By Tom Balmforth
RYBINSK, Russia — Aleksandr Zverkov found out the hard way what happens when you speak truth to local power in this ancient fishing city on the Volga River.
“There’s a great phrase: You haven’t lived to the full if you haven’t experienced poverty, love, and war,” Zverkov says. “Well, I’ve done it all. I had a love, a cruel war with that mayor, and now two years of poverty.”
Once a celebrity news anchor, Zverkov now earns his keep checking tickets on the red No. 18 trolleybus that trundles the potholed streets of Rybinsk, a town of 220,000.
As he pockets a few grubby ruble coins, tears off a ticket and hands it to a passenger, Zverkov says there is a touch of Chekhovian tragicomedy in his fleeting career in journalism. But he says he has no regrets.
The precipitous end of Zverkov’s journalistic career is a microcosm of how the once-boisterous regional media was tamed across Russia’s 83 provinces. Over the past decade, small television and radio outlets critical of local government were given an implicit choice: cease and desist such behavior or be forced into closure. In the absence of independent media, municipal and regional leaders have thus become free to run their localities as personal fiefdoms.
Spotlight On Russian Media
As media have become less critical and independent, trust has declined precipitously. According to the polling agency VTsIOM, 33 percent of Russians say they believe what their friends tell them about current events more than they trust the state media. Three years ago, that figure was 24 percent.
Zverkov’s troubles began in late 2004, when Evgeny Sdvizhkov was elected mayor of Rybinsk, which lies 400 kilometers north of Moscow in the Yaroslav Oblast.
He says his employer, Studio Alfa, got into trouble when he reported that garbage disposal was patchy in certain districts of the city. Zverkov insists that his reports were balanced.
“I tried to tell Sdvizhkov that this was not criticism — that we were trying to bring his attention to certain things, that there was nothing personal about this,” Zverkov recalls. “I told him it wasn’t important what I personally thought because he was the mayor and that I stood there as a journalist obliged to bring his attention to this or that. I wasn’t having a go at him, but he took it completely differently.”
The news items would eventually cost Zverkov his job.
First, electricity was cut off to the offices that Studio Alfa rented. Then the studios’ building was seized by security guards from the mayor’s office who did not allow Zverkov or his colleagues access to their equipment and licenses. In fact, they would never see their equipment again nor film in their old studios.
As Studio Alfa’s audience dwindled, and with it much-needed income from local advertising, Zverkov said it was clear where things were headed.
Still, he and his colleagues tried to make the best of the situation.
“That was when truly desperate times started because of the persecution from the authorities,” Zverkov said. “We worked in attics and cellars that sometimes didn’t have any windows. Can you imagine what it was like in the winter, or in the spring when it was raining?”
Yulia Muratova, general director and chief editor of Studio Alfa in Rybinsk
Yulia Muratova, Studio Alfa’s general director and founder, painfully recalled how she was forced to seek loans in order to pay her employees.
Finally the debt and the stress became too much. In the summer of 2006, Muratova sold the channel to a Moscow television company, which subsequently canceled Zverkov’s controversial program after consulting with the mayor. Suddenly, Zverkov was unemployed.
Irina Guseinova, an analyst at the Moscow based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, says the plight of Zverkov and Studio Alfa was commonplace in Russia’s regions.
“This is a typical story,” Guseinova says. “It has all happened step by step, starting with the seizure of the central [federal] channels which are fully under control. Nothing has changed. What has taken place in the regions mirrors this.”
With the high incidence of nominally private regime-friendly media, it is difficult to calculate the true extent of the state’s near-monopoly on public information.
Online Russian media estimate that 80 percent of the regional press is under the control of the local authorities in one form or another. Guseinova says that, like federal authorities, local and regional leaders are primarily concerned with taming television and radio.
She says “virtually all” television stations are in the hands of local authorities.
“Either they belong to people who are close to the authorities who’ve been ordered to buy the channel, or they belong to someone in the president’s circle, and therefore effectively the president,” Guseinova says.
According to the Levada Center, 94 percent of Russians seek their news on national television and 41 percent via radio stations. Eleven percent look to regional television.
In an interview with RFE/RL, Sdvizhkov acknowledges that he attempted to correct Studio Alfa’s news scripts before they went on air. But he denies forcing it into closure and says he simply pointed out where he thought there were “lies” about him.
He says such lies played into the hands of Yaroslavl Oblast’s governor, with whom he was in a dispute that would eventually cost Sdvizhkov his post and result in his arrest in June 2007 on corruption charges that were overturned only years later.
Aleksandr Zverkov (left) now works as aconductor on public transportation in Rybinsk.
Following Sdvizhkov’s ouster, Zverkov again found work as a journalist at the local branch of the federal TNT channel. But that job would be fleeting, albeit with a less spectacular exit this time — the channel’s news service was simply closed down in late 2008.
Thus began Zverkov’s “two years of poverty.” With a whiff of controversy surrounding him, Zverkov’s search for a job took him to the farthest reaches of Rybinsk — the trolleybus depot from where his red No. 18 rolls out every day.
Today Rybinsk has one local television channel, Rybinsk 40, which was formerly owned by current Rybinsk Mayor Yury Lastochkin.
Directives Won’t Do
President Dmitry Medvedev has called on regional leaders to relinquish their grips on regional media outlets and privatize them. Guseinova says they fear carrying out such an order because they would stand to lose reliable platforms that lavish public praise on them.
Boris Timoshenko of the Glasnost Defense Foundation says he’s skeptical that the outgoing president’s calls will come to anything, since Medvedev has already indicated he won’t seek reelection.
Regional newspapers have been allowed more leeway. But with readership declining, they are far less influential than television or radio. Moreover, most editors opt to fall in line with the local and regional authorities on their own accord, so as not to put their businesses in the firing line.
Speaking to RFE/RL, Vitaly Goroshnikov, chief editor of “Novyi Gorod,” a new glossy magazine in Rybinsk, is frank about his business’s relationship with the municipal government. “I have nothing to hide,” he says. “We have a dialogue with the authorities.”
Rybinsk is home to a single private and independent monthly newspaper called “Rybinskaya Sreda,” which the paper’s editor delivers herself in her black Volga. The paper has avoided pressure from local authorities, but it rarely covers politics.
In the regions outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2010, the Glasnost Defense Foundation recorded 178 instances of media intimidation, including attacks on journalists and editorial offices, firings, arrests and prosecutions, and attempts to censor content.
Guseinova says the persecution of journalists in the regions usually ebbs and flows, and often peaks when local authorities are campaigning for reelection.
In such circumstances, Timoshenko says the freedom of the press often depends on the professionalism of individual editors.
The Glasnost Defense Foundation’s regional map of press freedom shows variance across Russia’s provinces. In 2010, 16 regions were rated “relatively free,” some 44 were deemed “relatively not free,” and 22 were labeled “not free.”
Yulia Muratova, Zverkov’s former editor at Studio Alfa, says the profession of journalism is dying in Russia.
“The worse thing about where we have arrived with journalism is that there is no trust, no trust in anything — not in the authorities and not in the media,” Muratova says. “When I read a newspaper, I wonder who has paid for the article and who has taken part in the making of the story. It’s the same thing with television. I think there are a lot of people who think this in Russia.”