21 March 2011By Masha Karp
On Monday 7th March Queen Mary’s College of London University and the EU-Russia Centre jointly held a roundtable 'Are the media free in Russia today?' The panel was chaired by John Lloyd, contributing editor at the Financial Times and former Moscow Bureau Chief, and included Maria Lipman, editor-in-chief of Pro et Contra (Carnegie Moscow Center) and regular op-ed contributor to The Washington Post; Georgy Bovt, independent journalist, former executive editor-in-chief at Izvestia; and Luke Harding, former Guardian reporter in Russia. Masha Karp reports:
After a decade of numerous attacks on Russian journalists and firm state control of the main television channels, the question posed for the debate at Queen Mary’s College might seem strangely dated and rhetorical, but the presence on the panel of Luke Harding, a former Guardian Moscow correspondent who recently had to leave Russia, suddenly gave it a new dimension: “Are the foreign media free in Russia today?” Luke Harding’s fate certainly did not allow this question to be dismissed lightly.
Over the first weekend of February Luke Harding was detained at Domodedovo airport on his return to Moscow following an absence of two months. After nervously checking his passport, the young woman at passport control asked him to wait. He was soon taken to an airport cell, where other foreigners, also presumably ‘undesirable’, from Tajikistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo were being kept. He spent 45 minutes there, after which he was told: ‘Russia is closed for you’ and sent back to the UK on the first available plane. Conjectures as to why this could have happened ranged from Harding’s recent WikiLeaks coverage, which implied that the Russian government ‘was using the mafia for its dirty work’ or that Putin must have known about the planned 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London, to the journalist’s own brief detention in Ingushetia in April 2010, or his interview with the father of Mariam Sharipova, a suspected suicide bomber behind the blasts in Moscow in March 2010.
The fact that no official explanation was given at that point in itself worked as a powerful tool of intimidation: there are certain themes which a reporter should not touch, and certain places which he or she should not visit, or else you could be deported, just like the too-inquisitive Guardian journalist. In fact, as Luke Harding told the audience at Queen Mary’s, even without this latest warning, not only Russian journalists, but foreign journalists in Russia more often than not exercise self-censorship when it comes to the most sensitive issues. As there is very little reliable official information, Western correspondents, who are used to presenting two sides of the argument, are usually reluctant to deal with cases where an anti-government allegation cannot be juxtaposed against an official comment. They would rather avoid the particular topic altogether, thus depriving their readers, listeners and viewers at home of vital information.
Luke Harding was different from the start. And the consequences were immediate too. He told the audience at Queen Mary’s that it was within four months of his arrival in Moscow in 2007 that he realized ‘how unpopular he was’ with the authorities. This was unambiguously made clear to him by a variety of means. And within 4 years he was expelled from the country.
There was of course one thing that slightly spoilt the triumph of the authorities who sanctioned his expulsion – they had to row back on it. While the Russian media was accusing Harding of ‘over-blowing a scandal’ and predicting that making a meal out of it would only make things worse, the row reached the British Parliament and, unusually, it was united in its protest. The Foreign Secretary William Hague called his counterpart in Russia Sergei Lavrov demanding an explanation, which Lavrov could not immediately provide, and during the debate in the House of Commons both the government Minister for Europe David Lidington and other MPs across the House expressed their indignation at Russia’s behaviour. As this was happening on the eve of Lavrov’s visit to Britain, Labour MP Chris Bryant, head of the All-Party Group on Russia, suggested that Lavrov be made to feel ‘not welcome in this country while British journalists are not welcome in Russia.’ This rare open display of the British position did the trick – the next day the Ministry of Foreign Affairs clumsily explained that the visa had only been suspended following Harding’s failure to collect his accreditation before he left for Britain and he could now go back to Russia. The words ‘Russia is closed for you’ seem to have been forgotten. This U-turn naturally strengthens the position of those who think that a firm approach by the West is still able to stop Russia’s authorities from going over the top, no matter how much they would hate it.
Interestingly, two other speakers on the panel at Queen Mary’s College, Maria Lipman and Georgy Bovt, seemed to be trying to comfort the Western audience by saying that actually the situation with Russian media freedom is not as desperate as it may seem from afar. Of course, television, the main media for the majority of the Russian population, is fully controlled by the government, but some newspapers are free. And there is the Internet, which 30-40 million people now use regularly, even if only 2,000 out of 5 million bloggers write on politics. Of course, the press has no hope of influencing any decisions taken by the authorities, which effectively means that there is no freedom of the press in Russia, but there is freedom of self-expression and ‘we certainly do not need any “foreign voices” (foreign radio stations) supplying us with information, as it was in the past, because those who wish to get it will know how to find it, even in the absence of media freedom.’ This seems to have been the message from the Russian members of the panel.
‘How well is the Russian public acquainted with the Sergei Magnitsky affair?’ was one of the questions asked after the debate. Georgy Bovt thought that under 5% of Russians would know what it was all about, Maria Lipman’s estimate was about 15%. The problem, however, is that although the majority of the British public have surely not made any special effort to find information about Magnitsky, his tragic fate has become known to them thanks to the free media Britain has, rather than as a result of individual decisions to search for it. The acceptance of a two-tier system, when only those who are politically aware have access to information (because they know where to find it), while others have no idea that this information exists, can hardly be called particularly democratic.
The panel’s attitude to the West also seemed to be ambiguous. Georgy Bovt suggested that if young Russian people regularly travelled abroad – even just to have a beer in Prague – the situation in Russia could change relatively quickly. However, when out of a population of 140 million only 12 million have foreign passports, and only five million of these actually travel, there is no certainty that this would necessarily work… Maria Lipman’s emphasis was on trying to talk the West out of any attempts to influence the situation in Russia: ‘You don’t have any leverage,’ she said.
However, Luke Harding mentioned a tool that could prove useful in the fight against corrupt and criminal officials - the refusal to grant them visas to Europe and America, as proposed by the American senator Benjamin Cardin and supported by the U.S Congress and the European Parliament. And another thing was gradually becoming obvious – if the influence of the West were minimal, if it had no leverage whatsoever, why would the Russian authorities have tried to expel a reporter whose main ‘offence’ was to tell too much to his English-speaking readers? Why would have they been so annoyed if this did not matter at all?