Zydrone Krasauskiene: With over a decade of experience working for the independent TV-2 channel in Tomsk and freelancing for Radio Svoboda behind you, you witnessed and directly experienced both as a citizen and as a journalist the effects of the polarization of Russian society as a result of the new geopolitical reality, the annexation of the Crimea, and the war in Eastern Ukraine. Could you describe how all that polarization evolved?
Melani Bachina: There was no evolution. Almost overnight we became a bitterly divided society, a society which is antagonized to such a degree, that if someone doesn't think like you, he sees you as his enemy. It is not possible to discuss things in such a context. And this affected relations in families, among friends and co-workers. My friend, for example, doesn't talk to his parents anymore, who watch federal channels and are absolutely convinced that the Crimea rightly belongs to Russia. He says he now hates Putin, because of what has happened to his family.
This new bi-polar reality was especially hard for journalists, who wanted to do their job to cover Crimea in a proper, balanced way - as it was the case with me and my colleagues at TV-2 in Tomsk. I personally was threatened, and accused of being an American agent who tries to foment the Orange Revolution in Russia, and a collaborator with the Azov Battalion (the initial volunteer militia in Ukraine, now a National Guard of Ukraine's regiment,-ed) that allegedly has ties to far-right nationalist groups. When I asked the police to investigate these threats, I was told to withdraw my claims, or I would be charged with making false accusations.
Paradoxically, it was at a picket for peace in Tomsk where I witnessed for the first time in my life, aggression from passers-by and bystanders. I witnessed ordinary people becoming highly aggressive towards demonstrators who came out to protest against the war in Ukraine, and at this demonstration I realized that the general mood had changed in Russia, that one could not feel secure anymore. This had not been the case before Crimea.
ZK: What sources are there left now for people in Russia's regions to access unbiased information?
Melani Bachina: Absolutely independent stations, such as Tomsk TV-2 which was closed at the start of 2015, are not available anymore. Our channel was famous for its editorial independence, and since there were neither legal, nor financial reasons for the closure, we, former employees and reporters, are convinced that it was a politically motivated decision. Officially, the station was closed after Roskomnadzor, the state agency that regulates Russia’s media, withdrew its license, and another official body, the RTRS, later refused to renew the channel’s broadcasting contract.
Even now we hear that we would have been able to continue if we had stopped covering certain topics or covered them in line with the Kremlin's politics. We adhered to the principles of independent journalism, and decided that we were not going to accept any compromise. Some media outlets opted for double standards, they covered topics that were not controversial, but steered away from the ones that were likely to irritate the authorities. But is this independent journalism?
Only a handful of independent media outlets remain in today's Russia. Even those that are independent from the state, have founders that own business, which, in turn, depend on the state. For example, the founder of the independent TV 4 channel in Yekaterinburg has a brick factory, and that factory is on good terms with the government because they need to get state contracts for various buildings etc. Naturally, the owner of the factory can easily influence the Director of the TV channel, and can say well, we will not cover certain topics, because we have a contract and we do not want to irritate authorities, the governor. So even if they are independent, that independence is relative. What other choice do you have as a business enterprise if all significant business orders come only from the state, since that's were all the money is concentrated in today’s Russia.
ZK: What are then the prospects for journalists in Russia who do not adhere to the Kremlin's official line?
Melani Bachina: In general, it is very hard for journalists in Russia, because there is no need for journalists. The state now needs only propagandists.
And if you are an independent journalist in Russia, it's like what I have defined for myself, you are taking a bold, courageous stand, and must be prepared to take the risk of reprisals. Consciously, you either go and take those risks, which as a minimum means that you can lose your job or, in more extreme cases, you can be severely beaten like Lev Schlosberg, a politician and journalist from Pskov, widely known for his anti-Putin stance. So as a journalist, you have to make the choice whether you are going to face risks, or you are going to become a propagandist, which is an entirely different profession.
