One BBC journalist not getting a Visa is not an “assault on media freedom”

It seems that Russia has decided not to renew the Visa of a BBC journalist in Moscow.

With predictable hysteria and an enormous dollop of self-importance the BBC has announced that this is an “assault on media freedom”. [1]

Also predictably the two leading anti-Russia UK journalists in Moscow have written articles condeming Moscow. The Guardian provides background and reminds us that their “journalist” Luke Harding was “forced to leave Moscow”. In fact Russia just declined to renew his Visa – not surprising given his continual anti-Russia articles in which (in his own words he “joins the dots” to come up with ever more phantastic stories about Russia). His alignment with UK intelligence services may also be a factor.

Following are extracts from the Guardian piece and corrective comments:

The political expulsion of a BBC correspondent as a “symmetrical response” to alleged pressure on Russian journalists signals a turn toward Chinese-style policies of blocking accreditations for leading US and UK outlets in order to clamp down on foreign reporting

One BBC journalist on a plane back to London does not constitute anything like what Andrew Roth claims it does. This is specific propaganda because he must understand that this is what it says it is: a tit for tat for the fact that London is making life hard for RT. Roth quotes a presenter on Russia-24 as saying this. The UK has also just introduced more sanctions on a Russian business man Mikhail Gutseriev because of his connections with Belarus. The action by the Russian authorities takes place in the context of a wider UK role in endless sanctions against Russia. It has to be admitted that the Foreign Ministry does not appear to have been entirely clear as to the specific reasons for the refusal to issue a new Visa. The spokesperson did mention “Visa bullying of Russian correspondents in London”. The Guardian says that the Russian Foreign Ministry did not give specifics of this. The Guardian refers to a Russian state TV report which mentioned problems Russian journalists have been having getting accreditation in the UK and mentioned historical cases of Russian journalists being refused Visas.

(Very amusingly the BBC in its statement demanded that Russia allow “unbiased” reporting. [2] Presumably they really have deluded themselves that their coverage of Russia is “unbiased”. – We can add that the idea that there could be such a thing as “unbiased” news coverage gives us some idea of the intellectual level in operation here).

Russia is to expel a senior BBC journalist in Moscow by refusing to extend her accreditation

This does not appear to be true. It seems that they have declined to extend her Visa. [2]

The Guardian quotes the BBC:

We reject the MFA’s claims of discriminatory action against Russian journalists in the UK. Russian journalists continue to work freely in the UK, provided they act within the law and the regulatory framework,…

All this is dripping with a) crude imperialism and b) a failure to grasp how Russia works – amusing given that what is at stake is supposed to be their high-quality reporting on Russia. Basically this is the “international rules based order” number. We are always on the side of the law, in the right, civilised; you (Russia) are aribtary and irrational and uncivilised- foreigners always are. But from Russia’s point of view they may be seeing a series of cases of OFCOM picking on RT’s reporting (for example that a report on the attack by the regime in Kiev on civilians in Donbass was “biased” [3]) based on their (OFCOM’s) politcal allegiences. OFCOM is a British government agency. The British government is a party to the war on Donbas. OFCOM can hardly be “unbiased”. Russia doesn’t have this need that British imperalists have to always be “right” and to always justify themselves in terms of some rules or other (which it has to be said are always selectively applied – the West doesn’t really believe in the rule of law). If Russia sees something which is contrary to their interests and which seems unfair they will act. Historically, the countries have different forms of expression of power. Russia may be less attached to the idea of justifying everything in terms of a ‘regulatory framework’. It is astonishing that all these highly paid journalists cannot grasp that the system prevalent in their country is not necessarily the only right one. (It is characteristic of the BBC that they use an English acronym to refer to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They even think they own that).

Russia has already launched a broad campaign targeting independent Russian-language media, labelling the popular Meduza, the Vedomosti spin-off VTimes and the investigative website the Insider, as foreign agents, and shuttering the influential Proekt investigative website as an “undesirable organisation”.

