Hello and welcome to Eurasian Enigma, the podcast of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian studies at Harvard University. I'm Kristin Torres, digital resource coordinator at the Davis Center. And with us today is Anna Veduta, global outreach director for the English version of the Russian News website Meduza. Anna is also the former press secretary for anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. Anna was at the Davis center recently to discuss the media landscape running up to the Russian presidential election as well as the challenges that face journalists in Russia today. Anna, thank you so much for being here.
Anna: Thank you for inviting me.
You're welcome. Anna, how would you characterize the attitude of most Russians to the institution of journalism? Obviously, state control and instrumentalization of the press has somewhat loosened since Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union, but is there a sense that journalism should be a part of a larger system of checks and balances or is there suspicion of independent media as a destabilizing factor?
Anna: I would say that we should draw a line and distinguish different generations and their attitudes to this type of question. Yesterday you told me that you were talking to people of the older generation and they said that they perceive the institute of free press as a destabilizing factor. I don't see this kind of attitude among the younger generation. And by the younger generation, I mean millennials and those who came after us.
There was a certain bias against press especially in the 90’s because of the fact that journalists were viewed as corrupt, as those working for some kind of political candidate and so on and so forth. But right now I think that the younger generation consider free press to be basic institute for a normal democratic society. What I can tell again from my own perspective because I didn't conduct a survey on that, but younger generation are very much pro free speech and free access to the information.
That's the generation who've been mostly raised or spent most of their lives with internet, and they consumed information in a very different way that the so called television generation consume it. And they like to check it and they like to verify it and they are very pro transparency and they are very pro being able to actually judge for themselves.
And then there is people who still consume their information from television, unfortunately, it's inevitable. It's very sad because the quality of delivery of information from state television is pure propaganda and so has nothing to do with verified information or being objective whatsoever.
One question I have is since there is this generational shift, what do you think this means for the influence of Russian state owned TV news in the future if more people in the future are probably not going to be turning to that source of news?
Anna: It's my only hope that they will not. And while personally I would love to think that it's going to vanish. Because it will be only logical in nature for it to vanish because I honestly think that, and propaganda is not necessarily in 21st century. We've been through that already as a humanity as a whole; I think we're done with it.
But apparently, YouTube is a big thing now. People are watching it TV is non-existent and this is a very big deal because basically Kremlin lost on this generation.
And it's good because TV is non-existent for them; they have their own television like YouTube is their new television. They have their favorite people there, they have their anti-heroes there, they can choose how to consume information, when to consume it. Basically, they just don't have a lot of boundaries in their head for example Soviet-raised generation.
So that's why for example Meduza will have new formats like this short videos and explanatory videos and podcasts too because this is how people now like to consume their information; they would like to be given choice and they are pretty much capricious about that. So yeah, if you want to stay in business you have to change all the time and you have to improve on yourself.
In terms of Meduza specifically, can you give us a history of how Meduza came into existence?
Anna: Yeah, with great pleasure. I love the story. The year it was 2014, and as you recall, in 2014 Russia performed this not so great act called annexation of Crimea. And it was days before March 18 when it was official, when Russia officially established it. So special reporter Ilya Azar was in the Ukraine and he was reporting about what was happening. And he also conducted an interview with the leader of Pravy Sektor [ed. Pravy Sektor, or Right Sector, is a Ukrainian far-right nationalist political party] which is considered by the Russian laws to be an extremist organization. And so this interview, the article contained a hyperlink, which led to the website of Pravy Sektor. And this organization as I mentioned [is] considered extremist in Russia. So, Roskomnadzor [which] is basically state censorship agency, issued a request that Lenta delete it because of extreme standards against Russian laws.
And while basically Galina Timchenko and the rest of the staff were just familiarizing themselves with this claim, a few hours after that Galina Timchenko was fired. And she was replaced immediately by the guy who used pro-Kremlin website Vzglyad, [Alexei] Goreslavsky. And staff, about 80 people who were very much against it, they stood up, they wrote an open letter to the readers saying that's an act of censorship, and censorship is against technically the letter of law, Russian constitution [does] not approve that and they will not work under this pro-Kremlin propagandist guy.
