05/05/2008 How to make a difference in Russian media?
Choose the work you want, as long as you do not want to become a journalist. In Russia many parents are likely to advise their children likewise. The prospects of the Russian media are gloomy. This becomes clear at the Global Forum for Media Development. The GFMD describes itself as ‘a network of media assistance organizations around the world, promoting a collaborative effort by practitioners and researchers to develop tools to measure the impact of media programs’.
One of the speakers at the GFMD regional meeting on Central Asia (Paris, 17-19 April) is Maria Eismont, an independent media expert from Russia. She begins her talk with stating the rather provocative question: `Why have the millions of dollars spent on Russian media assistance resulted in such disappointing state of the press?’
Eismont maintains that in the eight years since the dissolution of the USSR, all efforts to create a free press have failed. A clear example is the lack of professional journalism in modern Russia. The journalist is expected – by Western standards – to research information and to report in the most objective and unbiased way possible to serve the public. This kind of journalist simply does not exist in Russia, according to Eismont.
She began her presentation by mentioning positive results: media development organizations did achieve something in Russia. First thanks to their work, the Russian media are nowadays a fully acceptable business. Very few companies in Russia would dispute that media can make money.
Second non governmental organizations (ngo’s) working on media have educated management and editorial staff. After years of trainings and seminars, many companies now realize they need to educate their personal and she notices many media companies now have an education budget. Third Eismont has observed the trend that many media companies in Russia have improved their layout, format, quality of photos etc. They are paying serious attention to the design of paper, magazine and TV programmes.
On the other hand the grip over the media has tightened, even as the economic situation in Russia continues to improve due to the oil and gas resources. According to the Russian Union of Journalists, more than 200 journalists have been murdered since 1993. Only in about 10 percent of these cases were the murderers identified and prosecuted. As a result, the Russian media community is completely disorganized and discouraged, observed Eismont. Journalists and their editors practice self-censorship and delete forbidden themes from their agenda’s like criticism of President Putin or his friends.
In this situation journalism is not a highly respected profession. The schools for journalism are still using the same curriculum as in the Soviet days. For a youngster it is hardly a career wise step becoming a journalist. Nor is the salary of a Russian journalist is not something he or she can be proud of. What makes this extreme situation understandable is the fact that Russian society, including Russian journalists, has no tradition of freedom of speech. Getting used to coping with free and independent media takes time.
The prospects Eismont sketches are gloomy. The Russian authorities control the major TV channels, national tabloids and magazines. The government has also developed new, restrictive media laws which force journalists to serve the government, instead of monitoring them and work for the public.
‘So, what can make the difference?’, Eismont asked her audience rhetorically. She called for more cooperation between the international media assistance organizations. For example: do not merely write proposals in your own little corners but join forces with each other. In this way you will not have to compete for the donor money. On the other hand, donor organizations (like OSI and UNESCO) should be more open in sharing their plans for the short and long term.
`Try to be as flexible as possible’, was one of Eismonts general suggestions. Give the project implementers time and money enough to adjust their programs within a changing situation. Eismont concludes with a ply for more and better reporting on the media projects and programmes. Measure the development and make more sense of the numbers. For example, are the required figures relevant, also in relation with broader development indicators? Eismont: `We need more reliable criteria’s for measuring quality, like for example the UNESCO media development indicators. Also very important to keep in mind the qualitative approach will have a better and longer lasting result than the quantitative way.’