ZK: In this context, what is the ordinary person’s attitude towards U.S.- funded Radio Svoboda and its reporters on the ground?
Melani Bachina: All independent media outlets are the target of smear campaigns in Russia, and Radio Svoboda is no exception. In the context of this propagandist, nationalist hysteria, the independent media was discredited by claims that they were not motivated by a wish to provide free and independent information, but because they were fulfilling orders from the [U.S.] State department.
Those who work for Radio Svoboda and do not hide that fact are subjects of attacks. Just before I came to Prague, there was a smear campaign against me, there were some articles in the press, claiming that the CIA had enlisted me to work for them via Radio Svoboda. Anton Naumluk, our regional correspondent in Saratov, has just experienced a similar smear campaign against him.
ZK: You are responsible for nurturing Radio Svoboda's regional correspondent network. In this hostile environment, is it difficult to find journalists willing to contribute for Radio Svoboda?
Melani Bachina: Here I have a list of correspondents who used to contribute to Radio Svoboda. Now only 30% of Svoboda's regional correspondents are ready to continue filing for us, the rest are afraid of reprisals. The majority of freelancers who contribute to us work under pen names. Even so, they are afraid of accusations as a result of their work for Svoboda. Just recently, a correspondent in Abakan - the capital city of the Republic of Khakassia – rung me and said that the FSB wanted to interrogate her, and that she was afraid that this might have been related to her work for Radio Svoboda. A similar incident happened with our reporter in Samara. And yes,it is hard to find new reporters, because a lot of journalists now say that work for us is not compatible with the work that they are doing now.
ZK: What content can Radio Svoboda now offer specifically for Russia's regions?
Melani Bachina: Russia is a huge country, and it is not limited to Moscow. Especially now, there is prevailing mood that Moscow does not understand the way the regions live, that we [in the regions] should stop feeding Moscow, etc. In that sense, Moscow is like a state within the state, and people there can hardly imagine what life in the regions is like, some can hardly find a city like Tomsk on the map. And if there is no media channel which is prepared to cover life in the regions, they end up in informational isolation. There are lots of ordinary people who are ready to talk about things around them, but more often than not they do not have an outlet to do so, as the federal channels do not provide such opportunities.
Even information agencies are state owned, and so one can't get a true picture of what is happening in the regions. For example, in Tomsk there is a court case against 20 people for picketing for the Balotnaya case, and this was not covered in the Russian media at all. Following the protests in Moscow (the "March of the Millions" on May 6, 2012 on the Bolotnaya square in Moscow) in Tomsk people came out in streets to protest in defense of the so-called "prisoners of consciousness" in the Balotnaya case. All of them, including pensioners, were fined for breaking the law on picketing. Not a single news agency - Itar Tass, Interfax, or Ria Novosti – reported this.
This is where Radio Svoboda with its regional correspondents' network could fill the gap and break the informational silos. If there is no correspondent on the ground who can tell the story, there is no news. That's why it is very important that we nurture a network of trusted reporters, who can be operatively dispatched to various locations. Radio Svoboda can provide a platform for regional audiences where local experts, university professors, small or middle businessmen can discuss what is important to them, what's happening around them.
Melani Bachina is a well-known journalist in Russia. As a star presenter and reporter with the independent TV - 2 channel in Tomsk from 2004 until its closure on 1st January 2015, she is a three-times winner of Russia's most prestigious award - TEFI-, a kind of Pulitzer Prize of the Russian television industry, presented by the Russian Academy of Television. She has also worked as a trainer with the BBC for its journalists in Russia, and as a freelance contributor to Radio Svoboda since 2004. Melani's video reports from Western Siberia were highly praised also by RFE/RL colleagues, as they were featured and received an award in our internal "Best of RFE/RL" competitions as "excellent examples of telling human stories about real people living in hard circumstances."
This interview was conducted by Zydrone Krasauskiene, Manager of LibertyNET, RFE/RL's internal communication forum.