Tuesday, May 10, 2016
The need for reliable and diverse news-outlets serving Russian-speaking communities was the leading theme of the conference “The Future of Independent Russian-language Media” on 29 April. Media professionals from Latvia, Ukraine and Moldova, together with academics from the University of Amsterdam and representatives of EU-based institutions, discussed the challenges for independent media in the Russian-speaking region. Director of Free Press Unlimited, Leon Willems, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, Bert Koenders, spoke about the danger of limited access to news and the need to empower independent voices.

A difficult reality for independent media

The Dean of the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam, Frank van der Vree, opened the conference with the message that “free and independent media are indispensable for a humane society.” However, “it is easy to speak about press freedom, but reality turns out to be stubborn.”

In the panel discussion with independent reporters from the region, this “stubborn reality” became all the more visible. Katya Gorchinskaya, CEO of the independent channel Hromadske TV in Ukraine, and Alina Radu, Director of the independent newspaper Ziarul de Gardă in Moldova, indicated that the influential media in their respective countries are owned by rich oligarchs. “And they have their own agenda.” Rita Ruduša, Executive Director at Baltic Centre for Media Excellence, based in Latvia, said that even in a mature democracy like Latvia, the situation for independent media is not always easy. “Also in Latvia we had to fight for our independence and to create positive change.”

However, as Dr. Sudha Rajagopalan, Assistant Professor in East European Studies at the University of Amsterdam, elaborated on in her lecture, online platforms do open up opportunities for independent journalism. “The internet gives room to more critical stories. Independent media can survive online even if it's made impossible to operate offline. Like the Russian channel TV Dozhd that remained popular on Vkontakte, after it had been banned from television in 2014.”

Demand for independent news

The media professionals participating in the panel discussion are determined to persevere, even in an often hostile environment. Radu, who is threatened and prosecuted because of her investigate journalism, said: “You do it for the moments that, when everybody tells you not to publish your story or even threatens you, the editorial staff eventually decides that, yes, we are going to publish the story.”

There is definitely a demand for independent Russian-language news. “We can see in the statistics of our website that we have a growing audience. Not only from Ukraine, but also from Russia,” said Gorchinskaya. However, the future of independent media-outlets remains uncertain. Assistance from outside is therefore a necessity. “Question is whether we'll still exist in 5 years,” fears Gorchinskaya. “We are a small player in a fish tank full of sharks.”

Two of such examples of outside assistance were presented by Jon Kyst, Diplomat at the EU’s European External Action Service, and Jerzy Pomianowski, Executive Director of European Endowment for Democracy (EED). Kyst spoke about the EU’s East Strategic Communication Task Force that tries to engage with the Russian-language audiences to “improve communication between the EU and Russia.” Among its projects are a Russian-language webpage about the EU, a Twitter-account, and a two-weekly newsletter about disinformation by Russian media. Pomianowski elaborated on the report “Bringing Plurality and Balance to the Russian Language Media Space,” that EED published last year. Pomianowski: “Plurality and a balance are key. People are now driven to war as a solution for certain problems. Instead, there should be a discussion about what is happening, for which a multiplicity of media is needed.”

Challenges for the media are also the development of professional standards and finding out how to engage most effectively with their audiences. This is what the Baltic Centre for Media Excellence helps with. Ruduša: “We assist journalists to become better story tellers, how to check their facts, how to reach their audiences. And also to build a community of journalists and reporters, because there is strength and great knowledge in such a community.” According to her, money is not the only important thing: “Independent media can use local relevance to reach the public, instead of money. They just need the right set of tools for that.”

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Russian-language News Exchange: A platform for independent news

Leon Willems, Director of Free Press Unlimited, stressed that we should not focus on countering the narrative, but rather on promoting a reliable and diverse media landscape. “As many people as possible should get access to news so that they can make up their own mind.” He pointed to the fact that a lot of good work is going on in the region. “Extremely good journalism exists, but often doesn't get a chance.” With the Russian-language News Exchange platform, independent media in the region can benefit from sharing their stories and expertise. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, Mr Koeders, gave a keynote speech in which he stressed the importance of press freedom. As he said, in the case of journalism, “No news is very bad news indeed, as well as just one kind of news.” He announced the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Russian-language News Exchange with 1.3 million euros.

Reliable partnership is key

Koenders stressed that the Ministry and Free Press Unlimited work together towards a greater safety for journalists through UNESCO: “UNESCO asks countries to report on the status of judicial inquiries conducted when journalists are killed. As of 2015, more than half of the world’s countries were still ignoring this request. That’s why – in cooperation with Free Press Unlimited – I am urging the countries concerned to start reporting, as a first step towards ending impunity.”

Koenders moreover highlighted the importance of the existence of independent media in countries in conflict, like Radio Dabanga in Sudan. “In 2014, 200 women and girls were brutally raped by locally garrisoned government soldiers. Based on Radio Dabanga’s reporting, Human Rights Watch launched its own investigation and filed its findings to the International Criminal Court.”

Keeping our own house in order

That independent media are something that should not be taken for granted, even in our own country, was put forward in the last part of the conference. The recent changes in the surveillance law in the Netherlands that now allows bulk surveillance, are worrisome according to Willems : “I fear that this law will endanger source protection for journalists.” Koenders indicated that he also finds it extremely important that the internet remains an open and free space, but that “at the moment, there's a confrontation between two values: Security and privacy. Regarding the relationship between these two, there are enormous questions to be answered.”

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