And so basically 80 people just stood and left. And basically half a year after that in October 2014, Meduza emerged. It emerged in Riga, Latvia. It's under European rule of law, which is way easier and safer and kind of protects you from the state pressure of Russian Federation. And a lot of people of those 80 people who stood up, a lot of them ended up working for Meduza. Basically Meduza, we recently had a third birthday, and we're growing but we're still kind of a startup, which was founded in a way due to the pressure of Russian government.
What would you say is the intended audience for Meduza's English language coverage? What do you hope it will bring to existing English language media coverage of Russia especially in the context of American media today in which Russia is again the center of attention?
Anna: The aim of Meduza English was never basically to reach out to all of the Americans, Europeans and foreigners across the world, no, just because I don't believe that it's possible, and I don't believe it's necessary.
Meduza English is aimed for the professional society for people whose professional and perhaps academic interests are focused on Russia. It's professors, students who are interested in Russia, and Russian language, and the Russian culture, and policy makers, journalists, people from think tanks who are now dealing with Russia. Since 2014, Russia has been pretty much on the agenda, so these people are now not so scarce as they used to be before.
Meduza English kind of closes the gap between mainstream media and basically Russian language independent media in a way that United States, and just other Western media do a great job covering Russia. But of course they have their own agenda and they have their own angle. And it's a bigger picture perspective; Meduza Russian on the other hand have a great expertise and brilliant reporters and brilliant network of freelancers and part-time journalists based in Russia who know the context, who know the agenda, who've been there their whole life, and who know how to report on specific things. They can go into very deep details and provide very unique and exclusive expertise and reporting.
I think that this is very necessary to translate this new spaces and articles reports to the audience here because sometimes those things, which are considered not so important by the mainstream media are actually extremely important and help to build the understanding of the agenda in Russia and how Russia operates.
it's our honor to translate it and to provide this information to the audience to the United States and Europe so that they can see this shades of what is happening in Russian and not lose any detail.
You spoke about the fact that news sources in Russia that are state owned have maybe an ease of operation because they're funded or partially funded by the government, and it's difficult for independent media sources to get their start or remain sustainable in Russia. They're of course issues of censorship to deal with, but at a more basic level, can you tell us about the challenges that independent news sources have in terms of developing and sustaining a business model in Russia?
Anna: Yeah, I was talking in depth yesterday about how since 2011 our media landscape shifted because what used to be major independent media was pressured and basically forced to turn into something else. Well, the very same thing happened to Meduza because our CEO Galina Timchenko who used to be editor-in-chief of Lenta.ru one of the largest and more major online media outlet in Russia and one of the largest in Europe at the time, and she was fired and then 80 other people from the newsroom also decided to resign, and that's how we found ourselves in Latvia and became Meduza.
But those who are still under Russian jurisdiction who faced pressure all the time. It's financial pressure yeah, for example what happened to TV Rain channel/TV Dozhd, they were just financially pressured because cable companies refused to work with them and they had to their subscription system. And as I said, Russian people are not very much used to the idea of paying for their information. A lot of people in Russia understand that what is called news or media but state-owned is not exactly truth or innocent objectives. A lot of people would love to consume their information from subscription and paying for it but they can't afford it, that's another obstacle.
And so I was referring to fundraising challenges for a lot of media because they have to collect this basically grassroots donations, like for example Media Zona, this also very good news outlet, which covers prisons, tortures in prisons, and trials and all these, which unfortunately became the inevitable part of Russian reality. And they had to conduct a public fundraising campaign recently just for the fact that they just can't afford to pay salary. And sometimes it doesn't work out. For example Harvard graduate Yevgenia Markovna Albats whom I have a very great respect for, she runs this magazine called New Times, she used to run for a while. And also not so long ago, she was forced to refuse the idea of a print version of the magazine because she couldn't afford it, so now it only exists online.
