#8 - JRL 7225
June 17, 2003
Press Freedom Thrives on an Empty Belly?
By Alexei Pankin
Last week, my body and soul found themselves by the banks of the River Iset in Yekaterinburg, where the annual All Russia media festival, organized by the Union of Journalists and Sverdlovsk region Governor Eduard Rossel, was held this year.
My thoughts, however, wandered to the banks of the River Thames, where several years ago the opening of the Millenium Dome -- the beloved plaything of British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- took place. An English journalist acquaintance once recounted to me that just about every editor who was anybody in the British media was invited to the event. Unfortunately they had to wait in line for several hours before they could get inside. No other Blair initiative came in for quite such scathing criticism, my English colleague concluded with a hint of schadenfreude.
On the opening day of the festival in Yekaterinburg, Rossel held a reception. I and my colleagues -- the bosses of major independent regional publishing houses -- missed the start of the reception by a couple of minutes. All the tables in the huge hall were already encircled by at least three rings of guests, and we abandoned hope of fighting our way through to the food and beverages that had been provided. As a result, I and my fellow unfortunates were just about the only people who actually took heed of Rossel's welcoming speech. He told us that the central Urals had the most media outlets in Russia and that "there is no censorship here, we rely on their [the journalists'] 'inner voice,' their journalistic consciences and professionalism." On an empty stomach, these words were received with profound skepticism.
However, a genuinely independent press is not accustomed to throwing the towel in when the going gets tough. One of our group managed to fight his way through the crowd and procure a bottle of vodka, while others got hold of zakuski. After a while, our merry band was joined by the commanding heights of Irkutsk's independent press. By the end of the evening, the state of free speech in Sverdlovsk was no longer a matter of concern.
The following evening, the Union of Journalists hosted a reception. Our bitter experience the day before prompted us to arrive 10 minutes early for the event, although this proved unnecessary. The organization that embodies the Russian press's struggle for freedom and independence, put on a feast that -- in abundance and diversity -- dwarfed Rossel's reception.
Unfortunately, I was unable to enjoy the feast to the end, as I had to rush back to Moscow. As I was collecting my bag from the cloakroom, a male voice rang out from the reception hall, singing a folk ditty about a rowan tree in the Urals. "It sounds like Rossel has broken into song," said the attendant. I was late for my plane and didn't manage to get confirmation of this from two independent sources.
"Why does he go on and on about the food and booze," no doubt indignant readers will be complaining. "How can you go to Yekaterinburg and not say anything about the regional press?"
"Half the newspapers here praise Rossel and attack Yekaterinburg's mayor, Arkady Chernetsky; the other half praise Chernetsky and attack Rossel," warned Lyudmila Shevchenko, director of the Urals office of the Press Development Institute, almost the minute I touched down in Yekaterinburg. "I have to read the papers because it's my job to, but I wouldn't recommend it to others."
I decided the sensible thing to do was to listen to the advice of a wise woman.
Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals