In this week’s PEN Atlas piece, Arkady Babchenko writes on freedom of speech, media and the internet in Russia

Freedom of speech in Russia remains only on the internet. In fact, Russia exists in two parallel worlds, as it were, two roughly equal parts. According to the recent statistics, the number of internet users has matched the audience of the state-owned TV Channel One, which is the main propaganda tool of the authorities today. These two worlds do not cross at any point. A person who tries browsing the internet once will never go back to television. Internet users no longer want to watch the low-quality Russian TV which offers cheap propaganda of the sort that probably does not exist even in North Korea. Russian TV has been reduced to a downright rubbish heap. When my daughter was born five years ago I unplugged my TV and have never had any need for official TV news again. The Internet is much faster and provides more accurate and objective news. Moreover, it is not censored yet.

On the other hand, television still enjoys enormous influence in the country and the government effectively uses it to brainwash the public. Not a single piece of news can seep through if it is undesirable. All the information is carefully filtered and presented in the intended light. No live shows are permitted.

If you were to compare the news on the same day on TV and the internet the difference would be colossal. It’s as if they showed two countries. The online and offline Russias are worlds apart. People who get their information from the Internet will hardly find a common language with those who get it from the “zombie-set”, as the TV came to be called here. They would simply have different points of reference as facts are shamelessly distorted on TV.

One recent example to illustrate the difference between the censored TV and the uncensored internet view of the same event is how differently the opening of a bridge by Medvedev was reported. The TV showed Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (former president replacing the current president and former Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) pompously opening a new bridge in Vladivostok, which was specially erected for the summit and declared to be the largest suspension bridge on earth. It would seem we have a great cause for pride and celebration. However, it was not mentioned anywhere, except on the internet, that after Medvedev’s departure the bridge was immediately closed because it was not properly finished yet and was unfit for driving. Moreover, the newly built road leading to the bridge (which cost one billion dollars!) was simply washed away by the floods.

There is also no news in the official media about the hundred- and two-hundred-strong anti-Putin rallies taking place not only in Moscow but all over Russia for the past few months. As if they never happened. You will not learn how the governor of the Krasnodar Region, where Sochi is situated, the venue for the Winter 1914 Olympics, stole several hundred hectares of preserved forest, fenced it in and built a mansion there for himself while two ecologists who tried to protect the national preserve were tried and convicted. You will only learn the truth from the internet, the sad truth of how top officials steal from the state while their children become managers of state corporations and banks, how opposition activists are languishing in prisons, how elections were brazenly forged, and much else. Instead, the Russian TV tells you some nonsense about a handful of discontented individuals who come out to protest against the universally adored Vladimir Putin because they’ve been paid by our enemies from the US State Department and personally by Hilary Clinton. This is not a joke – such is the level of information at the official Russian TV. These programs are interspersed with all sorts of rubbish, such as appalling films full of vulgar humor, violence and sex. The rhetoric of the Stalinist times is coming back to Russian TV. The authorities are obviously aware of an imminent catastrophe and in their attempt to hold on to their feeding troughs they are losing their minds and any sense of reality. We can speak today about a new iron curtain, this time in the sphere of information.

As a result, increasing numbers of people boycott the TV. I personally stopped having anything to do with TV journalists – all my interviews were crudely put together from random phrases taken out of context so that my ideas were completely distorted. The internet presents real danger for the authorities today. I think either the authorities will have to do away with the internet or the other way round.

The situation is much the same in the print media. Prior to publication any text has to pass three levels of censorship. The first is the general political censorship existing in our country. Everyone is aware that there are forbidden subjects and forbidden names. They are well known and no clarification is necessary. Putin’s friend, Yuri Kovalchuk, is buying one newspaper after another and establishing strict censorship there. At the same time they publish private correspondence obtained from hackers, recordings of private telephone conversations from bugged phones, and other illegally obtained dirt. All this is dug up with the help of the secret services, but none will lead to public enquiries and possible downfall, as in the case of Rupert Murdoch because the demand comes not from the public, but from the powers that be.

The second level of censorship is the internal editorial control in the media, not officially imposed by the government, and which functions differently depending on the media. For example, the media who wish to be independent, but have to play by the rules or disappear, like Yandex. They started as a search engine and soon became a starting point for the entire and a powerful information resource, a Russian alternative to Google. Yandex sincerely wanted to behave in a civilized manner but finally was obliged to introduce censorship. A few days ago all the top news lines were devoted to Putin – welcome to North Korea!

Then there is truly independent media. But the problem is that they are no longer objective.  In the absence of a political field in Russia the media no longer perform the function of an information source as such. And since, as is well known, nature abhors a vacuum, the media has assumed the aberrant role of political parties. Nowadays readers choose periodicals not on the basis of their quality, but according to their political orientation and compatibility with their own views. For instance, the readers of the Zavtra (Tomorrow) will never subscribe to Novaya Gazeta (New Paper) even if Hemingway himself were to publish there. Or vice versa.

It goes for the journalists too – a text contradicting the views of the editors will never be published. Journalists, generally known here for their lack of principles and for moral pliancy, know this factor very well and make good use of it. For instance, if you write for the opposition media, you are supposed to avoid mentioning certain things and emphasize certain other things while some word combinations would be taboo altogether. For the liberal-minded media you can get away with just mentioning the “bloody regime”. For the patriotic-minded press the word “regime” should be replaced with “NATO” which naturally should also be called “bloody”.

If you observe only these rules of censorship, you can get any text published, however mediocre, even on the front page. If you don’t observe these rules and write what you really think and how you actually see things your text has very little chance of publication.

In today’s journalism your intellectual abilities and your talent are of the least importance – the main thing is the tendentiousness of your text, and a required orientation. If you play by the rules you’ll be in clover.

In apolitical periodicals there is another form of censorship – the format. In my understanding there are two types of texts: good or bad, interesting or boring. But the difference between the right format and the wrong format is something I don’t understand. Or perhaps I do. This is the editors’ pretext to reject articles, a reason well known the world over, a kind of a soap bubble: pretty on the outside and empty inside, a trendy envelope with zero content.

To sum up: I’m sick and tired of selecting the correct words. I’m sick and tired of taking into consideration the editors’ views and political orientations. I’m sick and tired of kowtowing to them so as to be able to publish some banal rubbish instead of producing intelligible and well-written articles about really urgent and interesting things.

Therefore, I abandoned the media in favour of the internet and now I use a simple scheme which is already functioning in many countries. Essentially, it boils down to a short formula: “I write what I think and you pay what you can.” In other words, I write my texts with maximum objectivity, without taking into account any editorial policies, I share my thoughts and ideas with the reader without regard to format, and the reader evaluates my texts in the form of a direct payment, bypassing any middlemen and editorial offices with their correct policies and incomprehensible formats.

I’m satisfied with this relationship and it seems my readers are as well. In my blog I can write what I want without thinking whether the editors will accept my texts or not, whether I’ll be promoted or discharged. And it gives me a sense of freedom.

Moreover, now that I’m only writing for my blog I have not fallen out of the information space but, on the contrary, I’m now more actively involved in it. Due to the vacuum in the media “Live Journal” (Zhivoy Zhurnal) in Russia has grown into a powerful independent resource, at least for the time being. My articles came to be reprinted by many leading information agencies and periodicals.

This involves some personal risks, of course. As an active oppositionist calling on people to fight for their freedom I have had a court case opened against me, accusing me of “instigating mass riots”. The secret services are watching over me, my telephone is bugged, and when I make myself a cup of tea I hope to god there is no polonium in it. But as we say in Russian: “He who is afraid of wolves should not go into the forest” – that is, nothing ventured nothing gained.

In fact, thanks to the internet, everything becomes public now. The journalistic community rose to my defence and so I do not feel alone in the face of the regime. There are many bloggers like me and victory will be ours. Long live the internet, a perfect space for freedom!

About the Author

Arkady Babchenko was born in 1977 in Moscow. A lawyer by training he was drafted to the army while still a student and spent three years fighting in Chechnya (Northern Caucasus). After demobilization he finished college and wrote his famous war memoires now published in 22 countries. He has mainly worked as a war correspondent for various media, including for Novaya Gazeta. The last two years he has been an active blogger and opposition activist. He lives in Moscow, is married and has a little daughter.

One Soldier’s War in Chechnya was published by Portobello Books and English PEN’s Writers in Translation Programme supported the book in 2007. Arkady Babchenko’s blog can be found here.

About the Translator

Natasha Perova is the publisher of Glas, a magazine for contemporary Russian writing and a coordinator of international programme for Debut Prize Foundation.