There is a campaign and it is true that foreign-supported media outlets may be required to self-identify as a “foreign agent”. Media outlets designated a foreign agent also have to provide financial information to the authorities. What Andrew Roth is not telling his readers here is that Meduza is supported by Russian oligarch Khodorkovsky who lives outside Russia – who was jailed in Russia for financial crimes (that may have been political but no one seriously believes he built up his Yukos oil business with purely white hat methods in the 1990s) and who is now wanted for murder in Russia – and who is a fervent political and personal opponent of Putin. [3] This is one example. That is it is not ‘independent’ by any stretch of the imagination. The other outlets also have foreign connections. What Roth tries ernestly to present as some kind of campaign of politial suppresion is more likely to be nothing more than a somewhat authoritarian regime doing some house-cleaning before their autumn elections – to make sure that there is no foreign interference. It is also worth pointing out that the “foreign agent” media law simply requires outlets like Meduza to be up front about their foreign funding to the public and to the state. Why shouldn’t they be? In the Guardian article (written by journalists at the Calvert Journal) which mentions the Khodorkovsky link the co-founder of Meduza refuses to disclose the other investors. Ah. Transparency.

“the influential Proekt investigative website“. I am not sure really how “influential” this site was in Russia. I did have a brief look at it and it seems to me that it was more of the order of sensationalism than a serious discussion about the problems facing Russia.

Finally – the equivalent article in the Independent about this is far far more of an exercise in groundless propaganda. “It [Russia] has arrested and jailed dozens of journalists and branded critical domestic media outlets as “foreign agents” and “undesirable organisations”. This is by Oliver Carroll. What are these people really afraid of that they have to make up stories? I have been following this story quite closely – the Guardian piece above [1] actually mentions the media outlets which have been designated foreign agents or (in the case of ‘Project’ undesirable) in recent months. This list does seem to cover the main ones as readers can check by following the links to the official lists [4] – and it is not the case that these few designations have led to “dozens of arrests and jailings”. In fact being designated a “foreign agent” does not lead to any kind of penalty at all – it is an order to obey certain strictures. I think Oliver Carroll is making this bit up. Furthermore; these organisations which are being designated foreign agent (based on a Russian law and formal process – it is not a “branding”) are being so designated because they do indeed receive financial support from abroad. Not because they are “critical”. Nor are they in fact “domestic”. Meduza for example is entirely based in Latvia. ‘Project’ was registered abroad.

As we can see the story that Andrew Roth and even more so Oliver Carroll are cooking up here is just that – a juicy story. It is written to a template – Russia, irrational, bad, illiberal, repressive. It is discordant with actual facts and shows only a very limited attempt (zero in the case of Carroll I’m afraid) to understand (and report on) what is actually going on.

Updated 14-8-21Sarah Rainsford

The BBC journalist whose Visa has not been renewed has been interviewed by the Guardian. Sarah Rainsford apparently condemned “an increasingly repressive environment” in Russia. She is reported as saying:

There were clear signs for Russian media – there have been really serious problems recently for Russian independent journalists – but until now the foreign press had been somehow shielded from all of that. This is a clear sign that things have changed

This at least confirms that Sarah Rainsford is a subsciber to (and a promoter of) the fiction that outlets such as Medusa or VTimes are “independent”. We have already noted that Medusa is apparently part-funded by a notorius politcal opponent of Putin. VTimes was supported by something called Stichting 2 Oktober – a not-for-profit based in the Netherlands and itself supported by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One could perhaps try to excuse these liberal journalists who present outlets such as Medusa and Dutch-government supported VTimes as “independent”; perhaps they simply mean “not controlled by the Russian state”. But then things get stranger; in this sense there are “independent” outlets in Russia. For example; the newspapers Kommersant and Vedemosti. Kommersant is owned by Russian (in fact originally from Uzbekistan) business man Alisher Usmanov [5]. Vedemosti is owned by a Russian businessman Vladimir Voronov. [6] (Or, more accurately, by his family). Voronov has previously worked for News Corporation and lives in London. In June 2019 when Medusa journalist Ivan Golunov was fitted up in Moscow for drugs both these publications came out in support of him. These are media outlets in Russia which are not owned by the state and can be called “independent” in the proper sense of the word. They do not slavishly publish “the Kremlin line”. For example I had a quick look at the front page of Vedemosti online today (14/8/21). Prominent on the front page is a story: “The real incomes of Russians have not grown for 10 years” – this shortly before elections to the state Duma, hardly a piece that United Russia will welcome. There is also a piece about a business facing the prospect of having his property seized by baillifs in favour of the state. (This is a topical issue for liberals who see such seizures as an example of the excessive power of the state). A story today (updated 16-8) concerns how a United Russia parliamentary candidate in Saratov is given much more favourable media coverage than his rivals. Clearly; this is ‘independent’ journalism; none of this is what United Russia will want to see in the press. It is a fiction promulgated by liberal UK journalists that the ‘only’ “independent” media operations in Russia are the ones like Medusa and “Project”. In fact; these operations are supported by Western backers. What “indpendent” means for these liberal journalists (phenomenologically so to speak) seems to mean liberal leaning with connections to the West. UK liberal journalists do not as a rule admit that there are Russian owned independent media.

