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A House Free from the Truth
Edward LOZANSKY, President, American University in Moscow
The recently released ratings of the state of freedom and general and press freedom in particular put Russia in the category of “Not-Free” and on the 172nd place for its Press Freedom situation. Journalist Aidyn Mekhtiev is discussing this issue with the President of the American University in Moscow Edward Lozansky.
A. M.: How would you comment on the recent Freedom House report to the effect that Russia is not a free country and, according to the Free Media index, shares the 172nd place with Zimbabwe and Azerbaijan?
Edward Lozansky: If absurdity or bias ratings were ever conducted, this Freedom House report would certainly be among the top ten in this class. I don't know about Zimbabwe or Azerbaijan, as I have never been there nor have I been following their media, but speaking of freedom in Russia's media and society as a whole, there's certainly not much difference between Russia and most Western countries.
Just let me make my stand clear. In my view, Russia has lots of blemishes: rampant corruption, weak democratic institutions, a far from perfect election system, and so on. But let me repeat: in terms of such categories as media freedom, Russia looks pretty decent.
A.M.: Frankly, it is not often one hears this kind of view not just from Western experts, but even from Russian ones.
E.L.: I lay no claim, of course, to the truth in the last instance, as philosophers put it. But I do know what I'm talking about. Owing to my way of life (I practically commute between Russia and America) I can easily compare things as they are in the West and in Russia. Speaking about media I try to go through as many newspapers and websites as I physically can, listen to various radio stations, watch TV, write pieces of my own, and give interviews to the Russian and foreign press. My views are thus not those of a stray tourist falling under the spell of what fierce oppositionists call Surkov's propaganda, but, I like to think, the result of objective evaluation.
A.M.: I have been following your speeches and articles in various publications for quite some time. Correct me if I am wrong, but don't you get your pieces published less frequently these days?
E.L.: That is so, though not because I am cutting down on my work load. I may as well be frank with you, lately it has been increasingly difficult for me to have my stuff published, whether in the United States or in Russia. My main area of concern - looking for ways of bringing Russia and the US closer together - is no longer of much interest to the media. I could say more - it is a sort of allergen to many. Editors favor scandal and harsh criticism of the powers-that-be, especially as it is perfectly safe to indulge in this in Russia nowadays (incidentally, this is yet another proof of media freedom here). Still I at times manage to overcome the opposition and have my articles published both in America and in Russia, though not quite as often as I'd like to. Fortunately, there is the blogosphere, so I don't have to write "for the bottom drawer," as we used to do back in Soviet times.
A.M.: Could you comment on the difference in the media freedom situation in America and in Russia, as you see it?
E.L.: To avoid a lengthy discussion let me point here to just one important difference. In the United States virtually all of the media - newspapers, radio television – belong to the private entities and so are free to lambaste the authorities to their heart's content. But the few that are on the government payroll have no right to criticize the current administration's policies, either foreign or domestic. Try and find this kind of criticism on Voice of America or Radio Liberty sites. Whereas in Russia not only private, but even some state-funded media outlets frequently carry fairly critical materials, down to personal insults to the nation's leaders. More than that, I could cite examples of certain media financed by business where the state holds majority stakes, which do not confine themselves to criticism of the authorities, but actually encourage and organize oppositionist actions. I am not sure if this is the right thing or not but it appears Russia is way ahead of America in this respect.
A.M.: In this light, how can you explain the Freedom House stand?
E.L.: The status of this organization is somewhat confusing. On the one hand, it positions itself as an NGO, but on the other, its multi-million budget is almost entirely provided by the treasury, that is to say, it comes from the American taxpayers' pockets. It is hardly a secret that it was Freedom House that funded many color revolutions, practically all of which flopped most dismally, both in the former Soviet Union and in the Middle East. In the US itself feelings about Freedom House are quite mixed. None other than the current presidential hopeful Ron Paul accused the Bush Administration of using that entity for financially support the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
Ironically, it was those who came to power in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring with Freedom House backing who have recently broken into its Cairo office accusing it of meddling in the country's internal affairs.
Some members of NGOs like the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, likewise funded from America's treasury, were even apprehended by Egypt's new authorities and had to be literally ransomed. Incidentally, both these entities, as far as I know, have offices in Moscow, and no one persecutes them there. To me, this looks like a good example of laudable liberty standards in Russia.
A.M.: In what way do you think could the anti-Russia media campaign be countered?
E.L.: My advice is simple. Those who can professionally write, speak, and comment on international and other major events, people conscious of their inadequate coverage by the media, should seek to make their views known, in one way or another. Even in the harsh Soviet times people managed to do this via Samizdat, the Kontinent magazine, and other similar outlets. They risked their freedom, but they spoke out. All the more reason to do so today, when the media are as free as can be.
The existing media bias against Russia is too dangerous to be ignored and I mean dangerous for U.S. national security as well. Demonizing Russia and its leaders creates an atmosphere of suspicion and hatred instead of mutually beneficial cooperation. This atmosphere creates a is the fertile soil for politicians like Mitt Romney to call Russia a “number one geopolitical enemy”. With all the problems that America is facing, do we needs such an enemy?