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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Russian Journalists Reveal Neo-Soviet Crackdown

A contingent of visiting Russian journalists spoke at length with the editors of the Louisville Kentucky Courier-Journal regarding the Neo-Soviet crackdown on the media in Russia. Here is the Courier-Journal's report:

One recent Monday, a group of journalists and media representatives from the Vladivostok region of Russia spent a day at The Courier-Journal. With the help of two interpreters, the Russians and C-J reporters and editors were able to talk with each other about issues ranging from the newspaper's election and political coverage, to Internet postings and advertising, to managing a staff of journalists. Their stop at The C-J was part of a three-week visit to the area to learn about American media. The visit was coordinated through World Learning, a nonprofit international organization; USAID, an independent federal agency; and the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana.

The council is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group whose purpose is to foster relationships and understanding among locals and people around the world. The organization does that by hosting folks from other countries in our community, and setting up exchanges and experiences for the international visitors while they're here – such as our visit with the Russians. I loved our day with them, and was inspired by their pioneering work.

Think of it: Two hundred years after our founding, Americans still grapple with freedom that is historically and constitutionally guaranteed. It has been only 20 years since perestroika ushered in new economic, social and political policies, ostensibly including a freer media, for the Russian people, who had lived under totalitarian rule for almost 70 years.

Given the recent discussion about our First Amendment on these pages and on the newspaper's Web site, I asked several of the Russians back to The C-J to pose a few questions about their work and their views about press freedom in Russia. Again, I worked through an interpreter, Lena Pysareva, on this. Video excerpts of the interviews may be found at courier-journal.com/platt

As you read what they say, or view the excerpts online, remember that we take for granted what they toil -- and even go to jail -- to have.

Andrey Kalachinskiy was a prominent newspaper correspondent for many years before becoming a university official in Vladivostok. He also hosts a TV news and talk show.

He said Russian news media were "most free'' from 1987 to 1997, that the Russian people had a lot of respect for journalists and reporters then. He said it's a "very bad situation now" with state control of major television channels and local incursions into other markets. But Russians have access to the Internet, he said.

He said Russians could say whatever they want to say about our President. About their own? "Not so much," he said.

He said the public is not much interested in political life anymore. And he said he believes most Russians have more immediate concerns -- such as feeding and sheltering their families -- than press freedoms.

Irina Grebneva is the longtime editor of the News of Arsenyevsk newspaper. Journalists around the world took up her cause in 2000 when she was jailed for five days on "hooliganism" charges for printing court proceedings that included obscenity-laced transcripts of a conversation among elected officials suspected of corruption. Grebneva was kept from seeing her attorney, and she went on a hunger strike during her incarceration.

At the time, other Russian media also covered Grebneva's jailing. She's not sure that would be the case now, that television would not be interested in such a story today. She also said most newspapers have suffered financially because of speaking out, and that has made them more reticent. But she said her newspaper is still supported by readers, and the people she knows are more concerned with freedom of the press than material things.

As for her jail time? She has never regretted publishing the story that sent her to jail.

Anatoliy Tabachkov is the editor of the newspaper Worker of Nahodka, a professional position and geographical location that has allowed him to visit North Korea about five times in the past five years. Given the recent missile tests, I asked Tabachkov for his impressions of the country:

He said he thinks North Korea is "not a country that should worry" the U.S. as much as it does, that the missile technology is not precise and the missiles probably will never reach their targets.

He said the poverty in the country is obvious, but that the people are not starving. He said there is a poor assortment of groceries but plenty of rice, which is the North Koreans' food staple. He said they have huge roads, but no personal or public transportation.

About Russian press freedoms, Tabachkov said, "Freedom as it's supposed to be, we don't have it."

Tatiana Varnakova's glossy magazine, Expensive Pleasure Vladivostok, is a testimony to living large in today's Russia -- fashion, beauty, home decorations, personal and professional success stories.

She said the magazine brand has existed for 10 years -- one year in Vladivostok -- and is found in seven other cities. Their targeted reader is 20 to 40, and interested in upscale life and what's going on in the city.

Varnakova said the magazine survives on advertising revenue, which she said increases by 40 percent every year. "It allows us to be profitable," she said.

She notes there's a healthy dose of advertising that features American and European fashion brands. Which mean, yes, the devil can wear Prada in Russia, too. The issue I saw -- splashy, colorful and impressive -- pictured goods by Vuitton and Chanel, and Kate Moss doing Givenchy, Meg Ryan doing Baume & Mercier and Winston Churchill doing tobacco.

Galina Brovko's weekly newspaper, Panorama, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. They distributed calendars to readers that pictured a dog with glasses and a copy of the paper. The idea: As a dog is a friend to human beings, so the paper is a friend to the reader.

Brovko said the newspaper tries to give a lot of information to the reader: local, regional, national and world news; health and healthy living news; cultural events. She said readers want complete information, and want their news media to be objective. With the freedom of press and speech, she said, comes a lot of responsibility. She also said the current atmosphere is one of authorities not trusting the news media and the media not trusting authorities.

When I said all that sounded very familiar, Brovko continued.

She said she had noticed many similarities between Russians and Americans. Mostly, she said, in their like desires for peace and happiness, for a better life for their children, and in being sure of tomorrow.

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