Eleven Kommersant journalists have quit the newspaper in protest, following the publishing house’s decision to fire two journalists who had written an article about the possible departure of Valentina Matvienko from her post as speaker of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament. The exodus of those 13 journalists, who include the paper’s deputy editor in chief for political news, Gleb Cherkasov, is a serious blow to Kommersant, whose political reporting has been of a high standard.

According to the management of the publishing house, the authors of the article in question, Ivan Safronov and Maxim Ivanov, had violated professional standards, apparently in their use of anonymous sources. It looks strange: the political deputy editor wasn’t the only one who allowed the article to appear on the pages; several other senior editors, including the editor in chief, are responsible for the content. Another odd aspect of the case is that the dismissals only took place a month after the article was published.

This incident brought to mind the sacking in 2011 of Maxim Kovalsky, editor in chief of Kommersant-Vlast magazine, following its publication of a photo of a spoiled ballot with an obscenity written next to Vladimir Putin’s name (this was a period of parliamentary elections and a time when Putin was poised to return to the presidency). Back then, Kommersant founder Vladimir Yakovlev wrote: “When a journalist is fired for publishing materials that the authorities might not like, it’s always possible to find some excuse or another. Because no one wants to say, ‘we’re firing a journalist because they are publishing materials that the authorities might not like.’” 

The original sin of Russian journalism was committed more than two decades ago, when the best and brightest print and TV journalists participated in the anti-government campaign of the “young reformers”: the liberal economists on the team of then president Boris Yeltsin. The term “information wars” entered the political lexicon, and certain participants of those wars fought on multiple fronts, changing their allegiances depending on who owned a particular media outlet. 

During the period that followed, the norm became not censorship but self-censorship: journalists kept themselves in check because they began to fear their section editors; the section editors were afraid of the wrath of department heads; and the department heads were scared of the editors in chief, who answered to the owners. The owners, in turn, were trying to predict how the authorities would react. Self-censorship became something of a professional standard, and an element of so-called corporate ethics that could not be violated. Journalists gradually turned into civil servants, and private media outlets were private in name only.

The economics of the media sector became extremely tricky: advertising and subscriptions were important, but the only real way to survive was by relying on sponsors (owners or investors), who used their media outlets to sell their political loyalty. Loyalty could be advertised, and loyalty could be sold section by section: sections on politics, economics, and later foreign policy. The media market turned into a market of loyalty to the authorities. 

In the words of political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, the media turned into “a service journalists provided to the authorities.” When it became difficult and dangerous to own media, the major, medium, and minor players began to cast off media outlets like non-core assets. The ones who kept theirs, such as Kommersant’s billionaire owner Alisher Usmanov, had to be even more cautious in regard to what is euphemistically described as corporate ethics.

Many representatives of the press corps had assumed that they could be both professional and manageable: do their job well while retaining some political adaptability. Although writing about reality and shaping reality are two rather different professions, the best journalists were able to successfully combine high quality with an understanding of where red lines are drawn. Sometimes, however, there are unfortunate lapses, when someone at the top loses their nerve. Pink slips are then sent down with the assumption that no one cares, and that jobs are more important than the personal feelings provoked by the management’s decisions. An image crisis follows, and journalists and editors tire of constantly looking out for where the next red lines will appear.

During the earliest years of post-Soviet Russia, the media was a public resource. However, it quickly lost this role because public models of anything—television and radio included—don’t fare well in Russia. Once it became a market for the authorities, the media lost its market properties in the economic sense of the word. The scope of what is permissible is shrinking and becoming more and more uncertain, and words are becoming more and more vague. This is because words that call things by their name are self-censored in line with “professional standards” and “corporate ethics.” 

The excuses are the same everyone else makes: it is better to survive than to perish, because if you survive you can do something good, shed light on a problem, save a person—and better us than those who will come after us. If you read the memoirs of Soviet-era editors in chief, you will notice that they lived by the same logic. The same survival mechanisms function to this day.

When Raf Shakirov was ousted from the position of editor in chief of Izvestia newspaper during the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis for publishing a haunting photograph that expressed both grief and bewilderment as the emotional centerpiece of reporting on the terrorist attack, some tried to make excuses for the authorities, saying that they were already overloaded with bodies and hostages, and now this: Shakirov’s dismissal was only the logical outcome. Yet it wasn’t just the government that was dealing with bodies and hostages; it was the country. And the government should have been serving the people, while the people should have been doing the same thing as the media: criticizing, revealing, and monitoring. 

The endless state-centricity of any action and statement, and the perception of the regime as a sensitive and fragile poisonous flower that can open up at any time and devour those who offend it, are what led to growing control over media content. As a result, media owners have come to be accountable to the regime, rather than to their audiences. Likewise, what governors, senators, and deputies fear is not public outrage, but the opinion of the authorities. 

Truly free media and genuinely free elections cannot exist in such a world. The state believes that this is the way things have to be. This is a mistake. Soon, however, there will be no one left to dissuade. 

This article was originally published in Russian on RBC.

  • Andrei Kolesnikov