Russian bureaucrats choke flow of information for local journalists

Dec 132007

On top of the normal challenges faced by journalists everywhere, Russian journalists find that government sources at all levels are restricting even basic information to the press.   The Yeltsin years in Russia were chaotic and sometimes dangerous, but they afforded journalists great opportunities. The relaxation of press restrictions that began with Perestroika continued, and even stolid bureaucrats became more communicative as the power became decentralized.

But Russia seems to have become more difficult for journalists recently. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 21 journalists have been killed because of their jobs since President Putin came to power in 2000. And physical threats are not the only problems.

This much is clear after talking with journalists and editors at Moy Rayon/St. Petersburg. One of the chief difficulties these local journalists face is a pattern of official obstructionism. The complaint is not that officials prohibit journalists from printing anything in particular; rather, the complaint is that officials refuse to offer minimal cooperation. We aren’t talking about officials refusing to comment on potential embarrassing or inflammatory articles. The subjects are the ordinary stuff of local newspapers – traffic accidents and infrastructure repairs. Sometimes, the subjects would even reflect well on local authorities. It doesn’t matter. The reporters I spoke to this week said local bureaucrats don’t even offer official cooperation on these subjects. Why? An answer might be suggested from a reply that one local official gave to a reporter. “We don’t need you. We have other newspapers.” In other words, it is not in the interest of these local officials to lend even minimal assistance to a newspaper that is not in the pocket of the party apparatus that increasingly rules this country.

Writing in a column several weeks ago, Diana Kachalova, the editor of Moy Rayon/St. Petersburg, described very well the problem facing local journalists:

“In the minds of the bureaucrats, the idea is growing that they have a monopoly on information, and that only they can decide what the population should know or not know.”

The editors at Moy Rayon/Moscow don’t mention this problem of bureaucratic non-cooperation as much. It may be such a fact-of-life that it barely rates mentioning. Or, it may be a factor that will remain no matter what type of training program is presented here. In fact, the options for dealing with uncooperative bureaucrats here are few. Journalists can’t file a Freedom of Information Act request. As one of the St. Petersburg journalists observed, the newspaper is shut out of even stories that would reflect well on city authorities. In the United States, we have uncooperative bureaucrats too, and many a time I’ve run a story with the tag-line “So & so refused to comment.” Or “So & so refused repeated requests for interviews.” This is fine every once in awhile, but it looks silly when the article is about some minor bridge repair or traffic accident. On the whole, it means that the government is withholding information from the newspaper. While any one piece of information may be comparatively minor, in aggregate the government policy has the potential to devalue the newspaper as a source of information.