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RIA Novosti, August 6, 2004

Russian Journalism in Search of Professional Ethics

Moscow. (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov).
Going Together, the youth organisation close to the Duma majority party United Russia, has carried out a sting to catch corrupt journalists red-handed. Working undercover, its representatives paid the editors of some major Russian newspapers large sums of money to publish articles that contained blatant lies. Some call it a brilliant exposure, others a shameless provocation.

Without checking a line, newspapers eagerly found room for the commissioned works. Afterwards all Going Together had to do was to name the code words hidden in the texts and accuse the newspapers of cynical corruption. Young people are still picketing the editors' offices with posters "We want the newspapers to publish the courageous admission, 'We publish lies'".

Many Russians are certain that the domestic media does not promote freedom of speech, but has rather replaced it with a policy of selling pages and airtime to the highest bidder. The buyers are spin doctors, with an inclination for dirty tricks, mudslingers targeting leading politicians, promoters of self-serving business interests and wizards of unscrupulous product placement.

It seems that following the downfall of the Soviet state, the Russian media community did a deal with Mrs Corruption. And she is aggressively driving out honest journalism as it tries to remain faithful to ethical norms.

If in the first years of Russia's path towards the market economy, this media epidemic was obvious and even defiant, then today it is turning ever deeper inward, becoming largely concealed and unseen by the unsophisticated observer. This is a more dangerous phase.

This leads Igor Yakovenko, secretary-general of the Russian Union of Journalists, to make a gloomy conclusion, "journalism is being driven from the media, and replaced with propaganda, political technologies and show business".

The sensational results of some opinion polls show that Russian readers and viewers seem to be most tired of this situation. According to a recent survey conducted by ROMIR Monitoring, 71% of ordinary Russians and 41% of journalists approve the introduction of censorship in the media. The point at issue is not political censorship, of course. Most of the discontented masses want a certain moral and ethic filter that would protect information consumers from rough propagandist manipulations, "black PR" and other paid lies.

Such public sentiments have alarmed Russian parliamentarians and those in the epicentre of public criticism, journalists themselves. The State Duma committee for information policy recently held a roundtable with the editors of Russia's largest electronic and print media. The seminar was dedicated to problems of professional ethics, including the degree of responsibility for paid publication of unchecked information.

The debates proved to be right on time. The day before a Moscow newspaper had published a false "letter of five American Congressmen", which was designed to discredit a former prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko. Another newspaper helped to fuel panic among banks' clients by publishing a self-made "black list" of banks whose reliability was allegedly doubted by Russia's Central Bank.

Those attending the roundtable found two ways to save the media from immorality: Russian journalists should keep to internal professional guidelines more consistently, while the state should adopt laws to assist this idea.

Global experience shows that the more prosperous a newspaper or a TV network, the more resistant it is to external pressure. Accordingly, a journalist's immunity to corruption largely depends on his salary, which in Russia leaves much to be desired. This gave Russian deputies the idea of drafting a bill on the economic independence of the media, which would make the state main guardian of the press. The state is expected to drastically cut the taxes levied on the media and ensure affordable fixed prices for paper, typography expenditures and equipment.

The Duma is preparing another bill that is more in line with modern global experience. It will place restrictions on media monopolies. The bill sets a threshold on the share packets of different media an owner can have in his portfolio. A ban will be introduced on owning several TV channels and print media with the same target audience. The bill's authors are not concealing that they have borrowed Western legal norms.

Russia, however, has its own national specifics. The practical application of such a law would require a level of ownership transparency that so far is only the stuff of dreams. For example, it is well known that oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who is hiding from prosecutors in London, has sold his 49% stake in the Channel One. But the identity of the new owner is not clear. When nobody knows the name of an owner and the property he or she may possess, any anti-monopoly law is destined to fail.

Russian parliamentarians are also thinking about creating a public TV network along the lines of those prospering in the US and Britain. There are no ads, only a licence fee. It could be a mere 16 roubles ($0.5) per person, an affordable sum for ordinary Russians even in the current hard times. Public television, the State Duma believes, could alleviate the irritation of the public, which is tired of politicised, biased programs and round-the-clock adverts for beer and Tampax.


See also:

Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

RIA Novosti, August 6, 2004

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