Knobel discusses Russian journalism
Investigative reporter Beth Knobel visited the Hill on Thursday, February 17 to deliver a lecture on her experience with the progression of Russian journalism. She focused on her belief that freedom of speech is in a state of crisis in Russia, and that the credibility of Russian journalism should be questioned.
Knobel has much first-hand experience in the field of journalism. In the 1990s, she worked as a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, Worldwide Television News and Feature Story News. From 1999 until 2006, Knobel served as the Moscow Bureau Chief for CBS News, where she worked as an on-air correspondent and as a producer. She won an Emmy Award for her investigative coverage of the 2002 Moscow theater siege. She also received the Edward R. Murrow and Sigma Delta Chi awards for her coverage of the 2004 Beslan school siege. She is a published co-author of Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists. Knobel is currently a professor of journalism at Fordham University,
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the new Russian Federal Republic rose, Knobel was a firsthand witness to Russian current events. There she could directly observe the changes in the state of journalism. Knobel noted that during the reign of the Soviet Union it was difficult to perceive what was actually going on in Russian politics, which in effect made journalism difficult to accomplish. Knobel drew a parallel from that to the state of Russian journalism today.
However, Knobel noted that freedom of the press was not always like this in Russia. There was immense freedom of speech after the Soviet Union collapsed, especially in the early 1990s when Knobel first began her career as a reporter.
In fact, Knobel stated that it was rather easy to be a journalist during this time period. Not only were there a lot of interesting stories to report, but there was also a willingness among the people to share their experiences. She noted that it was much easier to do her research; she could easily call up government officials and news networks to schedule interviews. “There was a special cachet to being a foreigner, especially an American,” Knobel said. This willingness to speak up was due in part to the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. According to Knobel, Yeltsin, the first popularly elected president of Russia, believed in free press and didn’t oppose criticism of the government. Additionally, people were “voracious readers,” she said, and news channels were not subject to the government.
This reign of freedom would not last. Knobel assigned part of the blame to the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation, which granted a huge amount of power to the president. She also cited the civil unrest in Chechen and the Federation’s forceful measures in response to this event, as a contributing factor to this change.
Another turning point that Knobel pointed out was the election of 1996. Yeltsin suffered from a heart attack weeks before the vote, and was consequently unable to campaign. Upon his return, he spent a lot of money on the campaign and tried to win over the press. After he was elected, “there was a pressure amongst the media to go easy on Yeltsin,” Knobel said, and it was “not as easy to get an interview with the government.”
The most outright and direct movements against freedom of speech incurred after the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000. His approval ratings shot up as he campaigned for “trying to bring respect back to Russia,” Knobel said. In an effort to consolidate his power, Putin amended the laws so that the representatives of the Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, could only be elected from pre-approved parties that had to have a minimum of seven percent of the popular vote.
To fully consolidate his power, Putin targeted the media, specifically television broadcasts, which are the main source of news access for most Russians. The three most prominent news networks, Channel 1, NTV and a governmental channel, are now all indirectly under the control of the government. NTV, an independent news network, was taken over by Gazprom, which is the largest extractor of natural gas in the world and the largest Russian company. Similarly, Channel 1 is controlled by its stockholders, 51 percent of whom happen to be in the Russian government. “The Kremlin calls in the news networks and gives them marching orders,” Knobel said of the government ownership of the media.
The Internet may the last hope for journalism in Russia. Though “it has not had a big effect on politics yet, it might,” Knobel said. For instance, she noted that when Police Officer Major Alexei Dymovsky posted a video about police corruption online, it received two million hits, and was even addressed in the legislature.
Still, “Russia is one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work,” Knobel said. “They are sometimes killed for what they write.”