The Dangers of Russian Journalism: A Q & A with a Russian Reporter

Ana Keampets is a St. Petersburg-based banking reporter for Kommersant, an independent national business newspaper read by the elite. It’s the Wall Street Journal of Russia, although with a much smaller circulation and reach, but it still often challenges the government.

Q: Between 1997 and 2007, 750 journalists were reportedly killed in Russia. Are you ever afraid?

A: All the (big) banks are (headquartered) in Moscow. Many are international. No, (I’m) not fearful. But I did have a daughter a year ago. Maybe I would not write such dangerous stories now. But I have to write the truth. If you are a good journalist you have to write about everything, about the truth.

Q: In China, businesses and powerful people buy favorable coverageare. Does that exist in Russia, too?

A: When I came to this newspaper, there was a boy who was writing about criminals. A man came up to him and said “Don’t write this (and) I will pay you.” And he said “Ok, you know, I need a flat with two rooms.” And the man said “ I’m sorry. Goodbye.” From that time, it has become a real problem. I have people calling me (to offer) me a present.

Q: Is Kommersant different than the other newspapers that are accepting these presents?

A: Yes. There are many newspapers that can be bought. Not journalists, but the whole newspaper has advertisers that would not give money if the paper wrote (something) bad. Sometimes there are people who give money to their newspaper.

Q: Do the Russian people trust TV news?

A: It depends. In St. Petersburg and Moscow, if they do not trust, they do not watch. Russia is very big. People in small cities do not have an idea what is going on in the country. So people who have one TV channel might be sitting there watching one politician, and vote for him. Internet news blogs show the reality. Journalists promote their information on their blogs since they can publish anything there.

Q: How far can you go in your writing before being stopped?

A: I write financial, not political. But when people write political they are more careful. There have been many cases were journalists were killed because sometimes I think the people who are connected with business threaten journalists, especially small businessmen who are not in the public eye.

Q: What happens to journalists when they are seen taking pictures in public or government places?

A: They are beaten. There are no pictures allowed at news conferences or places without PR. If you take pictures at a not organized event, you can get beaten or yelled at.

Q: What kind of reaction do you get from the public when you tell them you are a journalist?

A: People think it is interesting and highly paid work. Which is not true, it is not highly paid. Only if you are a famous TV journalist, the salary is high. In St. Petersburg it is the worse. The market for news is big here. In Moscow, it is smaller, so you will get paid more. So many journalists leave to go to Moscow.

Q: What added challenged do you have as a woman journalist?

A: It is more easier. Government and bankers are easier to chat with if you are a woman. It is harder to work as a man.

Q: What do you think of PR?

A: It is not the truth. They try to make themselves look better for journalists. Journalism is dirty work. But you have to write the truth on both sides.

Q: What is more popular among readers, hard or soft news?

A: It depends on the reader. Yellow (meaning tabloids) news is very famous in Russia because many people they are sitting in their offices with nothing to do so they publish things about our celebrities and pop singers. There are many problems with this because they do not check their news; they just imagine it. For a business newspaper (Kommersant) they check their news, even though it is hard to prove it.

Q: Do Russian journalists have a code of ethics?

A: When I worked in another newspaper they had a code of ethics that I had to sign. There were many points. For example, I was writing about financial. So I could not play in the stock market, (nor could my relatives). I could not sleep with my colleagues. I could not write anywhere but (at) the publishing house. At Kommersant, there is no code of ethics. There is a secret one that you have in your head but no one signs anything.