'Propaganda and PR campaigns are not the same thing as journalism' - Aleksei Simonov talks to Kristina Gorelik on Radio Svoboda (17.10.2014)

posted 30 Oct 2014, 07:51 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 30 Oct 2014, 08:15 ]
17 October 2014

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group 

Original source: Radio Svoboda

This is a translation of an edited version of the original Russian

Radio show host: Kristina Gorelik

Kristina Gorelik: […] The second court case against the journalist and blogger Sergei Reznik is coming to an end in Rostov-on-Don. Reznik is charged with insulting a representative of the authorities and making a knowingly false denunciation. If found guilty, the journalist faces up to three years in prison. In November 2013 the same court sentenced Reznik to 18 months behind bars for insulting a representative of the state authorities, commercial bribery and falsely denouncing a member of the law-enforcement agencies. Reznik maintains his innocence and claims that the criminal proceedings against him were motivated by his professional activities, namely his articles published in the media and his personal blog on “LiveJournal” where he has exposed corruption among civil servants, judges and members of the uniformed services. […] 

"Reznik is a victim, but I simply can't bring myself to call him an innocent victim", says Aleksei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation, about the trial of Sergei Reznik. Glasnost Defence Foundation is helping bring experts to the case to carry out an independent evaluation of Reznik's publications. "It's not longer possible to say that modern journalism is a clean business,” says Aleksei Simonov regretfully, adding that he is obliged at meetings of the Union of Journalists to remind his colleagues that propaganda and PR campaigns are not the same thing as journalism.

Aleksei Simonov: Cases of this kind are quite typical nowadays, because most courts now dismiss defamation of character charges, tending not to see in them serious violations. There has at any rate been a noticeable increase in rulings against the prosecution, i.e. in favour of journalists, even though at the same time the overall number of charges has plummeted. Journalists, and in particular bloggers, are being charged instead with entirely new offences, such as extremism, libel, the use of obscenities and so on. 

What we are seeing is a round-about approach, whereby the victims end up facing charges not because their actions are dangerous, but because their faces don’t fit – they have already gained a reputation locally and exhausted the patience of all the law-enforcement agencies, public prosecutors and other similar groups of people in an area, and so it’s time to open a case against them. Yet rather than relating to any specific crime, the charges brought are all-embracing, as was the case with the journalist Tolmachev, again in Rostov.

This is linked to the trend for human rights activists, or journalists who take up human rights issues, to delude themselves that they are not merely journalists and human rights activists, but also fully-fledged lawyers. They have to keep the wolves away from the door, and so they start to litigate on behalf of others and to take money for doing so. Yet their methods mainly involve using the mass media as their natural domain, and that means that what you read in the media may not always be absolutely correct from a legal point of view.

Although I have never met Reznik and I have not familiarised myself with his case in detail, I have advised his defence team and so I am up to date with its progress. The most important task at present is to find an expert able to comment on certain points of the prosecution's indictment, in particular the public prosecutor’s claim that Reznik’s reference to him as a “tractor driver” in one of his articles can be deemed an insult. “Tractor driver” is not in itself an insult, but context is key. I myself am not familiar with the context, but I do know that a competent and impartial expert is needed.

It is however unfortunately the case that the opinions submitted by experts to Russia’s provincial courts nowadays are shockingly bad, merely repeating whatever these experts have been ordered to say. This is particularly alarming because our lawyers are just as capable as the experts when it comes to cases unrelated to defamation of character, and can contest many points. When a defendant is charged with insulting a representative of the authorities, for example, and the epithet of “tractor driver” is suddenly deemed to be an insult, one expert may state that the context involves the tractor driver having a lousy tractor with an empty tank and a malfunctioning engine and so on, which would clearly be insulting. Another expert reading the article with unbiased eyes may have a completely different opinion on the matter. And so on the one hand Reznik is undoubtedly a victim, but I cannot objectively say that he is an innocent victim.

To put it bluntly, we need to sort the wheat from the chaff, and to find out whether there is in fact any wheat, which is entirely possible given the thoroughly immoral, pushy, loutish and aggressive nature of this kind of journalism. Modern-day journalism has overstepped its boundaries, not least due to the actions of state-funded institutions. What I have in mind are the university faculties which combine PR with journalism. They are no longer two different subjects, one aimed at promoting a positive image and the other involving telling the truth – two tasks which I’m sure you’ll agree are extremely difficult to reconcile.

Recently the Public Press Complaints Council examined a case involving a PR agency in Voronezh which coexisted alongside a news agency. They were managed by the same person and registered at the same address, merely occupying different rooms. All the journalists needed to do was cross the corridor in order to turn into PR lackeys. This is a disgrace. One company lodged a complaint against him and, in response to a request by the Public Press Complaints Council, he forwarded the titles of articles about the company and said that he was objectively evaluating the image of one or another company. Of the 22 articles submitted, 17 were clearly intended to tarnish the reputation of the company in question, merely by virtue of their headlines. However, there was apparently no clear evidence, and so the council did not discuss it, but what is actually happening is that he will walk into a company and say, ‘Let our news agency act as your PR agent.’ This alone is bad enough, but if the person refuses these PR services, he will be told that the news agency will be extremely displeased, and may not be able to hide its displeasure from the public. This is an example of the approach taken by these “journalists”.

The second incident is linked to Mamontov’s TV programme on food, in which Andrei Karaulov appeared as the lead expert on vegetable oils. No doubt he’s an expert in buttering up the system, but he’s not what I’d call a real expert. We’ve reached a dead end with Karaulov – we’ve already examined two cases relating to his own programmes in which he appeared not as an expert, but as author, director, producer and even myth-maker, and on both occasions we found that the cases had nothing to do with journalistic ethics, because the programmes in question were not journalism – they were artistic creations based on a small number of real-life facts. An expert in pharmacology and doctor of sciences who had appeared on the programme spoke before the council, and who told us that Mamontov had come up to him during every commercial break, called him by his full name and asked him, “What are you going to say?” He then made it clear whether he objected to anything that he heard. The pharmacologist was asked four times what he was going to say, and then wasn’t given a chance to speak. This is merely an example of how things work – we’re talking about the ultimate in working to order.

Six months ago the Public Press Complaints Council examined a complaint lodged by the Ethics Committee of the National Union of Journalists in Ukraine about Kiselev’s programme. The Council came to the eminently sensible and reasonable conclusion that the programme was nothing but a PR exercise and spin doctoring, and that it had nothing in common with real journalism, and cannot be considered as such. We are talking about an official council and experts in their field – journalism. They are not familiar with such rubbish and they do not need to be.

Source: Radio Svoboda, 17.10.2014

Translated by Joanne Reynolds