[This article originally appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of Nieman Reports.]
After Watergate and the work of The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that led to President Nixon’s resignation, young reporters dreamt of emulating this kind of investigative journalism featured in the movie "All the President’s Men."
However, quite often in many other countries including Russia, where I work as an independent, investigative journalist the situation can turn out very differently. The upcoming movie "The Insider," rather than "All the President’s Men," often turns out to be true. "The Insider" tells the well-known story of CBS’s famous "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace, whose bosses refused to broadcast a piece on Big Tobacco. Those who owned the media outlet were fearful of losing advertising revenues and of getting embroiled in a costly lawsuit with tobacco companies. In short, an investigative scoop was held because of the owner’s fear about consequences if the story was broadcast.
In my recent experience, unfortunately, this is a very familiar script. The reasons for this reside in Russia’s history and its current political situation. Despite the new democratic elections, Russia has failed to create strong democratic institutions, but succeeded in becoming one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world, according to the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. This ought to provide plenty of fertile ground for investigative reporting. However, at the same time, the notion that "free speech" and "uncensored media" create the foundation for the practice of democracy is still not well understood. So what happens is that media outlets become controlled by the elite and powerful who don’t want their power and prosperity to be threatened.
Let me share a few examples of what I’ve experienced in my reporting:
November of 1996. It was just four months after Boris Yeltsin’s overwhelming victory over his Communist competitor, long-time Communist party apparatchick Gennady Zyuganov. Izvestia, then the biggest and the most respectable national paper which I worked for, asked me to write a piece on my long-time "heroes" the KGB, the Russian secret police who were notorious for their violations of human rights. The essence of the Russian secret service had changed little after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. I wrote the piece but 15 minutes before the paper went into printing, the article was called back from the page. Two hours later, my story somehow found its way to my "heroes" on Lubyanka (the place in Moscow where KGB headquarters are located). What had happened became clear a couple of months later. Izvestia had been put up for sale. (In the Soviet Union the paper had been owned, as all media were, by the state; since autumn of 1991 it had been owned by its own journalists.) One of the major investors in Izvestia, for some reason, did not want to attack the secret police. I went public about the case, because when one writes stories such as this on the KGB publicity is the only protection a journalist has from a contract killer. Izvestia fired me. I filed a lawsuit and won, but the newspaper’s pages were closed to me.
May of 1997. I am the anchor and author of the TV magazine on press and politics produced by NTV (non-government television), Russia’s best independent network owned by MOST-media. A person I interviewed spoke harshly of the chief lieutenant of one of Russia’s most powerful media moguls, Boris Berezovsky, who was then an ally of the owner of NTV. Six days later my show was cancelled. I was out of a job.
September of 1997. I did an investigative series on the Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who is currently a presidential candidate in the upcoming 2000 presidential election in Russia. The series, written soon after American businessman Paul Tatum was killed in Moscow, was far from complementary of the mayor. In my reporting, I dug into Luzhkov’s connections with some Russian businessmen who were subjects of Interpol’s interest. (My investigation of this aspect of the case was made with the help of colleagues from two other countries.) I took my story to four major Russian newspapers and weeklies before I was able to get it published in a then-new and independent weekly, Novaya Gazeta. The reaction of the editors at the four other publications was almost hysterical: "Are you crazy? The day after we publish some negative story exposing Moscow’s mayor or his closest entourage, our bills on electricity, water, office rent will double or even triple. We are not suicidal by any means!" They were being brutally honest. Novaya Gazeta did get into trouble as a result of publishing my series: The renovation of its new office space was stopped, apparently under the order of the Moscow city government. I also received a letter in my mailbox"You deserve a bullet"along with some nasty phone calls.
March of 1998. I was trying to publish a story that was the result of a three-month investigation I’d done that exposed Russian government and semi-government bodies’ scandalous and dirty deals in trading highly sensitive technologies to Iran. I called it "Our Men in Teheran." Three major newspapers rejected this story. Their arguments can be characterized in this way: "This story is against Russian national interests." "Why?" I would ask. And the editors would say, "Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, during his 1998 visit to the United States, said publicly that Russia was not and is not involved in any illegal technology trading with Iran and Iraq." Yet my investigation presented hard evidence that the Prime Minister either didn’t have proper information or just lied, I argued. "Never mind, the story is damaging to the Russian interests." "Whose interests do you have in mind?" I would then ask, in what was becoming an obvious failure to get any newspaper to publish my story. "Are they the interests of bureaucrats who are putting big bucks into their own pockets because of these deals? Or the interests of the Russian people who are about to lose $50 billion as a result of sanctions that might be imposed by international financial institutions because of those illegal trades?" There was no response.
September 1998. January 1999. April 1999. I produced stories about different investigations. I took them to the same publications. I had many of the same conversations, resulting in the same outcomes.
I tell these stories not to be pitied, but to offer specific examples of what investigative journalists are up against in Russia these days. But the sad fact is that even exposure of this situation likely does no good. My colleagues recognize that journalism is a highly corporate industry that dislikes if not to say, rejects those who expose such details of our profession. After my lawsuit against Izvestia was publicized, executives at other news outlets told me the following: "You are dangerous to deal with. You write the story and you want to publish it." "Oh, really?" I would say. "What about other reporters? Don’t they want to publish their stories?" Their answer: "Others know the rules of the game and obey them."
The price for such candidness is well-known: You become the only reader of your stories. As a popular saying among Russian journalists goes, "He (she) is the author of unread and unseen (by anyone but the author) famous stories."
I have, however, made my choice: I choose to seek my freedom as an independent journalist.
To me, the continuing erosion of independent media outlets means I am free to do my investigations and to write stories but I am likely to become their one lonely reader.
As much as it sounds paradoxical, the Russian media lost the freedom they had long been seeking as a result of the 1996 presidential elections. This was the election when Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratically elected President, beat his Communist opponent and Communism, as the ideology of the totalitarian state, was pronounced forever dead in Russia.
Officially censorship was abandoned in the Soviet Union as early as 1989, during glasnost. However, in reality, the press remained under strict control of the weakening totalitarian state until late autumn of 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The chaos of those first years of the reforms made journalists poor but gave them unprecedented freedom. Both print and electronic media, while struggling for survival, were admired by the public, which itself was seeking freedom from the constraints of a totalitarian state. Reporters did a decent job in exposing dirty deals of the collapsed Soviet state and of the new/old Russian bureaucracy that inherited both the wealth and the troubles of the no longer existent "evil empire," as President Ronald Reagan once called the Soviet Union.
By 1995, however, the first of Russia’s new rich had started to invest in media. It turns out that these new owners were looking to make both financial and political profits out of their investments in the Russian media. In 1996, the presidential campaign clearly showed that those who had dared to invest in media were gaining power and political influence. Thus, by late 1996 and into 1997, Russia’s so-called "oligarchs"a half dozen or so super- wealthy tycoons who, before last year’s financial collapse, dominated the country’s economy went hunting for newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations to buy.
By late 1998, independent national media accounted for 1.42 percent out of all national print and electronic media. Now, one year later (and a year prior to the next presidential election and six months before the parliamentary elections), independent media (those media institutions owned by the public, predominantly journalists who work there) account for a very tiny 0.7 percent.
Since 1996, the Russian oligarchs who acquired the major national media and concentrated ownership in just a few hands have learned how to use their newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations to undercut competitors and further their influence in the Kremlin circle, which is led by the sick and unpredictable Boris Yeltsin. Political influence in Russia leads to money: big money, very big money. It allows these powerful people to acquire profitable companies, to receive low-interest credits from government-owned banks, to get insider deals and commercial breaks, i.e. privileges that others without access to the media do not get. In general, political influence that is gained because of media ownership brings millions, if not billions of dollars, that are often channeled into offshore accounts outside of Russia. And maintaining control of the media has become a powerful instrument in obtaining such political influence.
Meanwhile, the price journalists and their profession must pay is a clear one: Journalism, as it is known and respected in democratic countries, is now on death row in Russia.
Yevgenia Albats is an independent journalist in Russia. She is the author of four books, including "The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia," Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995. She is a 1993 Nieman Fellow.