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January 13, 2003
A Measure of Danger
Russia is apparently the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.
Not so.

A few Russians might be a little peeved to find out that their country has been voted by an international media watchdog as the world's most dangerous place to be a journalist.

According to the Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), last year three journalists and one "media assistant" died at the hands of the "underworld and local officials." One journalist died in Chechnya--Roddy Scott--but as a foreigner he was excluded from the calculations.

That apparently makes Russia more dangerous than the letter bombs and drug-war vendettas of Columbia; it also makes it more dangerous than North Korea, which tops (or, rather, bottoms) the RSF 2002 Press Freedom Index.

Russians could justifiably be peeved. Indeed, Russia's position in the survey arguably shows that it has a media that is more free than other post-Soviet countries with lower death counts.

In 2002, under President Vladimir Putin, the state has begun to impose itself more on the media. Speaking to the Moscow Times, Oleg Panfilov of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations said: "The number of criminal cases opened against journalists in the three years of Vladimir Putin's rule is more than the number during the entire 10 years of Boris Yeltsin's reign."

Newspapers have been closed down for petty and imagined misdemeanors--heating violations, minor bureaucratic transgressions, and other such trifles--and the Federal Security Service (FSB) confiscated computers belonging to the weekly Versia, supposedly because of its muckraking regarding the Nord-Ost hostage crisis. The Kremlin and the state's various (sometimes somewhat independent) arms--chiefly the secret services and the military--clearly don't much value independence of mind, whether from journalists, scientists, or environmentalists.

But for the media in Russia, as the death figures show, the main danger to life and limb is not the state, but commercial interests. The deaths highlighted in the RSF report had more to do with crony capitalism and disputes between shady local businessmen than an overbearing state.

The model in Russia is perhaps more Western than the West would like to acknowledge. Journalists are taking much bigger risks and going to greater lengths to get the story and undercut their rivals; with increased competition on the networks and on the newsstands the stakes are higher than ever before, and therefore the game is more dangerous.

The competitiveness was clear during the Nord-Ost hostage crisis, as the media sought to get into the theater, tried to grab interviews, and brought in lip-readers to work out what Putin and other officials were saying. Despite our suspicion that much of the post-crisis attack on the media were a red herring to detract attention from the government's own failings, the incident did show some of the failings of the Russian media, and some of those were due to rash competitiveness.

The dangers are greatest outside the glare of the Moscow spotlight, where the independently minded journalist enjoys less protection from the revenge of those he or she investigates. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, one of the journalists killed in Russia, Natasha Skryl, "was investigating an ongoing struggle for control of Tagmet, a local metallurgical plant." Another, Valery Ivanov, an editor in the southern Russian city of Togliatti, was shot outside his home. His colleagues believe his murder is connected with the investigative work his newspaper does into local corruption and organized crime.

So Russia's media pluralism certainly has a price. It is also a limited pluralism: The media is too in hock to business interests and too in awe of or overshadowed and controlled by the state to be deeply critical and independent. But there is pluralism, there is some independence, and there is a willingness to speak out.

The fundamental question RSF's judgment poses is this: Is a media environment more dangerous if it produces journalists courageous enough to investigate, or more dangerous if it fails to produce journalists with the courage to ferret around? The argument is hypothetical, of course--to use a military metaphor (appropriate given the danger), if you don't stick your head over the parapet, your head won't be shot off--so we cannot tell. But we would argue that it is more dangerous to be independently minded in Ashgabat and Tashkent than in Moscow and Russia's regions.

In the Central Asian states (all with lower death counts than Russia, though also much smaller, something the report does not take into account), government harassment, intimidation, and censorship are more widespread. In Uzbekistan, scores of journalists are imprisoned, often for just criticizing the president. In Turkmenistan, where Saparmurat Niazov is president for life, there is no independent media to speak of.

So Central Asian journalists are on a short leash. But there is another imponderable that is not as susceptible to statistical treatment as death: self-censorship. As George Orwell once wrote: "Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip."

What we see in Central Asia even more than elsewhere in the former Soviet Union is a self-censorship as ingrained in journalistic culture as checking the wires or going for long lunches. The phrase "self-censorship" is slightly misleading and evokes images of bespectacled editors "watching their words" or absurdist Soviet tales of journalists thanking the party leaders for the grain harvest after a severe drought. What it does not convey enough is the pathology of the diseased system to which it belongs. It does little to express the futility that comes with the triumph of fear.

And, unfortunately, when anger and sincerity and an inquiring mind triumph over fear in Central Asia, we see there is good reason for fear. A trawl of TOL's archives for last year will produce a good harvest of stories of journalists under pressure in the region.

Take Kazakhstan, perhaps last year's worst example--and thought a decade ago to be relatively pluralistic. The government there has been on the defensive over allegations of corruption and under pressure from a stronger opposition.

The result in politics has been tighter regulations designed to push out smaller parties. In the media, just this week, an opposition journalist found himself in court for raping an underage girl. Last year, in the most significant string of events, a leading opposition newspaper was firebombed and received a dead dog as a warning. The owner's daughter then died in police custody. The causes of all three incidents are mysterious, and the state denies all involvement. A mathematician might call the incidence of misfortune for opposition journalists statistically significant; we will content ourselves with saying it makes journalists fearful.

For those who want to calculate the danger journalists face with indices based on statistics, we suggest counting dead dogs and dead relatives as well. For those who want an even truer sense of the dangers of journalism, we suggest also producing an index that factors in self-censorship.

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