Also, simply for the money because private business is afraid of investing in media because as soon as you invest and as soon as the media becomes influential, you're going to get pressure and you're going to get actually ... You'll be contacted by the government representatives who'll try to influence you and no one wants that. So basically, their only hope is average people who might donate or buy a subscription. But then again, even with people who actually understand the value of this qualified information and who are willing to pay for this professional delivery of information, unfortunately, not always they can afford this.
One interesting thing I've heard from talking to something colleagues in Russia, is that while Russian news today is largely positive about the Putin Administration and state of affairs within the country, there are sometimes reports that are critical to create the appearance of objectivity and that the media is more than just a mouth piece for the state or trying to create that sort of image. One example was a report about not having enough kindergartens in one town, but that being sort of the extent of the type of criticism that the media would do. There was also the idea that Russian state media could get around subjects by simply not reporting on them. What do you think about this?
Anna: Yeah, that's precisely what they do. So for the last month I think there were two incident in schools involving shootings and violence, and state television channels just were silent on the matter. They did not cover it at all, as if it never happened. So basically, people who are devoted to, state TV viewers, [you can] say they live in alternative reality, very different from what is actually happening in Russia because on the state news it's all Ukraine and how western civilization is doomed. It's not about Russia at all; like Russia is like really 10% of that, and the rest would be the world, Ukraine, how awful the situation is there, so pure propaganda aimed to show people that abroad is even worse.
Can you characterize the media landscape in Russia leading up to the presidential election in March?
Anna: Absolutely. There was a candidate who wasn't registered who was conducting a presidential campaign. The name of this guy is Alexei Navalny, my former boss. And he had a very slight chance to be registered, not as a candidate, because Russian government views him as a foe and just do everything like falsificate, fabricate, don't follow the letter of law and do everything to prevent him from participating in elections.
They did this mistake from their point of their view of course once during the mayoral in 2013. But still he was conducting this presidential campaign. He announced his candidacy in December 2016. And he was truly doing all the political work, which is necessarily to be done in the situation. He was opening the offices in Russian cities, he was going there to meet with voters and volunteers and he would be giving speeches, traveling all over the country and so on and so forth. So, all what you would call a normal political job for the candidate.
On the other hand, “the candidate,” President Putin was silent on the matter and was avoiding the questions about if he's going to be nominating himself and running for the office, although it was pretty much obvious for everyone that of course he will be and that it's going to be a re-election of Putin, not the actual election. And so he avoiding this question and being not so outspoken about it at all for the same amount of time here. And then in December 2017, he announced his candidacy while visiting some plant in Nizhni Novgorod.
And that was it. He said, "Yeah, I'm going to run." And that's it, no job done, that's it. I mean, of course he's been shown on state television 24/7 but just the very same way he was shown before as a president. As an acting president, now he's shown as presidential candidate and as acting president. He has his time on state television, and there are those billboards all over the country saying that something really obscure like Putin is Russia, future, so nothing really detailed, how exactly he's going to be the future given the past.
And then there are those other candidates who've been allowed to participate in the show but also basically approved by “the candidate.” And that's very much it. There were debates between those candidates who were allowed to participate on the state television. It turned out ugly, they were arguing and then there were also some harsh language involved and stuff like that, but it's just not the political work as we would consider it here. And then again, Navalny was banned from participating, no surprise in that. He turned what used to be his presidential campaign into campaigning for the strike of the election to prevent the voters' turnout. But honestly, he was the only guy who was doing something on this election, and he's the guy who is not eventually “on the list,” so that's Russia.
You were talking about Alexei Navalny, and you did work as his former press secretary. And we've heard about how there are obstacles for journalism and news in Russia, but it seems like it would doubly difficult to be a press secretary for an embattled opposition leader, can you describe what that experience was like?
