Working Session I discussed media issues in the context of political events in Georgia as well as of regional alliances competing for support and influence in the Caucasus and in Central Asia. Points raised included:
- GEORGIAN CONFLICT TRIGGERS MEDIA CONFLICT: There is such a large gap between the images and written accounts seen in Russia, and those seen in the West that they might be referring to events on separate planets. There is little common language between the Russian and the Western media; still less between Russian accounts and Georgia’s version. This applies as much to the long history underlying the conflict as it does to contemporary events. In war, the independence of the media becomes a secondary matter. Truth and trust in the media must be counted as victims of the conflict.
- KREMLIN NEWS MANAGEMENT: This is a long-term problem – not confined to the reporting of events in Georgia. The Russian leadership is using the media to bolster Russia’s claim to great power status. If Russian journalists continue to fall in line with the Kremlin, what space is there for Western media to help build common standards of free reporting?
- THE HUMILIATION FACTOR: Russian elites have deliberately fostered a sense of humiliation over the West’s handling of relations with Russia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and of what is interpreted as Western encroachment on Russia’s near-abroad. The foreign media should take psychological criteria into account when they write about Russia. Several participants from the EU acknowledged that some of the reporting of Russian affairs reinforces the feeling of humiliation in Russia. All too often the Cold War still serves as their reference point.
- CENTRAL ASIAN REPUBLICS: Journalism in the region is a ‘sad chapter’. US strategic interests in these countries have led the Americans to turn a blind eye to the absence of democracy and free media. The media, even when they are not subject to censorship, play safe and avoid controversial issues. But this is not a static situation. The Western media should engage in dialogue with their colleagues in the region.
Working Session II asked whether the model of free speech and comment that has characterised the Western media has universal application and can shape journalism in Eurasia. Points made during the session included:
- BIAS IN THE WESTERN MEDIA: Russian participants argued that negative reporting of Russian affairs by foreign media outweighs the positive and reflects a bias against Russia that undermines trust. The Kremlin uses its own media to reinforce the perceptions that the Western world is against Russia. Several Western participants acknowledged a mea culpa and said that the West’s media still tend to judge contemporary Russia by the criteria of the Cold War. One journalist spoke of a decline in Western media standards; others drew attention to the lack of understanding of Russia and its history that characterises much of Western reporting. Speakers cautioned against the perception of the Western media as a uniform institution: the very fact that they are free means that there is great diversity. At the same time it must be recognised that the Western media generally see the world through the prism of their own cultural background - and that this can lead to reporting of the kind that Russians claim to be biased.
- PRIMACY OF FREE SPEECH: Free and independent journalism is built on a relative value-system rather than on an absolute value system. Western media tend to have a herd instinct and pursue the same storylines. Their readers do not like to be muddled. And yet, a free press, however diverse and imperfect, is always preferable to a controlled press. Russians may not trust the Western media. But they trust even less their own state-controlled media.
- PROMOTION OF DEMOCRACY AND USE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS AGENCIES: Radio Free Europe continues to operate as a US vehicle to promote democracy and Western values. Russia, Georgia and most of the Eurasian countries employ PR firms to promote their interests in the West. Whether or not these practises cause concern, they are unlikely to stop. ‘Telling autocracies not to hire PR agencies is like telling democratic governments not to have spin doctors.’
Working Session III focused on the East’s media and their standing in Eurasia. Points made during the session included:
- CENTRAL ASIA: Independent media have not, so far, been allowed to take root in Central Asia. Censorship is prevalent in the Central Asian Republics, and governments own the principal media. Even where there is no direct censorship, journalists take to self-censorship or risk arrest. In addition there are financial barriers to independent journalism as governments withhold advertising from non-approved publications.
- UKRAINE: The media have gained in freedom, but tend to reflect the rival pro-Russian and pro-Western camps.
- GEORGIA imposed a black-out on Russian TV and internet domains when the conflict with Russia broke out.
- RUSSIA has independent journalists; but few independent media. The murder of Anna Politskovskaya illustrates the danger of investigative journalism in Russia. Russian journalists count amongst the least respected members of Russian society.
- THE ROLE OF THE WEST’S MEDIA is to support independent journalists in Russia, the Caucasus and the Central Asian Republics. But this demands much greater understanding of the circumstances and the environment in which their colleagues in the East find themselves. Western journalists should remember that it took more than a century to establish free media. Western standards cannot be applied in their totality in countries in transition to democracy.
The Plenary Session led to heated exchanges between Russian, Georgian and Western journalists over their coverage of events in Georgia. The world’s media are using similar technology. But that does not necessarily unite them in the practise of their craft. The media cannot avoid reflecting national differences, national prejudices. But the West’s press, fortunate in their freedom have all the greater responsibility to maintain high standards, chose their words carefully and in their foreign coverage ensure that they have a full understanding of the countries and issues they are covering.