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The Plight of the Sinking

Russia Profile. 8 июня 2011

Elena Koltsova, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Sociology, HSE Branch in Saint-Petersburg, comments on the situation in the Russian media community.

Izvestia Journalists Call for Support and Solidarity on Behalf of Russia’s Media Community, but Their Plea Is Falling on Deaf Ears

Andrew Roth

One of Russia’s oldest dailies, Izvestia, is being gutted by its new publisher to make the paper more profitable and more central in the Russian media scene. As a result, the publisher is laying off more than 100 journalists and is moving a core group of editors and journalists to a shared office with Zhizn, a Russian tabloid under the same ownership. While fired journalists are asking for solidarity from the media community to protect the paper’s integrity, some see the paper’s devolution as a just reward for its long years as a Kremlin mouthpiece.

Stories of budget cuts and buy-outs at major daily newspapers are not new in Russia, as print media faces a crisis of decreasing readership and competes against Internet news, leading to falling revenues worldwide. Yet the restructuring of the Russian daily Izvestia, under a recently appointed Head of the Board of Directors Aram Gabrelyanov, has turned into a considerable scandal in Moscow. In a sweeping reorganization last week, Gabrelyanov moved a small cadre of journalists and editors of Russia’s oldest daily newspaper from its offices in Pushkin Square to his New Media Holding Office, along with many of the newspaper’s core resources.

Statements by the publishers and top editors have made it clear that massive budget cuts and lay-offs are going to take place at Izvestia in order to turn the paper profitable. Last week the Editor in Chief of the paper Alexander Malyutin said that about 60 percent of the current staff would be cut, and BBC Russia reported that from more than 100 journalists, 17 have moved into their new location. Answering the question as to how the firings were taking place, Malyutin said: “There are two factors here. Some people don’t want to move. Others we don’t want to take with us.”

The harsh conditions of the reorganization have motivated many of the fired journalists to campaign for better termination conditions with the ownership, and to ask for “solidarity” from the journalistic community. In an open letter, the journalists wrote that “the sale of Izvestia into the hands of a publisher of ‘yellow’ press Aram Gabrelyanov, who is also the publisher of the tabloid Zhizn, is a symbolic act of violence, perpetrated against local journalism.”

“Whatever the servile relationship to power, whatever the econimic unprofitability of the newspaper up until this point, no kind of profits the owners expect justify the regrettable fact that journalism, thanks to the efforts of the owners of newspapers and magazines, all the more often is turning to serving the most primitive tastes of the public, weaning it from the necessity of unprofitable and not always comfortable intellectual work,” the public letter states.

Yet Izvestia’s calls for solidarity with the cause of independent journalism have been tainted by its transformation during the last few years from an independent paper into a pro-government mouthpiece. The daily, which during the post-Soviet period had a reputation as the only substantial “brand” national newspaper, suffered heavily after a scandal surrounding its publication of photographs from the terrorist attack at a school in Beslan in 2004, which painted the Kremlin in a poor light due to a botched negotiation and rescue attempt. The paper was eventually sold and bought by Gazprom, and since 2005 the paper’s content has been in steady decline.

By the 2007 elections Izvestia was clearly stumping for Vladimir Putin by publishing compromising articles against opposition leaders, noted Alexander Morozov, director of the Center for Media Research at the Institute of Cultural History and an influential blogger on politics. For journalists, the paper became “extremely connected with the Kremlin PR” and “unreadable,” he said.

Influential journalists have come out against the Izvestia call for support with a vitriolic backlash, succinctly expressed in a Facebook post by Echo of Moscow journalist Ksenia Larina. “Well I’m not sorry at all for them. They bowed and scraped before every common toady, caved in to the decisions of the Central Committee, accepted all the faceless appointees from the top, accepted censorship, criticized ‘the liberal press,’ and now, ‘colleagues, save us.’ Hang yourself together with [Gabrelyanov].”

According to Elena Koltsova, a media expert at the Higher School of Economics, while small instances of activism in journalism are a frequent occurrence, the journalistic community as a whole rarely unites under a united cause. “In general it’s fair to say that we don’t witness any large-scale organizations or protests from the journalistic community as a whole. There’s not really that sort of collective or solidarity in general, and the story of NTV is one that stands out as an example.” With the brand of Izvestia far more tarnished than that of NTV, when the television channel was taken over by Gazprom at the beginning of the last decade, it is hard to see the cause of Izvestia’s fired journalists reaching the mainstream.