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Journalism in Russia, Continued

PROFESSOR TREISMAN'S book includes a nine-page section on the media whose thrust is to disassemble the image abroad of Russia as a dangerous place for journalists to work. He starts with a list of fifty-two reporters who, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, were killed in Russia from 1992-2009 (the number is actually seventy-six if you include those whose motive is unconfirmed). One by one, they are excluded for this and that reason, until there are fifteen cases “in which it is somewhat plausible to imagine that the journalist was killed by some associate of the state.” It is a sentence with so many qualifiers, including three in a single clause—“somewhat plausible to imagine”—that it assumes the opposite meaning.

In fact, Prof. Treisman goes through a painstakingly meticulous effort to demonstrate that Russian journalists are not subjected to the level of pressure and murder that is suggested by the prevailing narrative. In his letter, he offers up two single paraphrases to suggest that his book says one thing when it actually says the other. Here is what he writes in the book: “The press certainly operates under constraints in Russia, and to pursue a career in investigative journalism requires considerable courage. But are conditions that bad (emphasis Prof. Treisman’s)?” Prof. Treisman goes on to make the case that they are not: “Sadly, Russia’s use of administrative levers and economic threats to cow the press is not at all unique.” Russian journalists, he says, are similar to reporters living in other “middle income countries.” It is that reversion to his “middle-income” theme that is pernicious. Prof. Treisman insists that Russia is not rightly evaluated next to first world industrial nations. If one instead compares Russia with countries like Argentina, South Korea and Turkey, then, in Prof. Treisman’s view, it is tragic but not surprising that Russia has only “partial press freedom.” But as far as I know, Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev themselves have never put their country in this category; they insist that Russia is, and should be treated as, a top-tier country alongside the G-7 nations of Europe, Japan and the United States. So, for those doing serious journalism—the type that shakes things up, makes powerful people uncomfortable, that can change the status quo (the reason that journalism exists), then yes conditions are that bad.

As regards the influence of media on elections, Prof. Treisman writes flatly in his book that the government has not steered elections. On page 350, for instance, he poses the question, “Did biased television coverage swing the vote” in Russian elections? He goes on to quote an analysis by researchers demonstrating that, in regions having no exposure to an opposition news channel in 1999, the vote was more or less the same as in regions with such coverage. He extrapolates to say that the outcome therefore “would have changed little” in Russia’s subsequent 2004 and 2008 elections. In case any reader misses the point, he characterizes the study as “the most sophisticated analysis” of the question of the impact of official media bias on Russian elections.

On Chechnya, Prof. Treisman hangs the responsibility for its descent into war and lawlessness on the shoulders of then-President Dzhokhar Dudayev. He dismisses the feeling on the ground—the deep-seated anti-Russian sentiment of Chechens of all ages that journalists, researchers and aid workers documented in the 1990s—as “the romantic view,” a “relatively short-lived phenomenon” present only at that time. His stenographic description of the fighting does not reflect what I myself found there at the time, for instance, which was account after account from Chechen men of having been raised as children with the understanding that one day they would have to do what their descendants did, which was fight the Russians. Absent such broad and profound local Russophobia, the war could not have been as tough, lasted as long, nor morphed into other forms as it has.

On the apartment bombings, Prof. Treisman also writes something different than what he claims in this letter. His book says the case for a security services role “does not make much sense.” Evidence presented by Putin’s worst critics, such as the murdered FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, are “at best suggestive, at worst farfetched,” he writes.

Finally, as regards Putin, Prof. Treisman does not condemn him for putting industry in the hands of his pals, nor for being cynical, as he suggests here. Putin, he suggests, is a skilled leader, yet thrilled when his time at the actual top—the presidency—is over, and in the final analysis is all about the trappings of power and personal respectability and not about power for its own sake; he is generous to a fault to silovik friends, yet not personally greedy. Ultimately, his Putin is a muddle.

Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, an adjunct professor at Georgetown Universitys School of Foreign Service, and the author of Putin’s Labyrinth.

Steve Levine’s original review can be found here.

Daniel Tresiman’s response to Steve LeVine's review can be found here.