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In Russia, Freedom of the Press Begins with Local News

(Washington, D.C.--November 17, 2005) While the national press and media in Russia face severe restrictions -- in some cases outright government control -- local newspapers still have the freedom to report independent stories, said the editor of a local Russian newspaper. Diana Kachalova, Editor-in-Chief of "Moi Rayon," a regional weekly newspaper in St. Petersburg, told an RFE/RL audience last week that local newspapers that show they are committed to covering local news can survive, because of a growing sense of community in some Russian cities.

Kachalova, winner of the 2005 Paul Klebnikov Prize, said she and her colleagues started "Moi Rayon" three years ago with three regional editions, but have since expanded to 11 editions covering all 13 districts of St. Petersburg. The newspaper, which is free to the public, relies on advertising fees for income -- mostly from local merchants. It is distributed at 500 sidewalk stands, all "painted a bright orange" according to Kachalova, and often protected by the "local businesses who keep an eye on the stands." The newspaper also receives financial support from its primary investors -- the owners of a construction business whom, Kachalova said, "decided to also serve the public" by helping to start the newspaper. The owners, according to Kachalova, "in three years have never tried to change the paper's editorial policy or articles," although "they would like to see [the paper produce] a profit" -- so the challenge for the staff is "to match the audience and the advertisers."

In order to maintain its independence, the newspaper does not accept grants from the Russian government, at neither the local nor national level, Kachalova said, and has until now also turned down political advertisements -- even during the Duma elections. For these reasons, she said, the newspaper can have a great deal of independence, because "there are no instruments for the government to threaten the newspaper." Although the staff does get three to four angry calls every week from businessmen unhappy about a story, few result in court cases.

One of the goals of "Moi Rayon," Kachalova said, is to present to its readers how local and national events affect them. She believes that if the newspaper delivers the facts about a story, readers can then draw their own conclusions and form opinions for themselves. Kachalova said that earning the trust of readers is paramount. Giving people the information so that "they can fight for justice and that they can win," is also an important goal for the newspaper. "Small voices on the small local level," Kachalova said, are key to changing attitudes and improving life for Russians. Coverage of issues often includes "side bars which tell the readers what you can do to help yourself," said Kachalova, and "one reader has already won a first court case."

Some of the local issues that "Moi Rayon" has covered include construction projects, health care, and corruption. For example, Kachalova said, there is a great deal of local concern that residents of St. Petersburg are losing their neighborhood parks and open space as a result of the city's construction boom. A survey of local businessmen by the newspaper showed that "if there were no bribes, prices [for goods] would be 15 to 25 percent lower," she said. Even on national stories Kachalova looks for the "local angle," to show readers how they are directly affected by events and policies. Kachalova added, however, that her readers "don't care about the war in Chechnya anymore," unlike the first war in Chechnya when "everyone talked" about it.