Anna: Absolutely. It wasn't that harsh in my time that it is right now, but still just to give you some context on that. Navalny over this year, which I just talked about when he was campaigning, every fifth day of his campaign he spent in detention center, so it's months we’re talking, because they would find some formal reason to say that he broke the law, though he never did, but that's again how politically motivated trials against him are working in Russia unfortunately.
And the same goes to his staff members, his colleagues and volunteers. As we speak the head of presidential campaign Leonid Volkov [has] been in detention center and he will be released on March 24th, so actually after the election day. And chances are Navalny also will be detained again just to prevent any kind of rallying in the streets before the election day or right after. And this goes for his current press secretary too.
I was talking about this YouTube channels and video bloggers and anti-corruption foundation--the organization founded by Navalny and functioning right now as his headquarters--they launched their own YouTube channel where they produce all kind of content. There is some kind of news video service. And so his current press secretary and the press secretary of the presidential campaign were conducting the online broadcasting show basically on topic of the rallies, which took place on January 28th.
And they happened to conduct this show from [another] country, not from Russia. Of course, the reason that they were doing it from the different countries, the reason that they could actually be sure that no one will prevent them from doing this and no one will break into their online recording--because that happens all the time with other shows. It happens so they did it for the security reasons.And when they came back to Russia, they were detained in the airport and his press secretary and the press secretary of campaign were detained and also spent days in the detention center.
In my time, I was beaten by the police, that's for sure, we all were but I was never detained, so that's new. And I know that a lot of people from the office were, and when you go to the detention center there are some very strict yet ridiculous rules about what is allowed to be taken there, what products you can take, how they should be packed and stuff like that. And so you need to really get prepared for that, like pack bags. And back in my time, that would be your relatives, your family members who would do that. Now, what I hear is that anti-corruption foundation, they have some kind of emergency bags just standing there in the office because you never can tell. So that when someone actually gets detained, the bag is already ready so you can provide this person with food and some clothes and some necessary things in terms of hygiene and stuff like that.
That's really new. In my time, I had really the time of my life when I used to be head of his press department during the mayoral campaign. That was very challenging and interesting, we had all kinds of ups and downs at the time. because we were banned from state television or talked about in a negative way. And yet we were able to get coverage and to reach out to people by simply conducting all these meetings with the voters and producing our own pieces of media, for example, newspapers and printing them.
Yesterday you mentioned, or you characterized the upcoming election as a practice in voting but not choosing, can you expand on that a little bit?
Anna: Absolutely. I think I already touched upon while I was talking. We can't call the procedure in which one candidate decides the other candidates an election because otherwise Navalny would be registered and he would be given the time on the state television because it's the law.
I mean, if you are a registered candidate, by law you should be granted this time on the state television. And there should be debates also, the candidate might choose not to participate in it or send someone instead, that's true, but there should be some kind of political discussion. In this case, one real candidate who conducted a real presidential campaign over a year was banned for some falsificate d and politically motivated treason. They don't even call his name out loud, never, ever.
You just can't consider this to be free, independent, democratic procedure. Yes, there will be some voting involved because apparently Kremlin is very much focused on the voter turnout. Apparently, it's a big thing for them, they keep campaigning for that now really harshly. They produce this videos that's calling people to participate in elections. But then again, it's not the elections, it's voting perhaps. And there will be people who are actually unfortunately state employees and those who are dependent and whose salaries are dependent to something which has to do with state, they will be forced to go and vote.
If you didn't have a chance to actually choose as a voter, to see that your candidate proved his right to be on this list because he won your attention because he was working for you as the politician should be doing right? They, basically, should be transparent to people, they should serving people's needs, not to be focused on themselves. So, if you're already deprived this privilege and someone in Kremlin decided who is allowed to run and who is not allowed to run and who's put on your voting ballot, then I'm sorry but you can't call this [an] election. This is as I said, at most voting. But then again, for something pre-chosen for you by Vladimir Putin so it's not elections.
Thank you so much for talking with us.
Anna: Thank you for having me. I'm honored.