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Journalist details the hazards of reporting in Russia

November 06, 2017

By Maria Biery C’18

On November 2, Marc Ambinder, Journalist-in-Residence with Penn Law’s Center for Ethics and Rule of Law, spoke with Russian investigative journalist Yevgenia Albats about the ethical challenges she has faced throughout her journalism career in Russia.

The program co-sponsored by the Office of International Programs, the Center for Ethics and Rule of Law (CERL), Perry World House, and the Kelly Writers House.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Albats, who is currently the chief editor of The New Times magazine, explained that, “There was a propaganda machine created by the Soviet authorities where everything that had to do with the Communist Party, the KGB, and other institutions of the Soviet Union was under severe censorship.”

As a science reporter in her early career, Albats found that much of the information she needed in order to write stories about nuclear physics or space flights was strictly censored.

“It was awful … The best writings were forbidden in this great country, which claimed to the outer world that it was for the people,” she said.

According to her, between 1987 and 1991, Russia had the freest journalism because censorship was forbidden. Any time before or after this period it was much harder to report and obtain information. However, as Ambinder pointed out, she did some of the work that she is most well known for during the more difficult periods where censorship was allowed and enforced.

“There’s a very simple rule that I always follow,” Albats stated in regard to reporting on sensitive matters. “You do it because you believe in the common good.”

Ambinder then brought up the war in Chechnya, an event that caused the Russian government to crack down on journalists critical of the war effort. Some journalists were even murdered for their criticism.

Albats said of this time, when she was reporting on the war in Chechnya, “It was not clear who were your friends and who were your enemies. We were much more concerned as journalists about Russian soldiers and Russian officers. I was concerned about getting raped by those bastards.”

With the prospect of being raped or murdered as a journalist in Russia, Ambinder asked Albats about the “ethic of caring for yourself” — that is, how she decides between her duty to the public to tell the truth and her duty to her family and to herself to stay safe.

“Yes, I have my kids and I have a responsibility for my kids so when I started going to Chechnya I got life insurance,” she said. “Then it turns out they didn’t pay if you got killed in Chechnya … I think that in my part of the world those who want to get into political journalism should refrain from having kids.”

On a final note, Albats talked about the role of lawyers in the newsroom in Russia. She described the in-house lawyer at The New Times, where she works, as “her one censor” as she doesn’t believe in self-censoring.

Despite her understanding that the magazine wishes to prevent being sued by the government, she asked, “Why do we treat our readership as little brothers? Why are we journalists entitled to know something and people who will work and read journals are getting denied the service to fulfill their constitutional right to information?”