Wednesday, June 6, 2018
In light of Russian Language Day we had a chat with Natalia Marshalkovich, editor in chief of the Russian-language News Exchange. Managed by Free Press Unlimited, this platform supports independent media in countries with large numbers of people who speak Russian.

Natalia Marshalkovich is a journalist, media manager, and social media marketing expert with more than 16 years of professional experience. Since 2017, she has served as the editor in chief of the Russian-language News Exchange. Previously, she spent more than 10 years as an editor and media manager for Euronews, the European multilingual news TV (France).

What does press freedom mean to you and for the region?

Free press is a pillar of democracy, but for me it is also a pillar of my private life, because as a media consumer I like to be informed about what’s happening around me. Without free press this is impossible. It’s also very  important to our region. Being a journalist in post-Soviet countries is probably one of the most dangerous jobs: people are systematically under pressure, they could be killed because of their job. We all remember the murder of Pavel Sheremet – in July we will see the 2nd anniversary of this case and we still don’t know who did it. But despite this pressure and despite this danger people continue to do their job as a journalist. What do you think motivates journalists to stay in their profession despite such growing pressure? I think it’s because people like to inform and be informed  – and it’s like a reflex. I want to tell people what’s happening around me. Why do so many people write blogs? Because of this. It’s just to inform and be informed. But of course, if it’s dangerous, people run away from their countries, from some autocratic countries like Azerbaijan or Russia.  But we still have independent media – for example, the partners of the Russian-language News Exchange –they still exist despite all of this. The Russian-language News Exchange works in seven countries, and some of these countries are in conflict with each other.

What is the most difficult part of working with such different countries and conflicts within the Exchange and helping people to cooperate?

I think the most complex and the most important thing is to bring them together. We found this out while working on our recent project, which was published just two months ago, about social life in “unrecognized territories” in the post-Soviet region. We brought together newsrooms from Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Belarus. They created content – articles, videos, audios – from Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. They asked people the same questions: “How are you living, how do you develop your business in this situation of isolation, without a clear status?” We put all this content together on the same page. It was really difficult for us to find an editorial line that would take into account all positions – for example, Georgian and Abkhazian and to find a way to explain this situation without supporting just one side of this conflict. But it was also very impressive. I remember when I edited an article about Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists helped me – they of course have two different positions but my job was to find a compromise and one solution. Finally, we found it.

Do the partnering media when seeing the texts and videos coming from the Exchange change their own attitude on coverage of those issues? For example, the Azerbaijani and Armenian partners?

Yes, I hope so. We know, for example, the reaction of the people in Moldova, since one part of the project was about Trasnistria. Politicians called to our partners saying – “wow, it is an interesting project, we’ve never seen a project like this.” So yes, the goal was to change the vision of people from conflicting zones a little bit but – be realistic, it’s difficult and probably not possible by just one project.

What is the added value of the Exchange in the region? In other words – what can people learn from the Exchange that they cannot watching State owned channels in Russia?

Life is different. Life is not only about Russia and its geopolitical interests in different countries. It’s also a small story of ordinary people and I think this is our idea – we’re talking about “small” life, “small” people. Small, but important. For example, Russian propaganda never focused on human rights because it is not their topic, it’s not interesting or click-able. But this is the main story for our partners, we are trying to talk about people, about human rights, free press, gender problems.For example, forced marriages in Azerbaijan or Georgia was one of our stories. So, I think our difference is the difference in agenda. The growing power of Facebook, the amount of fake news or false information spread by social media is alarming.

Is that something that journalists and media in the region of the Russian-language News Exchange face, too? How do they cope with these challenges?

Actually, social media for independent media in this region is not just an enemy or source of fake news, but also a second platform. Website could be blocked by authorities, this happened for example with some media in Azerbaijan, and social media is a second platform to distribute your content to people. So, we are working in the social media like it’s our platform, it’s our life.  But of course, some changes in social media sometimes are difficult for us. For example, starting from January Facebook, which is the main platform for all newsrooms participating in the Russian-language News Exchange, changed rules and algorithm and now we are trying to adapt to this.

If you look into a five-year perspective from now – where do you want to see the Russian-language News Exchange? What is your dream for the project and its audience?

My dream… Let’s hope that Russian-language News Exchange will stay or will be more important than now – a big platform of exchange of experience, expertise, content and  collaboration. Our main idea is to be stronger together. Our independent media sometimes can’t compete with big media alone but the system, the network helps them to do it. I hope in the next at least three years we will stay here and support them in this fight.

The Russian Language News Exchange serves as a trustworthy source to provide balanced news, analyses and information about developments in both its own region but also throughout the rest of the world. The platform is not directed against Russian propaganda but rather in favour of independent reporting without excersising control on what they should write or broadcast.