Moscow, a Media Summit and Myths


30-August-2012

 

       Red square Kremlin journalists listening to guide

I laughed.London is probably more dangerous, more likely to attract a terrorist attack, a mugging, or unpleasant encounter with drunken teenagers, but as the British are much closer to Seychellois culture and history and we generally understand them, so we do not fear the city of London so much.

 Moscow, on the other hand, is the vast unknown city, full of fearsome men who are stereotyped as loud, vodka-guzzling bears who make money through organised crime and spend lavishly on their holidays in Seychelles with model-like girlfriends.

 We are told by the BBC and CNN that the Russian President Vladimir Putin “suppresses” his opposition, and rules as a modern day Tsar, constantly criticised by the supposedly democratic governments and free journalists of the West for his fearsome government which does not respect the “freedom” of journalists to report his terrible ways.

 With this predictable commentary of residual Cold War suspicion, it is no wonder there are few Seychellois dreaming of a holiday there.

As the plane started its descent into Domodedyevo airport at 11pm, the sun was beginning to set.

 At this time of year the sun sets very late, so I was able to see the thick forests that surround the city in the pink and orange canvas of the disappearing light.

 All these large forests, dark green shadows, left a strong first impression. Forests are a sign of vitality and health of a city; an assurance that I would breathe well in this mysterious place.

 After a speedy run through passport control and baggage claims, I was met by Russian friends Vladimir and Yulia and their daughter Liza, and Dmitry. Vladimir is a young diplomat who lived with his wife Yulia in Seychelles some years ago.

 We shared a common love of Seychelles, and our friendship continued many years after their departure.

Dmitry, a film producer and their close friend, had been to Seychelles on holiday and wished to show me the best of Moscow. They drove me to an unexpected location.

 Not to the initial hotel I booked, but to my great astonishment, to the Petroff Palace (Petrovsky Dvorets), designed in a Romantic Neo-Gothic style by Matvey Kazakov, one of the most influential Russian architects of the time. The palace was built in 1796.

              Christ the Saviour cathedral

My first night in Moscow felt like the start of a fairy tale.
 
I opened my eyes to a breezy summer morning with a view of Petrovsky Park, one of the oldest in Moscow, with the delusion that I was indeed a Russian princess.

 A Romanoff maybe…I imagined the Russian Empress Catherine the Great when she ordered the construction of this palace to celebrate the end of the Russian Turkish war, betraying a hint of nostalgia for the colourful palaces of her native German upbringing.

 This palace was intended for all important guests of the imperial family, as well as the Tsars themselves, who would come to stay here on arrival to Moscow or on the way to their coronation ceremony.

 I imagined the time of the French army’s invasion of Russia in 1812, when the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte stayed in this palace, making it his headquarters as he watched Moscow in flames.

 From the tall windows of the crimson walls, Napoleon observed the object of his desire, waiting for the surrender of the city.

 His wait was in vain. Instead he witnessed the retreating Russian army and the exodus of Muscovites as they burnt the city and all its supplies, leaving the French without food or shelter in the brutal Russian winter, which ultimately led to their death in the hundreds of thousands. It was a terrible, humiliating defeat for Napoleon.

 Europe no longer respected his power. 

                                     

Petroff Palace

 Russia withstood his might and established her place as a great empire. The angry French emperor burned down Petroff Palace when he left.

 Tsar Nicolas I rebuilt it, and this “dvorets” continued to welcome royal visitors in the coming centuries. I admit I fell in love with Moscow in Petrovsky Park.

After another night in this enchanting palace hotel, I left for the modern World Trade Centre in Moscow’s business district next to the river Moskva, to register for the World Media Summit.

 It was a stark shock from the romance of the previous ambiance, a cold shower of reality of glass elevators, 8th floor bedrooms and a constant throng of people walking in and out of the Crowne Plaza.

The media summit started with an excursion of Moscow, and I hopped on the bus for English-speakers. A man sat in front of me, smiling and relaxed. I introduced myself. Srdjana. Press secretary from Seychelles.

                         Saint Basil church Kremlin

He said he was Peter from the BBC. I didn’t catch the rest of his title.
“You’re from the Seychelles. Are the media free there?” he asked.

Such is the British preoccupation with freedom.

The British might have the most notorious scandalmongers and dishonest journalists who are prepared to lie, spy and bribe for information in order to get a “scoop,” as recently uncovered in the phone-hacking News of the World scandal, but at least British journalists can say they are “free” in their “public’s interest” and tell the rest of the world that this is a good thing for democracy.
 
I sighed and answered “Yes, they are free in Seychelles.”

“There are always those who prefer to keep on the good side of the powerful and this limits their desire to criticise, but there are plenty who don’t care and speak their mind and question figures of authority, and also plenty engaged in politics in what is quite a polarised media landscape,” I explained (although I doubt I was so succinct at the time of speaking).

We meandered through the heavy traffic on the wide avenues, past the tall, beautifully carved buildings of various sizes, colours and styles.

 Overwhelmed with a sense of space, of past and present grandeur, of living history and poetic resonance in the starkly contrasted architecture, I smiled at this bustling, clean and prosperous city, which the guide told us, is growing every year with ever-expanding suburbs or “sleeping cities,” and has an unemployment rate of only 2%. Muscovites are well dressed and clearly comfortable with consumer culture.

 We reached the Kremlin and its Red Square with the majestic St Basil’s Cathedral. We gazed in awe. The guide described the history of this city, asking the group of journalists if they knew the date when Tsar Ivan the Terrible built the colourful Orthodox church.

A long silence. Then somebody piped up in a most irritated tone; “No we don’t know, we are journalists, not historians!” We learnt that St Basil’s Cathedral was built to commemorate Ivan’s conquest of Tartars at Kazan in 1552.

Journalists are often guilty of ignorance of historical context. We are able to process a lot of information every day, to describe and criticise based on the mediatised declarations of powerful groups, to copy and paste Googled research, but otherwise have a poor sense of history and its connection to our seemingly modern, seemingly civilised world.

Would-be journalists would be better off spending less time learning how to frame the perfect sound bite of the “he said, she said” style of reporting and running after “breaking news” headlines, and more time studying history, military strategy and poetry, in order to learn the fine art of propaganda of past ages and so gain the ability to decipher the myths that modern day Tsars create for the public consumption, especially in the campaigning mechanisms of their bloody imperial wars and ideological battles.

Following a whirl through the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and a swift stop in a park overlooking Novodevichy Monastery, we sped to Sparrow Hills to browse through the souvenirs and gaze over the panorama of the city as well as the slightly frightening skyscraper of Moscow State University of Stalinist style. Back on the bus, I noticed Peter the BBC man had disappeared. I told the guide he was missing but she just smiled and said “no one is missing,” without further explanation.

 I was intrigued but did not argue, maybe we had left him behind by accident, or maybe he had really slipped away for a secret rendez-vous? Here was Hollywood playing with my mind.

 Not all British men in nice suits who disappear from an excursion bus in the middle of Moscow are 007. Or will I ever know the truth?

On the morning of the opening of the 2nd World Media Summit, which was hosted by ITAR-TASS news agency, the single most pressing question was “Is Putin coming?” The organisers had promised he would arrive.

 We all waited. The bigwigs of the most powerful global media such as Reuters, BBC, Xinhua, Associated Press, Kyodo News, Google, sat in wide circles of nearly 300 journalists, editors and government information officials from all over the world, meeting for a dose of introspection on journalism.

 Even the chairman of the Russian State Duma, Sergey Naryshkin, joined us to share his thoughts.

But President Putin was nowhere to be seen. Someone else read his speech, and the balloon of of our great expectations was deflated.

There were many speeches, with many noble ideals for journalism evoked.

 The need to protect press freedom was frequently repeated, and of course the inevitable, most talked about to media phenomenon of all; the Arab Spring. I was struck by the unity of the Russian, Chinese and Iranian viewpoints that this seemingly spontaneous “spring” was really just a clever manipulation of social media such as Facebook, in order to provoke social unrest and violence, and a novel way to effect “regime change” by Western-governments and related organisations (without explicitly pointing any fingers).
 
This was the point at which I learnt that the disappearing BBC man was actually Peter Horrocks, director of BBC Global News, heading the TV and radio newsgathering operations of the world’s largest and most respected media organisation.

 He argued that social media had a “liberating effect” and urged the Eurasian contingent to be less afraid of them. Apparently 2 billion people in our 7 billion planet use the internet so such virtual movements are unstoppable.

There is a “battleground of news on the internet and the best one wins,” he said.

“Battleground” is an appropriate term for modern journalism. Conflicts and confrontations are played out in the court of media opinion as a kind of theatre of war, with the stereotype goodies, baddies, our heroes and their monsters.

 Journalists choose their language carefully for the enemy’s massacres or the allies’ collateral damage, and our world’s polite warmongers use the media to establish the moral authority for their often unspeakably cruel acts as “humanitarian interventions” or “establishing democracies,” while accusing their opposing counterparts of terrible “crimes against humanity.

” I wonder is this a circus or theatre?

In the discussions on the role of media in conflict, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, managing director of the Iranian News Agency IRNA – and also presidential press advisor – went as far to describe certain “media empires” as “acting cleverly in creating an atmosphere of threat and fear” in order to “weaken independent states on the pretext of human rights”, in order to effect the foreign policy of superpowers.

 It is not surprising that in situations of ideological confrontation, some governments equate foreign journalists as the psychological operations officers of their nation’s policies, even if they are not directly related to military units and believe themselves to be independent and free, their directly opposing ideological standpoints and desire to see change in the countries where they report, makes these journalists their highly suspicious “enemy.”

Media manipulation in the theatre of war is a deep wound lamented by many journalists from recent conflicts.

 The editor-in-chief of the Serbian magazine Geopolitika, Slobodan Eric, described the way inaccurate massacre stories were manipulated by media in the run-up to the NATO bombing of Serbia – then the Former Yugoslavia – in 1999. The so-called Racak massacre of Kosovo Albanian civilians was used as a pretext for military intervention. Were they civilians or combatants?

This was disputed by forensics experts and the antiterrorist unit of the Yugoslav army, who said they were targeted and killed as combatants of the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army); Kosovo Albanian rebels or terrorists depending on your interpretation.

 The CIA branded them terrorists in 1998 but changed this qualification to freedom fighters in 1999 when American foreign policymakers expressed their political and material support to this group, which has been found to be linked to Al Qaeda, and engaged in human organ-smuggling, as well as drugs-smuggling and human trafficking.

 Following the ‘liberation’ of Kosovo, the US received just recompense from the KLA, and speedily built Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, the largest US military base in Europe, although Kosovo is still recognised by the majority of the nations of the United Nations as a province of the Republic of Serbia.

Such examples of media coverage of terrorism, is often ambiguous, especially in the justification of armed retaliation.

 The US war on terrorism in Pakistan for example between 2004-2011, with the use of drones and other high-tech weapons, has killed nearly 3,000 civilians and among them some terrorists (Bureau of Investigative Journalism, City University).

How do we qualify these events? Massacres? Crimes against Humanity?
On the last day of the summit we mulled over the practice of modern journalism.

 Somebody claimed that the internet had put “the audience in charge” of the media, and that this audience expressed its trust of a news organisations by sharing their reports through the social media.

 This myth works well, quite attractive and simple, perhaps as much as the myth of democratic government as the government of the people by the people.

Each myth produces a powerful elite that decides with the best or worst intentions what “the people” want and the set of rules they should live by. Journalism is an elitist activity; the existence of editors is the “wall” of this tower, and no amount of blogging or Twitter comments will change this.

 Social media are simply constant chatter in the wind, and although they are “searchable” for trends and reflect a section of public opinion, they are not inclusive of all sectors of a society, let alone the 5 billion that don’t have internet access.

They also encourage lazy, armchair journalism of a quick source and instant satisfaction of curiosity, but do not replace the value of investigation and analysis of an experienced journalist, who is accustomed to and dismissive of the sensational, exaggeration and the fluff of political discourse.

After a most illuminating summit in a mesmerising city, I was left with some hope that amongst the theatre and circus acts, there are some journalists who strive to do more than relay information as a commodity, but work hard to give a sense of justice to those who suffer the most, in their countries and others in the world, and are not easily fooled or frightened by the powerful, whether they are big business, big governments, or big bombs.

And what about Peter the BBC man and his curious disappearance? I asked him about it. He did indeed have a special rendez-vous. It was all very innocent. Or will I really ever know?

By Srdjana Janosevic

 

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