Covering Russia in a Time of Censorship

"The move is the latest in a series of shifts in Russia's news landscape which appear to point towards a tightening of state control in the already heavily regulated media sector."

This is how the former Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported its abolishment on December 9, 2013, as quoted by Reuters. At a time when objective reporting in, from, and about Russia continues to be very important this move of President Vladimir Putin to tighten his grip on Russian media outlets was as upsetting as it was unsurprising. The remaining outlets are already loyal to Putin, and his opponents, observers agree, get little air time and this remaking of the media landscape highlights the importance of controlling the news coverage to the him at a time when his popularity and image seem to be slipping.

Russians are left with fewer news sources, and with a television programming that is already dominated by state-controlled media. This is why the pronouncement of offering "uncensored and unbiased news coverage" of a Russian-speaking news outlet turns heads. In a good way.

Russian Television International (RTVi) was created in 1998 and is, in its own words, "the only independent international Russian-language television network in the world." Conceived to target the Russian-speaking diaspora it is certainly an anomaly among Russian and Russian-speaking media channels.

Respected journalist and RTVi's News Director, Ekatarina Kotrikadze, is justifiably proud that the claim of being "uncensored and unbiased" is not a marketing ploy to position the channel but a fact. Relying on only two sources of income - subscriptions and advertising - and editorially independent, RTVi is not influenced or controlled by any government. This thankfully does not restrict access to government, businessmen, and opinion-makers in Russia and neighboring countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia.

In a wide-ranging conversation Kotrikadze displays an irreverence as well as a knack for reporting that were the hallmark of her widely recognized coverage of the Russian-Georgian war 1998. Her focus is to provide quality journalism for RTVi's growing audience and the channel's reach and reputation helps to secure interviews with Russian government as well as opposition leaders.

The political situation in Ukraine is of particular concern to Russia and the West. The resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was widely seen as a further weakening of President Viktor Yanukovich, who has been struggling to deal with the country's unabating unrest. Russia's $15 billion loan and discounted gas prices to keep Ukraine out of Europe's orbit have raised the stakes in this struggle for Putin.

After "almost zero reaction" from Yanukovich or his government to the events in Ukraine, RTVi secured an exclusive interview with Yuri Sergeyev, its ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations. Speculating about the reason why he granted access to RTVi over other news outlets, Kotrikadze says that the channel's reputation as "the most liberal and independent Russian-language TV channel that is also available in Ukraine" will have played a role, in addition to the not unfounded expectation that any Ukrainian media, regardless if it is state-owned or belonging to the opposition" might not report fairly. RTVi makes its name by providing the "platform for expressing the views and opinions of everyone [of influence] who wants to be heard." It is a sad truth that the conflict in Ukraine will be with us for a while to come, demanding fair Russian-language coverage.

Kotrikadze believes that Russians abroad expect RTVi to react fast to breaking news and the channel's international positioning allowed it to be the first to provide details on the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, having managed to interview Alexander Rhar who met him at Berlin airport. The Pussy Riot controversy was also a journalistic test case because the Russian society was so divided over it. The channel provided reporting that straddled that divide. A self-respecting reporter in based in New York, Kotrikadze visits Russia every three months for interviews and research and thereby keeps in touch with society and events. The thought comes to mind that nobody will ever claim that Russia, with its complexities and idiosyncrasies, was easy to cover or understand.

Another journalistic coup was RTVi's exclusive interview with former Yukos co-owner Leonid Nevzlin. With an unabated interest in the fate of Russian oligarchs in general and Mikhail Khodorkovsky in particular, the channel secured a "lively and emotional interview with a man [i.e. Nevzlin] who met his closest friend [Khodorkovsky's] after ten years." RTVi had provided detailed coverage of the trial proceedings. Over Khodorkovsky's decade of imprisonment he had reached what amounts to a "martyr status" and many had been expecting him "to return to politics and to rival those in power." His declaration that he wouldn't be doing that does not seem to have taken away from the fascination surrounding him for Russians at home and abroad.