Sarah Rainsford tells us that she told the officials who informed her of the Visa decision:

I’m not your enemy. I’ve tried my hardest to understand this country and tell it’s story, and that of the people here. It is something that’s very close to my heart and you’re removing someone who understands Russia, who speaks directly to people and tries to explain Russia to the world.

Well – she could have tried to understand the media landscape a bit better.

Out of interest I used Google to find a random sample of 3 articles on Russia by Sarah Rainsford. I searched for “by Sarah Rainsford” bbc.co.uk – and picked the first 3 articles in the list. I wanted to see how she “explains Russia to the world”.

The first is a story about a political activist Anastasia Shevchenko who was tried for having links with an organisation banned in Russia as undesirable. [7] Like other UK liberal journalists writing on Russia Rainsford cannot accept the right of Russia to make their own laws on political inteference. She describes this law thus: “a controversial 2015 law on ‘undesirable organisations'”. The law is “controversial” in the sense that a lot of liberal Westerns object to it – that is people who do not live in Russia and would perhaps be better of putting their own houses in order rather than telling Russia what to do. I have not done any specific polling of my friends and aquaintances in Russia on this point, but my sense is that most Russians will not be too bothered that Khodorkovsky’s (yes – him again) Open Society group is banned in Russia. The article reads just like the kind of propaganda put out by Radio Free Europe; it is long on sympathy for Anastasia Shevchenko but short on the detail; there is a law making it an offence to work for organisations which have been banned. She was charged under that law and found guilty. (She was not jailed). Rainsford informs the BBC’s readers that “Tolerance of open dissent has sunk even lower since Ms Shevchenko’s detention in January 2019”. (In fact, according to the article she was under house arrest while on remand). From the Russian point of view (that is the view of the lawmakers and prosecutors) they are protecting their constitution and system from blatant attempts to destabalize it – in this case by Khodorkovsky.

The second article I found at random is an article about the political opposition in Belarus. [8] The article is in a very similar vein to the previous one. In this case it is a humanistic and sympathetic treatment of an (female) activist facing charges in Belarus of sedition. We are reminded of course that authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko is “supported by Russia”.

The third random piece is titled “What Putin really wants from Biden”. [9] It was written just before the June summit in Geneva between the two leaders. One of the main ideas is that Putin wants to be seen to be “equal” to Biden. In support of this Rainsford quotes two sources. One is a Moscow think-tank (RIAC) which appears to have been set up by the Kremlin. [10] The other is Lilia Fyodorovna Shevtsova – a Ukranian born expert on Russia and critic of the country. She works for the London based Chatham house think-tank. One piece she has written refers to the fact that Russia always “returns to its predatory ways”. [11] She is especially critical of Russian policy on Ukraine. [12] At least this could be said to be an attempt to get that fabled “balanced reporting”. Shevtsova says that Putin “wants to demonstrate macho muscle” – a very standard sterotype of the Russian President. Rainsford herself seems quite happy to use colourful language: “But keeping people guessing – and wary – has been Vladimir Putin’s way ever since his “little green men” entered Crimea in 2014 and the peninsula was annexed from Ukraine.” – Is it really necessary to trot out “little green men” (note “his”)? Of course the subtext is that Russians are Martians, that is not really human. (Which many in Ukraine actually believe). It may well be the case that either Putin personally or Russian leaders in general want to be seen as equal to America – as a Great Power. But it is characteristic of UK reporting on Russia that it is this theme which leads thr story. Perhaps Putin was also motivated to meet Biden as a way of creating an opportunity to open some diplomatic bridges? Why do they always pick the obvious sterotype when they report on Russia?

Rainsford mentions that there are two Americans in prison in Russia and that the two leaders might discuss a swap for Russians held in US jails. She mentions one of the Americans – a former marine jailed for espionage. She doesn’t mention that the other is also an ex-Marine jailed for assaulting a policeman in a druken fit. That would be off-message.

