07 May 2008, 19:34

Aidan White (General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists): "Journalists should walk off any close relations with the authorities"

Айдан УайтOn March 5, 2008, during a meeting with representatives of nationwide newspapers, radio and television of the Chechen Republic (ChR), Musail Saraliev, Minister for External Communications, National Relations, Press and Information of Chechnya, awarded, on behalf of the Union of Journalists of Chechnya, President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov with Certificate of a Union Member. This decision caused sharp criticism by some representatives of the journalistic profession of Russia.

On March 6, Secretariat of the Union of Journalists of Russia (UJR), acting on the basis of point 4.1 of the UJR's Charter, cancelled the decision to admit Ramzan Kadyrov to the Members of the Union of Journalists.

Note: Point 4.1 of the Charter, which is referred to by the Union runs as follows: "Members of the UJR can be professional creative workers, whose basic occupation is activity in mass media, and also the persons engaged in research and teaching activities in the sphere of journalism, who share the aims of the UJR, aged at least 18, who recognize the present Charter, have paid their entrance fees and are taking active personal part in the work of the UJR." 

On the same day, Lema Gudaev, Head of the Information-Analytical Department of President and Government of the Chechen Republic, expressed his regret of the fact that, as he said, the UJR Chechen Regional Organization had chosen "an improper form" of expressing gratitude to Kadyrov "for all he did in support of the Republic's press."

The scandalous situation with the attempt to admit Ramzan Kadyrov to the UJR was commented by Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), in his interview to Gregory Shvedov, editor-in-chief of the "Caucasian Knot".

What is your attitude to such facts like the situation with acceptance of Kadyrov to the Union of Journalists of Russia (UJR), when a person becomes a Union member because of his position, not for his contribution to journalism? A Certificate of a UJR member was awarded to Ramzan Kadyrov on March 5 for his merits "in the cause of development of Chechen journalism, free press and creation of ideal conditions for the work of local mass media." Are examples of this kind frequently met in international journalism?

Aidan White: Happily they are not frequent. Sometimes unions will make honorary gestures to political leaders in response to what they perceive to be useful support - but it can be a dangerous and compromising process.
When the Tunisian Association of Journalists a few years ago awarded a press freedom prize to President Ben Ali, the IFJ was so outraged we suspended the organisation from membership. I think that this action had a good effect - today the Tunisian Association is no more, replaced by a unifying syndicate which is striving to maintain standards in still difficult political conditions.

Same might have happened if UJR accept membership of Kadyrov?

Aidan White: I can't speculate. But there's no doubt that if Kadyrov had been formally accepted it would cause controversy - what would we say if George Bush was admitted to The Newspaper Guild in the United States, for instance?

Can we consider the statements made by Dmitri Muratov, editor-in-chief of "Novaya Gazeta" ("Not for a second shall I remain a member of the Union of Journalists of Russia, should the information that President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov has become a member of the Union of Journalists of Russia prove to be true. I never knew and wouldn't ever know a correspondent named Kadyrov"), and Alexander Minkin, observer of the "Moskovskiy Komsomolets" newspaper ("If Ramzan Kadyrov is in the Union of Journalists, I'm no longer there. I find it unacceptable that such a person like Ramzan Kadyrov, in view of what we know about him and about his actions, were in the Union of Journalists of Russia"), to be direct insults of the Chechen President?
Is the counter-threat of Chechen journalists to quit the UJR a proof of the fact that Chechen media are completely dependent on the ruling power and are not free and able to express their opinion without fear to get under pressure of the Republic's leadership?

Aidan White: I'm not going to judge my colleagues in Chechnya so easily. They are mistaken if they think that honouring a controversial figure like Kadyrov will help them; inevitably it only compromises their independence. What they need to do is to break free from any unhealthy close relations with the authorities. But this is easier said than done given the fact that most media in the regions of Russia remain heavily dependent upon financial resources under the direct or indirect control of state, regional or political agencies. In Chechnya, where war and conflict has made life even more precarious for journalists it is too easy to rush to judgement. I understand the anger of my colleague Muratov, after the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, he has good reason to doubt any relationship with someone like Kadyrov who was her bitter opponent and who has been intolerant of critical and independent journalism. I think that the mistake made in Chechnya needs to be followed by positive action to encourage ways of assisting journalists in the region to establish clear distance between them and the state.

So these "ways of assisting journalists" probably take place today, upon the opinion of the local journalists who receive support from the administration, selected journalists from federal and foreign edition, who get on the special tour inside Chehnya, organized by administration. What`s your impression - as a consumer of the information from the region - is it easy to report from there? When is it possible to draw a line between journalists and people who call themselves so, but play a role of PR-managers?

Aidan White: It is not easy and sometimes impossible to report independently from combat zones. Journalists have to be careful not to become the instruments of political and military leaders. Sometimes we accept restrictions - such as those by journalists who are "embedded" with military forces, - but when that happens we should disclose the fact that we are subject to restrictions in the work we do. Disclosure is the route to honesty in these types of situation.

How would you comment the visit of the Chairman of the UJR to Chechnya? Vsevolod Bogdanov, Chairman of the Union of Journalists of Russia, who arrived on March 25 to Chechen capital, has publicly apologized for the incident related to issuance of a journalist's certificate to President of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. At the meeting with representatives of Chechen mass media, held in Grozny, he stated literally the following: "I bring my personal apologies to President of the Chechen Republic for the actions of some of my colleagues, and this was my aim for coming to the Republic." Mr Bogdanov has also emphasized that "the intention of Chechen journalists can be explained and understood, since R. Kadyrov had indeed rendered enormous support to the workers of mass media." Should we view the current situation as a conflict one and requiring making apologies before the Chechen President?
Is this step indicative for assessing the degree of independence of the Russian journalism? Or is it, in your opinion, just an individual instance?

Aidan White: The degree of independence that exists in Russian journalism varies from region to region, city to city, even from media outlet to media outlet. What is clear is that there are intolerable pressures - political, social, and commercial - that are pressing down on the media scene. Inevitably this leads to self-censorship, low-morale and, in some misguided cases, instances like this where journalists in a particular corner of crisis make the mistake of thinking that cozying-up to political leaders will help them. It won't; it will only make matters worse, much worse, for everyone trying to keep political self-interest out of journalism.
Look, it is important to see everything in its context. Bogdanov is no friend of those who oppress journalists. He has built his career on defending colleagues and their rights. This is just a single case when a union leader has to be a "fire-fighter" - dousing the flames of potential further damage to an already vulnerable community of journalists. As a journalist and union leader for 40 years, I recall times when I have had to hold my nose in dealing with unsavoury politics and people in order to carry out my duties for my members.
I have talked with the Russian union and they are clear - this journalists' certificate should never been issued. The action has been disowned. The UJR saw immediately the damage to its international and national reputation that such an action could cause. I have not followed the incident closely and I will talk to Mr Bogdanov about it soon.

When do you think it might happened? We are very interested to get details on this issue, is it possible to get them after you would talk to Mr Bogdanov?

Aidan White: He is a member of the IFJ International Executive Committee - but I have little doubt that this was an individual instance. I have every confidence in the UJR as a vocal, independent and courageous group fighting for the rights of journalists in Russia.

I talked with the UJR immediately I was alerted to this. They said that they responded immediately to distance themselves from this incident in Chechnya. I have yet to talk to Bogdanov personally about his role (I will do this in a couple of weeks when he comes to Brussels for the International Executive Board meeting of the IFJ) but the Union's position is clear.

What investigations is your organization currently conducting in Russia? Are you satisfied with the results of investigating resonant murders of journalists, for example, of Kholodov? How can you assess the situation in the area of the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press?

Aidan White: We are carrying on with investigations into a number of murders that have not been properly dealt with. We are very dismayed by the continuing pressure on independent voices in Russian media. The pressure that has been applied by the authorities on the UJR in trying to evict it from its premises, the degree of self-censorship, the undue influence of politicians and oligarchs on the media scene are all evidence of a continuing information crisis.

Is it possible to get more details? Answer on Kholodov?

Aidan White: We have supported a recent review of the Kholodov case by Alexey Simonov at the Glasnost Defence Foundation. He has produced very intresting results. Can you talk to him directly?

How do you treat the situation with the head of one of independent publishing houses in Chechnya "The Chechen Society" Timur Aliev, who at first found himself under pressure exerted by the leaders of the Republic, and then responded to an invitation to take a post in the administration of President of the Chechen Republic as Kadyrov's assistant?
To what extent this situation complies with the code of international journalism?

Aidan White: This man needs to speak for himself. Again, I am not going to make a moral judgement in circumstances I am not fully aware of. However, I think it is tragic if journalists are put under pressure because of their work. This affects all of us in different ways - some are made stronger and more defiant by criticism; others become cowed and indulge in self-censorship; and others may choose to rethink their whole attitude. Often the choice people make is based upon the level of professional solidarity and support they receive. We in journalism need to support our colleagues when they come under attack. Sometimes we behave as individuals without understanding that solidarity among colleagues is essential - that is why the UJR needs support. Sometimes it will get things wrong, but it exists to create a unified vigorous movement of independent journalists in Russia and it will only achieve that if its members get involved in its work and activities, including being critical when the time comes.

In general - journalist and position in administation - is this two functions anything that might live together? What`s your vision of the code of international journalism on this issue?

Aidan White: The essence of journalism is built around three principles - truth, independence and public good (do no harm). Inevitably, people working in any administration - public, private or political - are compromised in their capacity to be independent. Journalism, in theory at least, must always be independent, so there is always a potentially abrasive relationship between journalists and those in administration. That is no bad thing. We have to understand the differences in our roles and act accordingly. Ethics in public life are not only a matter for journalists, but independence is one of our key concerns, that's why we need to make sure our work is distinctive by its association with general public welfare and not narrow special interests.

Note of Caucasian Knot:

Aidan White is a journalist, who has been the General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists since 1987. He previously worked for several newspapers in the United Kingdom. He was with The Guardian in London prior to joining the IFJ. He is a long-time campaigner for journalists' rights and is a former activist with the National Union of Journalists in Great Britain and Ireland.

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