Kelly Toughill, a former Toronto Star reporter and current instructor at the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, finds herself in some surprising discussions with Russian students about what real “freedom of the press” means back in the motherland.
A few of my students in Russia did believe in the possibility of a free press, though not all who did were sure that a free press is a good thing. When one student asked if I thought Russia should have a free press, I turned the question back on her. “Do you want a free press?” I asked her. She was quiet for several moments. “It is dangerous to want a free press in Russia,” she said. “Just to want it?” I asked, “Or to actually do it?” “It is dangerous just to want it.”
From the Toronto Star:
Free press under siege in RussiaKelly ToughillIt was the same question at the end of every class.”Yes, but is there really a free press in Canada?” asked a young Russian student slouched in the front row of my journalism and public policy course at St. Petersburg State University.”Can Canadian reporters really write what they see?” a young woman asked at the end of a lecture about political reporting.Each time I said yes, there was a tiny groan and students rolled their eyes. Some things don’t need translation. The concept of a free press seemed as far-fetched to these Russian journalism students as the tooth fairy, or Santa Claus.When I was invited to teach at the journalism school of St. Petersburg State University as part of a program run by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, I knew that things were bad for journalists in Russia, but I did not appreciate quite how bad.Diana Kachalova, editor-in-chief of a chain of community weeklies in St. Petersburg, helped me understand.”United Russia is like a tank coming down on the people,” she said, referring to the ruling party.”I feel like I’m returning to when I was young, in the 1970s.”In the Soviet era, censorship was simple and complete. An official censor vetted every word and image that appeared in the media. The current system of censorship is more complex, more dangerous and harder to expose.There was an international outcry when Russian President Vladimir Putin indirectly took control of major television networks several years ago.There was also an international outcry when a prominent investigative journalist was killed in 2006 and the editor of Forbes (Russia) was killed in 2004.But many of the constraints on reporters and editors here are not the stuff of dramatic public headlines, they are daily difficulties that make it harder and harder to find and print the truth.Kachalova said one magazine that ran irreverent photos of officials mysteriously disappeared from every newsstand in the city before it went on sale.A newspaper that distributes in the subway was warned it would lose its distribution agreement if it is critical of the government.The biggest day-to-day problem is getting information, she said, even simple information. When a reader asked her paper to find out where and when adults can play basketball in St. Petersburg, city officials told her to submit the question in writing and expect an answer in 30 days. Police now funnel all information through a press office that doesn’t have the facts, and takes two weeks to respond.”Every day and every moment it is more and more difficult to get the information,” she said.And then there is the killing and intimidation of journalists. Twenty-one journalists have been killed in Russia since 2000, according to the World Association of Newspapers.Last month a television crew that planned to cover a political demonstration was kidnapped from its hotel room, stripped naked and beaten. A journalist who was critical of Putin was turned away at the border when she tried to return home to Russia from a visit to Israel in December.Moskovskiye Novosti (Moscow News) shut down this week. Novosti was the most influential newspaper in Russia as the Soviet Union was falling apart. People stood in line for hours to get a copy, amazed to see the truth on paper for the very first time. Its demise seems symbolic.A few of my students in Russia did believe in the possibility of a free press, though not all who did were sure that a free press is a good thing. When one student asked if I thought Russia should have a free press, I turned the question back on her.”Do you want a free press?” I asked her.She was quiet for several moments.”It is dangerous to want a free press in Russia,” she said.”Just to want it?” I asked, “Or to actually do it?””It is dangerous just to want it.”Kelly Toughill, a former Star reporter and editor, is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax.