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Military Journalism in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia - Round Table Proceedings

Military and War Journalism from the USSR To Russia : Field Practices and Legal Regulations

International Round Table on War Journalism, Moscow, 15 April 2014
Claire Lajoumard de Bellabre

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Countries :

Russia
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Dedication

PIPSS.org is grateful to Françoise Daucé and Amandine Regamey who organized this event, and to Cédric Nithard who filmed Nicolas Werth's contribution on video.

Pipss.org is grateful to Marlene Elwell who edited these Round Table Proceedings

Editor's notes

Round table organized by The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies (http://pipss.revues.org), the Russian Union of Journalists, the RGGU, the ICRC and the French-Russian Center for Social Sciences in Moscow

Full text

Panel 1: Media, violence and armed conflict reporting

Chairperson : Archil Kruykov, ICRC Consultant on legal issues and external relations

The introduction speech was delivered by Timur Shafir, a member of the Russian Union of Journalists. He reported that according to the UNESCO official figures, more than 500 journalists have been killed in action over the past decade. Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an American independent nonprofit organization based in New York City, filed 1054 casualties among journalists since 1992. Shafir highlighted in his speech the notion that the manner in which a media event is covered by the press influences its evolution, including that of conflict.

The second speaker was Andrey Raskin, Acting Head of the chair of broadcasting activities at Moscow State University’s Faculty of Journalism. He underlined the danger involved for journalists providing news coverage in countries experiencing civil unrest or that are engaged in any kind of conflict, as is the case with modern Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Pakistan. Between 2003 and 2012 in Somalia, hundreds of journalists were injured or killed in local conflicts, for instance. However, among all the journalists who have been killed, only 35 % of them were killed in an armed conflict. Therefore, the main danger for a journalist in such places is not necessarily death. We also must consider all the other things they may be victims of: injuries, torture, blackmail, kidnapping, rape, intimidation... Also, Raskin noted that there are differences between journalists, according to their respective origins. Journalists from Iraq, for instance, have suffered the most, along with European journalists because they are the ones who mostly cover “dangerous” or “risky” countries. Raskin also attached great importance to the journalists' attitudes when they are in the field. During the First Chechen War (1994-1996), journalists made some professional mistakes, notably by crossing the military frontlines, which they were never supposed to do. Concluding that these journalists (and more specifically this new generation of journalists ) need a more advanced training to avoid these kind of mistakes from happening again, Raskin tried to provide training for them so that would not happen again. He has been providing this training as an experienced journalist working for more than 20 years in areas of conflict, such as in Tajikistan. Emphasizing the difference between Russia and the United States, (who let only special, military-trained journalists go to Afghanistan), Raskin tried to defend the crucial aspect of a systematic and suitable training for journalists sent to areas of conflict around the world. [...] Raskin's training is aimed at fulfilling this objective by teaching new and to-be journalists some basic ground rules, and also delivering specific technical tips, such as how to protect themselves individually (by wearing a flak-vest, a helmet, having good insurance coverage, etc.). These aspects of training are held in conjunction with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Talking about Tunisia, Raskin emphasized the importance of the “new journalism” phenomenon, which is growing through the use of blogs and social networks. There has been a decline in the number of journalists working in the traditional media, while the number of these new journalists has been increasing. Moreover, the traditional media is more and more often accepting this “new journalism” material as a valid source, giving it a certain legitimacy. Such “new journalists”, who actually are bloggers and people methodically reporting what they witness on the social media, suffer from an unclear legal status. Authorities from many countries currently try to regulate this status of “new journalist” (or at least are tempted to do so). However, if a legal framework for them were to be established, they would thus be exposed to the risk of having their freedom limited in several ways. On the other hand it is absolutely necessary for them to be as well protected as the traditional journalists. At that point Raskin mentioned another experience he had, this time in his work with soldiers who were based in Chechnya during the war. In talking to the soldiers, he found out that they truly hated journalists because journalists were believed to have distorted information and caused the soldiers to take unnecessary risks with their lives. However, Rasking highlighted another trend in the that military shows that these old prejudices are evolving, and that soldiers are accepting more easily the presence of journalists and use of certain journalism tools. For example, a few years ago soldiers categorically forbid the use of satellite phones, while nowadays they understand their true necessity, and have even begun to use this type of phone themselves. De facto, ministries of defense globally have also become progressively more aware of the necessity for them to use new media. The Israeli army is the most advanced, and it already created a special department wholly dedicated to social networking in order to follow and manage conversations that take place on the web, and also to convey a rhetoric that would be in favor of the State of Israel. Rasking also surprised the audience and gave his position on the place of women in war journalism, stating that dangerous conflict zones, like Syria nowadays, should not be covered by women and that they should never be sent there. War journalism as a whole is “not a place for women” anyway, according to Raskin. Returning to his training program, he referred favourably to the contents of the training programs in Russia, which for instance include lessons on how to behave if the journalists are taken hostage, or what to do if they happen to be in the middle of a shooting, etc. On the topic of the new generation of journalists, he says that they are skillful users of the digital devices and screens. He has a theory on these practices, the “second screen” theory, which states that people now have a second screen available to get some extra information, like a digital pad, to actively obtain more information on what they watch passively on the first screen (television). He further introduced the concept of “social television”, a new way of watching television but sharing on the Internet what you see on television, by sending links and posting commentaries on social networks. These trends may have an impact on the diffusion of information since the new media can broadcast information very widely (above frontiers) and outpace the traditional media in time. All journalists have to be aware of these changes in the media landscape and adjust to it, making it a useful tool for journalists and not a threat to their profession. Before leaving the floor to Anastasia Kushkeyko, Raskin also wished to review the basic security rules for journalists in the field. For instance, they should always have some particular features so that they can be recognized as journalists. Currently, journalists make up their own rules on how to be recognizable when they work: they sometimes rent body guards, a practice which is risky because when they do so they cannot be distinguished from fighters or armed guards, and this can lead to violent reactions from some belligerents. Someone in the audience asked what are the main mistakes journalists make? Raskin replied that the military always blames journalists for trying to cover conflicts from both sides. It is dangerous when journalists come too close to the conflict zone and then accept help from the military. According to him, the main mistake journalists can make is to take up arms in an attempt to protect themselves, because they are afraid. In doing so, they cross the line between a journalist and a soldier, effectively cancelling their right to be protected as civilians.

Andrey Raskin, International Round Table, Moscow, 15 April 2014
Credits : ICRC

Anastasia Kushleyko, ICRC Regional Legal Advisor in Eastern Europe and Central Asia also spoke on the universal recognition of journalists, mentioning the existence of a campaign to create a new international emblem adapted for the press, which would ensure respect for all journalists wearing it1. Mentioning the Committee to Protect Journalists figures (1054 journalists killed since 1992 at that time; the free-lance journalist Camille Lepage was killed in Central African Republic in May) Kushleyko particularly stressed that the murders of journalists have carried no consequences for the killers and decried the message of permissiveness it reflects. Several articles of the Third Geneva Convention are supposed to protect journalists. Article 4A(4)2 on the Treatment of Prisoners of War is especially relevant. The ICRC states that,

“Prisoners of War cannot be prosecuted for taking a direct part in hostilities. Their detention is not a form of punishment, but only aims to prevent further participation in the conflict. They must be released and repatriated without delay after the end of hostilities. […] They must be treated humanely in all circumstances.”3

Article 79 deals with the status of POWs and treatment that they should receive. The general protective measures for journalists are supposedly the same than for civilians, since a journalist is considered as a civilian provided that he/she does nothing that goes against this status, such as taking up arms or otherwise participating in a conflict. An often asked question is to what extent attacks against journalists are seen as war crimes. Since journalists are protected as civilians, an attack against them is taken as seriously as an attack against civilians with regard to the law. A deliberate attack against civilians (whether they are journalists or not) is a war crime according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Thus, does the war correspondents’ status actually ensure a greater protection for journalists? According to the Third Convention of Geneva, only war correspondents can be treated as war prisoners. With regard to the differences between an embedded journalist and a freelance journalist, it is useful to recall what embedded journalism is: news reporters being attached to military units involved in armed conflicts. As soon as he/she has an official authorization delivered by the army, an embedded journalist is considered a war correspondent. However, a freelance journalist has no particular status, and therefore his protection is linked to his civilian status. Kushkeyko reminded the audience that the ICRC has a useful hotline that provides “assistance for journalists on dangerous assignments4.” The ICRC also launched a program with Twitter to protect journalists in Libya. Kushleyko reckons that the current international legislation offers enough guarantees of protection and defense for journalists. The actual problem is more the lack of respect regarding these rules and the lack of repercussions that follows. According to her, international law in that field should be made more effective. On this subject, Archill Kryukov had previously said that these states should add those rules to their internal legislation in order to simplify and align the functioning of judiciary procedures.

Panel 2: The history of military and war journalism in Russia and in the Soviet Union

Chairperson : Olga Pavlenko, Deputy Head of International Cooperation, History and Archive Institute. First, she discussed the Crimean War (1853-1856), which is seen as the first global conflict, but also the first conflict that created discussion of the “sacred war” concept. The 11-month defense of Sebastopol was seen as a symbol for the construction of the “new Russian identity” at that time. After that war, major reforms were carried out (in the judiciary and administrative fields, and among the press). A new collective identity centered around the sacred grave of Sebastopol that was built at this time. The coverage of the war in general created a standard in combat journalism. In this tradition, journalists reported about war with an epic, heroic tone, making (for example) comparisons of the battles of Borodino (the last offensive action fought by Napoleon in Russia) and Poltava (the victory of Peter the Great over the Swedish forces), and alluding to the idea of a “sacred war”. The general idea of “dying for the sake of the tsar” was glorified. At that time, the representation of the enemy was particularly distinctive. The French and the English were pictured in a quite neutral way, were seen as potential allies, but quite weak in comparison to Russians because the French and the English soldiers only tried to save their own lives while Russians were ready to die. One of the first Russian war correspondents at that time was Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy served as a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment during the Crimean War, and he recounted his experience in his “Sebastopol Sketches” (1855). The first of them received a favorable welcome, but the second was not published because Tolstoy lampooned war field heroism in this book and made fun of the attack on Sevastopol and the city’s fall. In the 1870s, there was still a remembrance of the “sacred Sebastopol,” but new aspects, such as problems of armament, also appeared in the coverage by media. During the Crimean War, weapons that were given to the Russians were nonfunctional. Russian officers were forced to pay to get operational weapons from France. Pavlenko also stated that there is a link between the success of war journalism and a popular mobilization.

Olga Pavlenko, International Round Table, Moscow, 15 April 2014
Credits : ICRC

Nicolas Werth, Research Director, Institute for Contemporary History, France, was present in a video address. During the play of this video, he recounted his father's experience as a war correspondent during World War II.

"Alexander Werth , A War Journalist in the Soviet Union, 1941-1945" - Video Address, Nicolas Werth, April 2014, Paris
Credits : Cédric Nithard

Alexander Sladkov, author and presenter, “Military program,” Russia 1, introduced himself as a member of “the fraternity of reporters from the trenches.” He said that this type of reporter generally tends to look down on theoreticians because theoreticians often have no actual field experience. The first war reporters in Russia were Tolstoy or Pushkin, but the difference between these famous authors and modern reporters was that the authors had nobody pressuring them to write an article by deadline. The first real war correspondent in Russia was Isaac Babel, who was in the Semyon Budyonny's 1stcavalry Army, and witnessed a military campaign of the Polish-Soviet War in 1920. The cavalry found a press, and Budyonny said to Isaac that he would now have to write the newspaper. That newspaper was first called the Red Cavalry. According to Sladkov, embedded journalism is a good progressive way to regulate the links between civilians and the military. A large scale example of embedded journalism would be in the Soviet Army, during World War II, when 280 operators were recording films. In Afghanistan nowadays, there are no such conditions to organize this. There are only a few information points for correspondents., Thus, there has been a decline in the means allowed for informational purposes. Sladkov witnessed that in Chechnya, nobody from the press was allowed into the army. The situation was even worse than in Afghanistan, except for him who enjoyed working there due to his television channel. To give an example of embedded journalism, he mentioned his work with American soldiers at the Bagram Airfield (the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan). He indicated that the atmosphere was pretty trusting, though he had to sign documents limiting certain possibilities; in practice, he could film most anything apart from prisons and fallen soldiers’ bodies (because the American government has to inform the family first). During World War II there were more films recorded than now, and he finds regrettable this development because he believes that societies should be allowed to criticize the army from the inside. Singing the praises of the ICRC, he said that the journalists were often undeservedly contemptuous of its activity. He had worked in the Ivory Coast and in Colombia. Those were his best experiences; he really liked the way the ICRC worked with Colombian people to teach them some basic war rules. He believes a reporter should absolutely have some skills in that field. His point of view on possible dangers threatening journalists during conflicts (as currently in Ukraine) is that being a reporter is tough, but they have no right to complain because they chose it and this profession is a vocation. Journalists have to go the field no matter what; this is part of their job. When journalists cover a conflict, the most difficult thing is to organize a continuous process of covering. He concluded that we should not mix up information programs with partisan programs. The most important thing for a journalist is to respect the journalistic corporation rules.

Patrick de Saint Exupéry, Editor-in-Chief, Journal XXI, France, started by answering the question “How do you choose the side you are going to cover during a war?” He said that as a journalist you should cover war on both sides, even if information goes too fast, journalists don't have time to think. Another question was “About what and for which interests do you communicate?” He answered that what they do as journalists is mostly communication, marketing and not journalism. According to him, journalists should not have any protection; they need to be on the same level as the population. Being a journalist is a personal decision, and journalists must take responsibility for this. Furthermore, as Saint-Exupéry argued, journalists are not on a mission for long, often only a few months, so it is better for the journalists to live the local experience as fully as possible. Winston Churchill once said that the first victim of war is the truth. According to him, objectivity is a useless word in the sphere of journalism; honesty is a more valuable ideal. It is better to be merely honest about what journalists see rather than trying to be objective because objectivity is just an excuse to feel comfortable with what one claims. Alain Blum, a French demographer and sociologist asked, “Imagine yourself during World War II. Would it have been possible to cross the line at that time?” Saint-Exupéry answered that World War II was long ago and that the situations cannot bear comparison. Journalists have to cross lines; they cannot stay on one side or they will become part of the war as a partisan. The first difficulty is to successfully avoid being a victim of propaganda and misinformation. He asked where the frontline was in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Is it in Donetsk, is it at the Kremlin? He said that he wished he knew what was currently happening there, and within the Kremlin. As a freelance journalist he feels much more comfortable with censorship because when you are embedded, it is more difficult since you have to cultivate friendships in the army. Secondly, you have to be careful with censorship. If you are not careful, the blame is on you. At least censorship is clear and falls to the responsibility of the censor.

Panel 3 : Evolution of the media in the post-Soviet period ; Profession of journalist on dangerous assignments: Challenges and trends

Grigory Shvedov, Editor-in-Chief, Kavkazskii Uzel, promoted the code of ethics and explained the values of honesty and integrity for his online newspaper. Insisting on the importance of the vocabulary used, he showed the difference between Kazavskii Uzel and other online newspapers that provide information about the North Caucasus. An example is the counterterrorist operations in Makhatchkala, Dagestan. This is the type of operation where the armed forces are sent against people barricaded in an apartment building, demanding that they come out and surrender themselves to the authorities. When such operations are being reported on, journalists from Kazanskii Uzel do not use the word “terrorists” since they do not know much about these people barricaded inside. They might not be terrorists after all. There is some room for uncertainty. One of the turning points that could lead to a change in definitions is an exchange of gunfire from the moment they fire at police on, you can say these people are fighters since they carry weapons. So we can assume that Kazanskii Uzel keeps a certain code of ethics in mind. The term “presumed boeviki” is used in the press, and not merely “boeviki” (“fighter” in the Russian language), in order not to jump to conclusions. Shvedov insisted that they use that term rather than simply “boeviki” in Kazanskii Uzel. He also firmly insisted on the question of sources the importance of always citing from which source you draw any assessment, and the idea that you do not have to hesitate to doubt, that it is fine to indicate that you doubt. The political scientist Françoise Daucé asked the following question: “What about the use of Yandex and its feed reader aggregator, if you want to be in the first flashes mentioned don't you need to use specific terms or keywords that push to sell, like terrorists?” He answered that even without using keywords, a newspaper can be at the top of the list. Researcher Amandine Regamey asked “What about women in the war journalism field?” He answered that there were plenty of brave, resourceful women reporting in the Caucasus.

Grigory Shvedov, International Round Table, Moscow, 15 April 2014
Credits : ICRC

Timur Shafir, Secretary, Union of Journalists of Russia, talked about trainings that the Union of Journalists provided for journalists in “hot spots” with practical and technical advice and means to protect themselves. Amandine Regamey asked “What kind of specific dangers to their journalist status do journalists have to deal with?”. Shafir did not respond.

Galina Arapova, from the Media Rights Protection Center, has wide experience as a lecturer and trainer in Russia, CIS countries and abroad, providing training to journalists, media lawyers, barristers, and judges on a range of legal issues related to defamation, freedom of expression, freedom of information, amd Article 10 of ECHR case law. She said that usually she works on security questions for journalists. In the past three years, 250 journalists have been killed in Russia Only 36 of the cases have been brought to the court, and only four of the killers have been sentenced. The laws regulating journalism in Russia are not that bad since they are inspired by French laws; however, in the past few years they have been amended significantly. The laws now act in a more restrictive way, with the excuse of the last counterterrorist laws boundaries. She talked about the employers' responsibilities, and of the journalists’ rights, like the right to access protected places in case of a state of emergency, in case of protests, of natural disasters, etc. It is one of the most violated rights for journalists. She also underscored that a journalist has the right to remove his signature under a text when he disapproves of some modifications made by the editor-in-chief.

Vyacheslav Ivanov, a journalist from Interfax, the Military News Agency presented how he works and how he gets ready for the field. He said that the first thing you have to do is to prepare yourself by having in mind the fundamental information (read all that you can about the country, the news, the history, see some maps, learn a few useful words, etc.), and to take your journalist accreditation (in order not to be embedded in the army) and try to invent anecdotes, a legend, several newspapers you allegedly work for, take cash, have good insurance, and sometimes try to be hosted by the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Russia. Then, you need technical preparation. You have to take a video camera, a digital tablet, a microphone, some telephones to give soldiers who will inevitably perform a body-search on you, but not any bigger than a knife to sharpen pencils. Also needed are warm clothes, clean shirts and a nice outfit for special, formal occasions. Agreeing with Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, he said that for him it is not ethical to be more protected than the local people you come to talk with. He also promoted the ability of a journalist to camouflage himself, the skill of “discretion”. He highlighted that an emergency first aid kit should always be carried. He noted that he argues with the editorial board often because what he brings back is out of sync with the image or the message the editorial board wants to convey. He concluded by saying that a good report is 80 % preparation, 10 % professionalism and 10 % luck.

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References

Electronic reference

Claire Lajoumard de Bellabre, « Military and War Journalism from the USSR To Russia : Field Practices and Legal Regulations », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 16 | 2014, Online since 03 January 2015, connection on 17 December 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/pipss/4111

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About the author

Claire Lajoumard de Bellabre

Montesquieu Bordeaux IV University

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Copyright

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This text is under a Creative Commons license : Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

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