mur­dered in the stair­well of her Moscow apart­ment build­ing.

In­stead of wit and fine prose, much of the Rus­sian media, but es­pe­cially Rus­sian state tele­vi­sion, now pump out xeno­pho­bic, ho­mo­pho­bic, anti-Ukrainian ag­gres­sion and rants against the Sodom and Go­mor­rah of the West. Un­til you’ve watched the Rus­sian evening news, heard the omi­nous mu­sic and seen the blood and vi­o­lence, it’s hard to be­lieve. But there are still a few is­lands of san­ity left, and Al­bats runs one of them. The New Times, a mag­a­zine she owns and ed­its, faith­fully in­ves­ti­gates the news, es­chews hate speech and re­ports on re­al­ity for those still will­ing to read about it.

Al­most all of the Rus­sian media have come un­der di­rect or in­di­rect con­trol of the Krem­lin.

From her own coun­try­men, Al­bats has re­ceived e-mailed death threats and an­tiSemitic slan­der. Last Fe­bru­ary, she was at­tacked on the main evening news, which broad­cast her pho­to­graph along with the phrase, in He­brew, “What kind of Jew are you?” But now she has a new prob­lem. Hu­bert Burda Media, a Ger­man com­pany that has be­come a near mo­nop­o­list in the Rus­sian mag­a­zine dis­tri­bu­tion busi­ness, has, for the past sev­eral months, ef­fec­tively pre­vented her mag­a­zine from ap­pear­ing in many Moscow shops and kiosks. The New Times can hardly be found in Moscow; news­stand sales have fallen by half. When I asked about it, Burda told me that the de­ci­sion to re­strict the pa­per’s dis­tri­bu­tion was purely com­mer­cial. But Al­bats said that a Burda rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Moscow told her some­thing dif­fer­ent: The Mu­nich-based com­pany, which pub­lishes some 60 ti­tles in Rus­sia, didn’t want to risk too close an as­so­ci­a­tion with any­one crit­i­cal of the Krem­lin.

As it hap­pens, the boss of Burda Moscow is an ac­knowl­edged for­mer Stasi in­former, and the com­pany fired another em­ployee who wrote pos­i­tively about Ukraine on his pri­vate Face­book page. Still, I don’t think that high pol­i­tics is at the core of this story. It’s an up­hill bat­tle for any for­eign media com­pany in Rus­sia — in the face of new re­stric­tions, CNN went off the air there at the end of last year. But Burda still thinks it can make a profit. So it does what it takes to stay.

Burda isn’t the first Western com­pany to make com­pro­mises with an au­thor­i­tar­ian regime, and it won’t be the last. But its ac­tions are more sig­nif­i­cant now, as the U.S. and Euro­pean gov­ern­ments fi­nally wake up to the na­ture of the poi­son that Rus­sia pumps into its air­waves. The mass cam­paign against Ukrainian “Nazis,” the slan­der of op­po­nents, the de­lib­er­ate stok­ing of na­tion­al­ist emo­tions in Rus­sia, the “troll fac­to­ries” that push out dis­in­for­ma­tion in mul­ti­ple lan­guages, all of that is de­signed to fuel war — and maybe not just in Ukraine.

To counter this on­slaught, some now call for a new “Euro­pean” tele­vi­sion chan­nel to pro­ject a dif­fer­ent set of val­ues into Rus­sia. Oth­ers sketch out plans to build ra­dio tow­ers along the bor­der. But this isn’t the Cold War, and noth­ing of the sort is nec­es­sary. The West should in­stead think about cre­ative ways to sup­port the gen­er­a­tion of tal­ented Rus­sian jour­nal­ists who have been side­lined or ex­iled. We don’t need to spon­sor “counter-pro­pa­ganda”; we need to help Rus­sians like Al­bats tell their own sto­ries in their own lan­guage.

There are mul­ti­ple ways to do this. Maybe it’s time to take Ra­dio Lib­erty se­ri­ously again, move its head­quar­ters away from the back­wa­ter of Prague, and put it in a place where Rus­sians ac­tu­ally live, such as Riga or Kiev. Maybe we need to set up an in­sti­tu­tion that com­mis­sions doc­u­men­taries and tele­vi­sion pro­grams for ex­ist­ing Rus­sian-lan­guage sta­tions in those cities, or a wire ser­vice that re­ports news rather than pro­pa­ganda from Rus­sia it­self. And maybe we need to shame the Western com­pa­nies that fund hate speech by advertising on Rus­sian tele­vi­sion— and em­bar­rass those that limit the cir­cu­la­tion of what­ever free media still ex­ists.

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