Badanin: to combat disinformation, we must support high-quality journalism

Valeria Jegisman of Free Russia Foundation sat down with Roman Badanin, editor in chief of Dozhd (TV Rain), one of the few independent news outlets in Russia to talk about the media situation in the country and the role of Western support.

How do you assess the media situation in Russia today, and what are your predictions for the future?

The situation is both deplorable and promising. There is no need to explain why it is deplorable — many good media outlets have been ruined, a lot of journalists have lost the opportunity for professional fulfillment, the vast majority of existing media is under state control to one degree or another, and so on. What is much more important is why I, nevertheless, see the situation as being promising. The thing is that while the Russian authorities were preoccupied with their attack on the media, the world did not stand still but moved forward both with new technologies and new approaches to media. And this gives us a lot of opportunities. Here is what I mean: there was something called Samizdat in the USSR where many thousands of people across the country reproduced censored materials at their own peril. Today, there is again something like Samizdat and no one, except the Russian state itself, is to blame for this. About 10 years ago, there were a lot of large media players in Russia — oligarch media, large state media, and subsidiaries of large foreign media. Today, some of these large media have disappeared, some of them have been banned, some have been kicked out of the country. But they have one thing in common: they have lost a monopoly on the Russian audience, especially the young.

Instead, a considerable number continue to appear as a whole cohort of young media and quasi-media that resembles Samizdat. Many of these media are not registered or are registered abroad. Moreover, many of them are generally anonymous, such as Telegram channels, which have taken on the role of media. Or bloggers — they are not registered either, yet they are also engaged in media delivery, sometimes delivering news or even more complex content. One can make a million criticisms about them, yes, but this is the reality of today. And all these projects are small, so they do not need a large management.

Another distinguishing feature of these media, in addition to being small and not following all the previous conventions, is that they are often specialized in the subject matter. They are also experimenting with new business models, such as using native advertising, crowdfunding or non-profits. That’s why I am very hopeful about all of this. Instead of the big unwieldy giants with whom the Russian authorities have been waging war in recent years, suddenly and unnoticeably, perhaps for the authorities themselves, a great number of new promising teams have appeared. Of course, for such a large country as Russia, this is not enough and there should be more of these media. And there is a need to spread regionally, which is the most difficult part, yet all of these developments make me look to the future with hope.

The audience to which independent media reaches out to is quite small in Russia. Is it possible that independent media could play a role in changing the status quo, or will it remain a niche for a certain group of people?

I do not like to ask myself such big global questions. Let’s look at the facts and I will give the following example. Last September, there was a story that at the Mayak plant in Chelyabinsk Oblast, allegedly, there was a leak of radioactive ruthenium and the radioactive cloud traveled over the whole of Russia, and no one knew about this. You ask me, as a journalist, if writing about this cloud could become a driver for some sort of changes? I just write about it because it’s important. If it provokes some public response, some mass movement, then it is good — this is one measure of the success of journalistic work. But I’m not a politician or an activist, I am a journalist and the main thing for me is simply to tell people that this is happening.

What are your thoughts on the new generation of journalists and journalism education in Russia? There are new journalists who want to work for Rain TV and others who want to work for national channels.

It’s hard for me to speak about the quality of education since I myself did not study with a faculty of journalists. But then again, there are mixed feelings of pessimism and optimism. Regarding the pessimistic views, there are more than 1,000 new journalists graduating each year in Russia — more precise numbers can be found in my column on this topic in Republic — and they all must go somewhere to work. The majority, of course, go to VGTRK [the National State Television and Radio Company] — the largest employer in the media market in the country.  They are hardly guilty because of this and are going there just with the thought of earning money and knowing that they will not be fired.

The other thing is that the Russian media market didn’t develop during those ten years in the 1990s before the crackdown happened. People just do not really understand what journalism or a journalist’s ethical code is. Many of them just land on this conveyor belt and do not have time to think about what they are really doing. This is a big problem because many of these people think that they do real journalism. Even worse — their friends, counterparts, PR professionals and the audience start thinking in a similar manner. I am more pessimistic here, but the optimistic side is that there are still a lot of people, especially young ones, who are eager to do something real, especially in the big cities. They have the enthusiasm and the courage, to be honest journalists – it is a brave thing to be an honest journalist in Russia today — but since the media market hasn’t properly developed, they have no experience, no basic skills, and no ethical journalistic standards.

What do you think the West, in the context of the current relations between the West and Russia, could do to help independent media in Russia?

There is a growing trend all over the world to support independent media projects with non-profit funding. These media projects specialize in socially important topics; however, they can’t get by just on readership traffic — it is another type of journalism. Every society needs an independent and investigative media. America came to fully understand this after Donald Trump became president. For example, three years ago there were fewer than 100 of these types of media outlets in America, and now there are around 300. I wrote about this in more detail on Medium [an online publishing platform] at Stanford University. And where is the Russian reality in all of this?  In Russia, the trend is quite the opposite.

I understand that with Putin in Russia and the legislation not allowing certain things, that everyone is afraid to invest money in Russian media. This is understandable, but here is what is not acceptable:  Russia is the world’s largest country with a nuclear bomb, a population of 140 million, a bunch of tanks, two open conflicts, and a million unresolved internal problems that, if they play out, could fundamentally affect stability in the world. Despite all this, I see a declining trend towards Russia, as supporting freedom of speech here in the US has become more important. Yet I think that what the West can do is to continue to support independent media in the most transparent and clear way, and to stop being afraid of the million tricks that the Russian authorities come up with to force the West to abandon these investments.

But can this Western support be detrimental to the people and organizations in the current situation?

Yes, it can, but it’s a matter of choice. There is always a choice – either you do it, or you do not. Therefore, this support should be as transparent as possible. Supporting these 300 successfully working media organizations is based on transparent and clear mechanisms. Every reasonable person understands that these media projects receive donor support due to the importance of their work and no one complains about this. If everything is done in a transparent way, reasonable people will not question Russian journalists who could receive donor funding in the same way. The Russian authorities, if they want to do something with them, well, they can do it anyway.

Do you expect that Russia will continue to spread disinformation?  How is it possible to fight disinformation both in the West and within Russia? Do you think the Western approach to countering disinformation is the right one?

I won’t go into the political aspect of this. But yes, I expect that Russia will continue its disinformation tactics. If a manager tries some method which seems to work well and doesn’t cost much, then you, like a smart manager, should probably continue with this technique and develop it further.  In order to combat disinformation, we must, first of all, invest in and support independent, high-quality journalism and related projects.

Roman Badanin, editor in chief of Dozhd (TV Rain). He is currently a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, focusing on the development of independent media in Russia.

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