Independent media in Russia: what is the impact?

I am spending this academic year at Stanford trying to answer the question “How might we secure financial sustainability of independent investigative media in Russia?” This post is the second in a series “Creating a new media prototype” (here you can find the fist one “Sad numbers: what is wrong with Russian non-profit media?”)

This photo was taken in Chernobyl years after the nuclear disaster. It shows portraits of the communist leaders, abandoned in one of the public buildings in the city of Pripyat

This will sound rather ridiculous, but in the upper house of the Russian parliament — the Federation Council — there is a body called the “Interim Commission for the Protection of State Sovereignty”. This is one of dozens of state watchdogs that has appeared in Russia under Vladimir Putin — and this is not funny. The funny thing is that such an important topic for the current Russian government as “the protection of state sovereignty” is just a temporary occupation.

This March, the commission issued a report on the intervention of Western, and primarily American, NGOs in “the political, economic, cultural and humanitarian spheres in Russia.” In other words, the parliamentarians calculated how much money the Russian entities received from Western NGOs. They claimed that in 2016, 4,500 Russian NGOs received from abroad about $1.25 billion (here you can find estimates made in the U.S. that look closer to reality). Following this, Russian MP Leonid Kalashnikov suggested that the death penalty should be applied to foreigners “interfering in the Russian elections” (сapital punishment has not been used in Russia for more than 20 years).

Analyzing these figures and words with the help of ordinary logic does not make sense. The real meaning of every such statement is the following. The Russian authorities are saying to the West: “Do not support civil initiatives in Russia, otherwise you will get a response something like the interference in the 2016 presidential elections”. It is important that foreign NGOs seem to obey this recommendation. In my last post, I talked about how much funding for media initiatives in Russia has been reduced. Why is that? Why have even large philanthropic organizations operating in Eastern Europe — like the Open Society or the Omidyar Network — completely excluded Russia from their funding decisions.

After spending a lot of time talking with Western donors, I found several answers to this question:

1) Over the past 17 years, not only has Russian independent media died, but also the infrastructure of intermediaries who sought interesting projects in Russia and helped them obtain foreign funding. There are no people, no connections, no common practice and no language for this work. As a result, many foreign donors who invest in media projects around the world no longer have a way to learn about, or evaluate, potential independent media projects in Russia that they might be interested in supporting.

2) The election victory of Donald Trump (possibly with the Kremlin’s conscious or accidental help) has drastically changed the funding priorities and policies of American NGOs and private donors. It turned out that freedom of speech, independent press and investigative journalism are needed right here in the United States, not somewhere far away like Russia. That is why in the last year the support of media within the United States is growing and assistance to journalistic projects abroad is being reduced, several experts working with the American non-profit sector told me.

3) It is sad, but donors (both foreign and Russian) have ceased to understand the benefits that an independent journalistic project can bring to Russia. One respected Russian, who is doing a lot to support civil initiatives in Russia in spite of problems this causes him with authorities, described this problem in this way: After journalistic investigations in Russia nothing changes, even no one is fired. “What is the potential impact, how does journalism affect Russian society?” — his view was echoed by a high-ranking American non-profit decision-maker.

The last reason is most important and sad. In this regard, there are two stories that illustrate the impact of not having a strong, independent media in Russia.

In 1986, there was in the USSR, the infamous accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Of course, the first reports of radioactive contamination did not appear in the Soviet media, which, despite the beginning of perestroika, were still completely controlled by the state. The first report two days after the disaster was published by Swedish journalists from Tidningarnas Telegrambyra: by that time a radioactive cloud had reached Sweden. It’s obvious how useful to the Soviet / Russian society it would have been if there were media in the country that could tell about the catastrophe immediately.

In 2017, a radioactive ruthenium cloud appeared in Russia, over the South Urals, in the Volga region, and then over several European countries. The French press was the first to report something suspicious. What happened with the release of ruthenium in the area of ​​the nuclear facility “Mayak” in the South Urals is still unknown. In Russia there is no media that has learned truth about this incident.

These two events were 30 years apart — and, sadly, nothing has really changed. Despite perestroika and the collapse of the USSR, there are still a lot of topics that directly touch people’s daily lives — health, safety, money, to name a few — that are not fully reported on because there is not strong independent news organizations in Russia, for Russians.