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Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen


As Russian journalists, our lives are black comedy and dark tragedy Add to ...

Some of the stories are funny. Take mine, for example. I was fired from my job as editor of a popular science magazine for refusing to send a reporter along on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hang-gliding adventure, when he tried to lead a flock of Siberian cranes on a new migratory route.

There’s the story of the media owner who was threatened with losing his other business interests if he did not shut down a political publication and literally ran to his publication’s offices to make sure he got there by the end of the workday so notice of the shutdown could go up on the website by close of business.

There’s the story of a publication that lost its financing – again, because the owner was given reason to fear losing other businesses. The editor found that securing alternative financing was relatively easy: The problem was, everyone wanted to keep his/her participation secret, so the editor had to look for a financial front man to present to the public and the authorities.

Then there’s the story of a prominent producer hired to conceive and run a media organization – on the condition of anonymity: The funders knew how good this person was at the craft, but they also knew there would be consequences if their affiliation with an opposition journalist became known.

And there’s the story of not one but several reporters from a Moscow newspaper who refused to meet the press attaché of a Western power’s embassy in public lest they be filmed speaking to him.

I could keep this list going for a while, but let me pause here, where reporters are afraid to be seen in public – not with, say, a Mafioso or a corrupt official or even a political activist but with someone whose job it is to speak to the media: a press attaché. Their fear was probably justified: A state-controlled television channel that specializes in rooting out the opposition could well have fashioned the footage into an exposé showing the reporters, or even the newspaper itself, was a “foreign agent” – which is contemporary Russian-speak for “enemies of the state.”

The Russian media are under siege. It has become a commonplace to speak about Russia’s returning to Soviet times and Soviet ways of doing things – and, in some significant ways, this has been the case – but what’s happening with the media is different. Where the Soviet regime used direct censorship, with a specially assigned person at every media outlet clearing every story before publication, the instrument of control today is fear. Reporters, editors and media owners are constantly looking over their shoulder. This is also known as self-censorship.

Media owners fear losing their other businesses, their accumulated wealth and their general security in Russia. So do advertisers and potential advertisers, which is why there’s precious little paid advertising in political publications, including those one would be hard-pressed to characterize as oppositional. And editors and journalists fear losing their jobs.

Many people know that Russian journalists often have reason to fear for their lives – Russia consistently ranks in the top 10 in the Committee to Protect Journalists Impunity Index – but that fear has a way of coming in spurts. The fear of losing your livelihood and the opportunity to practise your trade, on the other hand, is constant.

Earlier this year, a Russian broadcast journalist put together a list of colleagues who had been fired for apparently political reasons since Mr. Putin reclaimed the presidency in May of 2012. Twenty-seven people made the list, including four names marked with the notation “fired twice.” More names have been added since.

And then there’s this story, told in a picture: a party at a Moscow restaurant held a couple of months ago. A dozen smiling people seated around a table. Every one is a nationally known journalist, editor or producer. And every one is unemployed.

Masha Gessen, a Moscow journalist, is author of The Man Without a Face, a biography of Vladimir Putin.

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