When asked about the Russian-American relations, Kotrikadze does not mince words: "All of us remember the 'Cold War' and the most recent string of developments in the bilateral relations brings this term back to reality. I expect the crisis to develop over time and I don't see a real warming between the two countries. To me, the reason for this is obvious: Russia, in its current state, is striving to restore the strength and power mustered during the time of the USSR. With the United States standing in the way of these aspirations, there is no place for partnership. The two sides do not share the same values and principles." She elaborates that "[b]oth aspire to be in the leading position and neither side wants to cede ground. In my analysis, [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama was quite naive to call for a "reset" of the relations when he took office." The reset, unfortunately, turned out to be an "overload." While not inevitable, Putin now holds a much stronger position geopolitically than Obama, as exemplified in the case of Syria and other important areas where the Russian president perceived the United States to be in retreat. Kotrikadze assesses that this was "undoubtedly the consequence of the policy shortfall" of the American president. It is not a pretty picture and a situation the understanding of which demands serious journalism.

Kotrikadze made her name through her war coverage at the height of the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008. "I very clearly remember that time. At that time I worked as correspondent and my assessment of who was guilty and responsible differs considerably from the official version of the Kremlin." In her characteristic straightforwardness she continues: "As you may know, 20% of Georgian territory is occupied now by Russian forces. The fact of occupation is officially recognized by the United States and the European Union. Russian military bases are deployed in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There are 400.000 refugees in Georgia, their own country, out of a total population of 4.5 million, and cannot return to their homes." She calls this a tragedy and adds that there was no easy solution for this problem because Moscow had recognized the two regions as independent states, a decision that she believes will not be revisited there.

Nevertheless, the new Georgian government, "unlike the previous one, is trying to find common ground with its dominating neighbor." Kotrikadze sees former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili as having treated Putin as personal enemy who, to nobody's surprise, returned these feelings in kind. "I am afraid that the new initiative of the new Georgian government will be to no avail even though the underlying logic is clear." Russia is the great market that is ready to to buy and consume Georgian goods, including its wines and mineral waters. It will remain a dream for Georgia to be "friends with everyone." While longing to be part of the West and wanting to be a NATO member, these desires seem incompatible with maintaining respectful if not friendly relations with Russia at the same time. Kotrikadze predicts a time of reckoning for Georgia in the near future. "I sincerely hope that any decision will be a reasonable and wise one." These important developments will be covered by RTVi for its Russian-speaking audience, reported by someone who is intimately familiar with the issues at hand.

On a lighter note, there is hope that the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi will offer some reprieve and an occasion for enjoyment of the friendly competition that the event promises. Asked about her take on Russia's chances she responds that she has "no doubts that Russia will win many medals, with winter sport disciplines traditionally a strong suit of that nation's Olympic team. Having spent unprecedented amounts of money and soon the focus of the world, the Games are a 'question de prestige' for Russia and I am sure the Russian athletes will do their best to prove themselves." Having reported on the various terrorist threats, Kotrikadze finds that Sochi's proximity to the Northern Caucasus is not really important in the end. She reasons that today, terrorists have the capability to reach almost any place in the world. Slightly exasperated about the threats against Russia during the Games and the resulting speculations, this reporter hopes for the best and just wishes "all the participants and spectators of the Winter Olympics to have fun."

One couldn't agree more with this amiable sentiment. At the same time the sense that the time of lighthearted enjoyment of friendly sports competition will be too short lived is creeping back. Too high are the stakes and too complicated are the relations of Russia with its neighbors, the United States, and the rest of the world. And Russians are stuck with outlets such as Rossiya Segodnya, the new news agency, built from the ashes of RIA Novosti, with which Putin cemented his hold on Russian media. Russian-speakers abroad at least have RTVi, "uncensored and unbiased," to make sense of it all.