Rainsford writes: “A few days earlier, he [Putin] had threatened to “knock out the teeth” of any foreign aggressor who wants to “bite” Russia, insisting that the world needs to wake-up to the country’s restored status and strength. Putin did indeed say something about knocking the teeth out of anyone who tries to snap up part of Russia. Rainsford omits the context – Putin was not speaking for an international audience. He was speaking to a Committee whose job it is to commerate those (Russians) who died in WWII. (23 million; when Germany invaded). But if you omit the context it helps Russia (and Putin) sound much more aggressive.

The article, despite, these rehashes of sterotypes about Russia does manage, by relying on two commentators, to provide a reasonable prelude to the summit – which was, presumably, its journalistic aim.

However – it may be a sampling error – but I can’t help noticing that 2 out of 3 of the articles I came across at random would have been entirely at home on US State Department propaganda project RFE – stories of brave dissidents standing up to tyrants. The third, while a more political report, managed to repeat several abusive sterotypes about “Putin”, overly concerned with his ‘macho’ image, and Russia – “little green men”, and, of course, aggressive.

There are a lot of people in Russia who are not Western-leaning liberals, who are not under the impression that they are living in a dictatorship with dwindling freedoms. Rainsford tells the Guardian that she speaks “directly to people” and tries to “explain Russia”. Maybe she does – and 3 articles is not a sufficient number to be a reliable sample. But that said I can say that these 3 random articles do not support her claims. On the contrary they seem to paint a picture of somone who shares all the standard liberal perceptions of Russia and who is focussed on telling the stories not of all Russians but of that minority of the population who are strongly opposed to the present political configuration. (And of course there are such people and of course they have a valid point of view; but if you want to “explain Russia” you should also talk to the millions who are broadly happy with the direction of the country). That is, you aren’t “explaining Russia” if the only story you tell is about repressed liberal activists, and “little green men” hardly makes it sound like you have really got to know the Russian people.

Update – a climate of political repression

There is a view – held not just by liberal Western journalists – but also by people within Russia that there is currently an increasingly restrictive political climate in Russia. Just today someone (a professional person in her thirties) told me that it is too dangerous to be involved in politics in Russia.

It seems to me that these people – that is people who have this perception of their own country – are the ones with whom Western journalists speak. These are very often young professional people who speak English and who have studied or visited abroad. Navalny fits this profile; he studied in the US. The lead editor of the ‘Project’ website (whose closure the Guardian made so much of) had studied abroad, also in the US. The person I spoke with this morning has visited European countries and through her work in Russia must meet a lot of foreigners.

What is difficult to determine is whether (with the closure and/or labelling of sites like Medusa and Project and VTimes as ‘foreign agent’) we are seeing a “crackdown” on foreign-funded media or on critical domestic voices. The reason it is difficult to tell is because these organisations did/do indeed have foreign links. As discussed above the UK liberal media just assume the latter – that this is about silencing critical voices – (often hiding or quickly skipping over the fact that these organisations do have foreign links).

This leads to the interesting question as to whether it would be possible for a genuinely domestic critical political party or movement to operate in Russia. We have already mentioned the example of media outlet Vedemosti – which appears to be able to offer serious ‘independent’ criticism of the problems of the country in the media. Could an independent and critical political party exist? Even if we accept that the Communist party and Fair Russia are “system parties” (and I’m not sure that this is correct but let’s allow it for now) there is still the Apple party. Яблоко offers voters a liberal alternative. This is a link to their programme. (Readers who don’t speak Russian can of course use a translator). Notice: a law requiring disclosure of poisonings of political figures, release of political prisoners, indepence of the judicary, elected judges, in the economic sphere an increase in competition and more privatisation of state assets, investment in education and science and technology, free land grants to citizens (! – land reform), enactment of the law on domestic violence (currently in Russia domestic violence only incurs a fine), on Foreign affairs: ending involvment in Donbass and Syria, “strict compliance with international laws”. They also want to claw back money from oligarchs who enriched themselves in the corrupt privatisations on the 90s. This is a liberal or social democratic party with a liberal economic policy (more competition and privatisation), investment in education and social infrastructure and an aim to normalise relations with the West. Candidates from this party can stand freely in the upcoming elections for the State Duma. Much of these ideas are similar to Navalny’s political postion – though without the latter’s anti-immigrant stance. The existence of ‘Apple’ supports an argument then that the problem with Navalny’s political organisation was what the authorities said – it had links to abroad. I would add also that Navalny was going all out to replace Putin and United Russia with himself – using methods including illegal street demonstrations (often relying on children for numbers), tactical voting, exploitation of resentment against the rich and so on. For conservative authoritarians this was indeed extreme. ‘Apple’ may have much in common with Navalny’s programme but they do not rely on sensational YouTube videos and street protests. They play within the system – which is perhaps why they are tolerated.

