Russia and the West
John Kampfner on the Kremlin, the BBC and us
17 Sep 09

Anatomy of Injustice launch panel

Are reporters who risk their lives in Russia, many of whom are killed, the modern-day equivalents of Soviet-era dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov? This question was central to a debate on press freedom, organised by Index on Censorship to mark publication of a report on the issue by Committee to Protect Journalists.

Richard Sambrook, Director of the BBC’s Global News Division, sought to respond to criticism that the corporation’s coverage of the threats to free expression in Russia lacked courage. “It’s not the job of the BBC to be the voice of the opposition,” Sambrook said. “What we can do and should do is to shine a light on issues such as these and hold politicians to account.”

That definition is an intriguing one, and casts a further spotlight on criticisms of the corporation for an excess of caution when taking on governments or other powerful institutions –– criticisms that I, among others, have levelled several times.

Sambrook had been confronted by Robert Chandler, an eminent translator who has led a campaign to denounce what’s widely seen as a move by the BBC’s Russian Service away from in-depth programmes and rigorous analysis into a softer lifestyle agenda. Sambrook acknowledged that free speech stories in Russia and other countries received only temporary “spikes” in coverage, and were not pursued consistently by editors across the western media. However, he denied that this was the result of any cosying up to the Kremlin.

Launching the CPJ’s report on the death of 17 investigative journalists in Russia, its author, Nina Ognianova, complained that western media were not probing these cases with enough vigour. She said the silence in the Russian media was the result of a lack of courage by many journalists there in the face of intense pressure to toe the line. However, she said she was surprised to have been given meetings in Moscow with Ella Panfilova, an adviser to President Dmitry Medvedev, and with a senior official at the Federal Prosecutor’s Office.

Manana Aslamazyan, whose organisation Internews was forced to cease its operations in the Russian capital, said it was only thanks to the work of a “small group of mad and brave journalists”, particularly in the provinces, that Russians get any information about the threats to civil society. Describing herself as an “optimist without hope”, she said pliant Russian journalists should be “named and shamed”.

John Kampfner’s Freedom For Sale is available now