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Analysis & Opinion
13.03.08 Conflicting Interests
Comment by Georgy Bovt

The recent conflict between the Journalists Union of Chechnya and the Russian Union of Journalists seems to have risen out of nowhere. It also seems like it was a surprise to the majority of the parties involved. Nevertheless, it reflected the current state of Russian press in a rather original manner.

The Journalists Union of Chechnya accepted Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov into its membership. According to the Union’s Charter, regional branches have the prerogative to make such decisions absolutely independently. However, there are conditions for membership. Only creative professionals whose main occupation is work in the mass media, or persons conducting scientific research or teaching in the field of journalism can become members of the union. They must share the union’s goals, be at least 18 years of age, accept and acknowledge the union’s charter and pay an entrance fee.

It is doubtful that Ramzan Kadyrov met even one of these requirements, aside from being older than 18. He was, however, accepted as a member of the union with a slightly different description that is not included in the charter – “for outstanding service toward the making of Chechen journalism,” as well as “for creating ideal conditions for the functioning of local mass media.”

Kadyrov, as it later turned out, wrote a petition addressed to the President of the Union of Journalists, Vsevolod Bogdanov, back in January. He was presented with the union’s member certificate only in the beginning of March. The certificate was presented to Kadyrov by Musail Saraliyev – the Minister of Foreign Relations, National Relations and Press of Kadyrov’s republic.

The republican branch of the organization does not issue the certificates. They are all issued in the same standard form from Moscow. It was in Moscow, however, after the news was announced, that the scandal erupted. A few journalists (Alexander Minkin from Moskovsky Komsomolets and Dmitry Muratov from Novaya Gazeta) announced their decision to leave the union if Kadyrov becomes one of its members. The scandal made a great impression on the majority of the union’s leaders (the union’s Secretary General, Igor Yakovenko, spoke out against accepting Kadyrov), and the union secretariat cancelled the membership after one day. The union’s Chechen branch expressed outrage and announced it intended to separate from the all-Russian organization as a sign of protest against “the insult” of their leader.

In the heat of the moment not many people noticed the most curious aspect. Firstly, according to the union’s character, the central secretariat has no right to expel anyone from the union. Secondly (and more importantly for this case), the union already includes a number of people who have never written in their life, not even for a most scrubby newspaper, or have never hosted a radio or a TV show. Some of these people also hold no reverent feelings for the press and only communicate with it on a certain level, acting as arrogant or, at worst, condescending newsmakers.

In particular, many heads of Russian regions – governors and speakers of local legislative assemblies – are members of the Union of Journalists. These are people who directly determine the specific conditions of press activity in the corresponding regions, or, in many cases, provide an opportunity for journalists to work at all. In itself, this circumstance is not so much an illustration of a good relationship between the regional press and the corresponding leader as it is a testimony of the servility of the majority of Russian press toward the authorities.

I have to say that I had the opportunity to talk to the President of Russia’s Union of Journalists, Vsevolod Bogdanov, on the same day that Kadyrov was accepted as a member of the union. I have to admit that he presented some rather wholesome reasoning to support this decision. In essence, his argument was that the Chechen journalists acted to express a certain “unity with the regime” and their gratitude to it for everything it does for the mass media.

Indeed, under Kadyrov a new House of the Press was built in Chechnya, and a park was laid out to commemorate the journalists that perished during the war. Such actions on the part of the regime can be interpreted in many different ways: as “praying for forgiveness for sins” during the war, or as plain “bribery” of the press, or as a display of “healthy paternalism” in the conditions of a popular, yet authoritarian regime.

In any case, there is already an established relationship between the press and the authorities in the republic, and this relationship makes even the slightest criticism of the authorities’ actions impossible. Any criticism, if any is ever expressed, would have originated not from the institutional and material independence of the press, but from the regime’s willingness to display “indulgence” and to allow such criticism.

Another important matter, incidentally, is the independence of spirit – that is, the willingness of certain mass media employees to be independent and free in their judgments, investigations and reports. Is such independence present today in the majority of Russia’s mass media professionals?

What we have instead is an obvious conflict of interests: most often the press is directly dependent on the regime and does not in any way strive to become free of such dependence. If only because it is much more profitable to be a servant to the regime than an opponent. Such a conflict of interests, of course, is typical not only for Chechnya and not only for the regions whose leaders were also “gratefully” accepted into their ranks by local journalists. The Union of Journalists, however, is not yet ready to undertake a large-scale “cleansing” of its ranks, to get rid of individuals who have absolutely no relation to journalism. This is probably because not only politics is the art of the possible, but also the freedom of speech and independence of the press in Russia.
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