The existence of ‘Apple’ with its liberal social democratic programme which, if implemented, would definitely take Russia in a new direction, the fact that they can field candidates and do so without restrictions appears to belie the claim that ‘there is no democracy’ in Russia. On the other hand this is where we can say that the system uses its built-in advantages to disadvantage the opposition. We have mentioned above evidence (in the Vedemosti report) that a United Russia candidate was more favoured in the media than his rivals. It does seem to be the case that United Russia – the existing incumbents – will use their dominance in state institutions to favour their candidates. I’ve been told stories about Universities and employers (in the state sector) putting students and staff under various kinds of pressure to vote for United Russia candiates. It does seem to be the case that liberal parties will not get a fair showing on state media. This OSCE report into the 2012 Presidential election in Russia is probably accurate up to a point. (It is characteristic of the way the OSCE treats Russia that they do not distinguish between actual electoral fraud and bad practice which may or may not have resulted in actual fraud and may simply have been lack of expertise in running elections). That is: opposition candidates were not harrassed and intimidated but the state machinery acted in favour of the incumbent. In a way of course this can be explained by certain conservative tendancies in the culture. Possibly the state machinery would automatically gather around whoever was currently in charge. This is a kind of system which you could call ‘authoritarian democracy’ or something like that.

Russia is not a free-for-all liberal state. There are limits on what is possible in the political and media fields. I would say though that the evidence is more in favour of characterising the system as something like ‘authoritarian democracy’ than a fully repressive political system. Two further points; many Russians know this and are happy with it. [14] Secondily; it is of course out of scope here but there is a case that the ‘anything goes’ liberalism (for example anyone can stand in an election in the UK even the Monster Raving Loony party) of the West is simply a sophisticated strategy of power to in fact promulgate itself by either co-opting or dividing protest. Chomsky’s analysis of how the media in the West frames political debate (e.g. huge emphasis on the human rights abuses of our opponents but a blind eye to those of our allies) so as to “manufacture consent” is also relevant here.

The problem I would say with much of the UK liberal coverage of Russia is that it is black and white and limited by an apparent inability of journalists to think beyond themselves. They look at the polity of Russia and those parts of it which do not look like what they are familiar with they denounce and those parts which do look familiar they extol (that is liberal activists).

(For more on the way that the Guardian misreports the media situation in Russia please see: https://thenewobserver.co.uk/2021/07/15/guardian-agitprop-about-the-war-on-independent-journalism-in-russia/ ).

Notes

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2021/aug/13/russia-to-expel-bbc-journalist-by-allowing-visa-to-expire
  2. https://tass.ru/obschestvo/12126113?utm_source=yxnews&utm_medium=desktop
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/23/russian-journalists-meduza-project-latvia-kremlin-crackdown
  4. https://minjust.gov.ru/ru/documents/7756/ https://minjust.gov.ru/ru/documents/7755/
  5. https://www.gazeta.ru/2006/08/30/oa_214028.shtml
  6. https://www.rbc.ru/technology_and_media/06/02/2020/5dff71209a79477b8d177456?from=newsfeed
  7. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56096694
  8. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-58114107
  9. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-57427055
  10. https://russiancouncil.ru/en/about/
  11. https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/has-the-russian-systems-agony-begun/
  12. https://www.brookings.edu/on-the-record/%d0%bb%d0%b8%d0%bb%d0%b8%d1%8f-%d1%88%d0%b5%d0%b2%d1%86%d0%be%d0%b2%d0%b0-%d0%ba%d1%80%d0%b5%d0%bc%d0%bb%d1%8c-%d0%b7%d0%b0%d0%b4%d0%b5%d0%b9%d1%81%d1%82%d0%b2%d1%83%d0%b5%d1%82-%d0%b2%d1%81%d0%b5/
  13. https://www.yabloko.ru/short-program2021

Poll after poll demonstrated that the Russian people approved when the president [Putin] took action against his political opponents. Such antidemocratic action has not lessened his popularity, but rather increased it. The same polls show that the great majority of Russians do not believe that they live in a democratic country, and they are not much bothered by this. “If everything is going well,” they see no need for an opposition.

Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to its Legacy (p. 299). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer