The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) annual meeting was held in Moscow last week and it was my first visit to Russia since the dramatic and turbulent days of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. Then one Rouble was worth one Pound Sterling. Now 100 Roubles are worth £1.40! That’s not all that has changed of course, but that’s another story!
We were the guests of the Russian Union of Journalists (RUJ) who are facing increasing opposition from the Russian government for their brave stand in defence of ethical, honest and independent journalism. It has cost many journalists their lives, 56 since 1992 and their pictures hang as a grim reminder in the main hall of the union’s headquarters, situated in Nikita Boulevard, only a few minutes drive from the Kremlin and ‘Red’ (Beautiful) Square.
The headquarters (or House of Journalists) is a remarkable building with a wonderful history, also houses the Moscow Journalists Club. It was, before the 1917 Revolution, a cultural centre and maintains that tradition today with art exhibitions and book sales as well as a place for meetings, eating and drinking. Here the Soviet Union of Journalists was set up in 1918, Lenin and Trotsky were elected a honorary chairs. A bust of Lenin can still be seen at the bottom of the stairs leading to the main hall (where we held our annual meeting). During the Stalin era many writers and journalists became victims of the terror and the union ceased to function during this time. The Khrushchev ‘thaw’ lead to the union being re-established but it was totally dominated by the Communist Party and funded by the State. During the 1980s a number of independent professional organisations flourished in the USSR and the Independent Russian Union of Journalists was established in 1992.
Three years later the RUJ joined the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
However, the union is under frequent attack by the government and in August Jim Boumelha, the IFJ president wrote to President Putin complaining of the increasing pressure being put on the RUJ including a threat to evict them from their headquarters, and called for an end to intimidation against the union, their property and activities. The threat of eviction still hangs over them, we were told.
While we were there, reports came in of yet another attack on independent media in Russia. The country’s only ‘opposition minded’ radio station (a subsidiary of Gazprom, who hold a controlling stake in the station) was in crisis because of a twitter posted by the station’s radio host, who was threatened with the sack. Matters came to a head last Wednesday, but by the evening it was reported on The Moscow Times web site that the radio station had ‘scored a victory in its struggle to preserve editorial independence’ after its state-run corporate owner has revoked an order to fire one of the station’s journalists and promised to beef up the chief editor’s rights – http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/russias-ekho-moskvy-celebrates-victory-as-radio-host-dodges-ax/511510.html
‘Editor-in-chief Alexei Venediktov and head of the state-run Gazprom Media holding Mikhail Lesin reached the agreement during a four-hour meeting on Wednesday, Venediktov told his radio station later that evening.
‘Removing a major bone of contention between the parties, Lesin revoked an earlier order to fire Ekho Moskvy radio host Alexander Plyushchev — a dismissal that critics said contradicted the station’s charter, which places the authority to dismiss editorial staff with the editor-in-chief.’ It went on to report that Plyushchev would still face some sanctions over the twitter post at the heart of the dispute in which he commented on the recent drowning death of the 37-year-old son of Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov.
‘In the post — which was later deleted and replaced with an apology — Plyushchev wondered whether the “death of Ivanov’s son, who ran over an old lady and sued her son-in-law, is proof of the existence of God/higher justice,” referring to an incident in 2005 when Alexander Ivanov hit and killed a 68-year-old pensioner with his car.’
It was later reported that the station has until 25 December to draft amendments to its charter, adding guidelines for using social networks under an agreement with its state-run corporate owner Gazprom.
Meanwhile reports of the annual meeting attended by some 53 delegates from 26 countries held over three days (20-22 November) may be found on the EFJ web site at: http://e-f-j.eu/