Russian Journalist Warns Against Complacency

By Lucy Grindon, Contributing Writer

Last Wednesday, Russian television journalist Tikhon Dzyadko warned the Middlebury community about the similarities between Donald Trump’s behavior toward the American media and Vladimir Putin’s restriction of the press in Russia in his lecture, “The State of Press Freedom in Russia: What Trump Could (and Should Not) Learn from Vladimir Putin.” He drew attention to the parallels between the Kremlin’s restriction of the press and Trump’s actions in his first hundred days as president.

Dzyadko argued that the Kremlin uses economic means to control the few independent news organizations that still exist in Russia. The government defames news outlets so that they lose their audiences and can no longer support themselves.

“There’s no need to harass or kill journalists when you can put pressure on the media in economic ways,” Dzyadko said.

Dzyadko himself used to work for Russia’s only independent news station, Dozhd. Between April 2010 and January 2015, Dozhd would broadcast programming including live interviews with government officials and coverage of protests to large online and television audiences.

“At some point, it became too much for [the] Kremlin,” Dzyadko said.

After the invasion of the Ukraine (Dzyadko mentioned that the Russian media are not allowed to use the term “annexation,” and must refer to Crimea “becoming part of the country”), the Russian government decided to shut Dozhd down.

When Dozhd aired a poll questioning the Soviet Union’s decision to defend Leningrad during World War II instead of surrendering the city to the invading Nazis to save hundreds of thousands of lives, the Russian government accused Dozed of being unpatriotic.

Dzyadko recalled “there was a poll for the audience which they used to say that journalists of Dozhd did not respect what our grandmothers and grandfathers did during the war. They started a campaign saying that people from Dozhd are neo-Nazis.”

The government’s defamation all but bankrupted Dozhd.

Dzadko said, “At the end, our partners from cable and satellite companies got calls from the Kremlin and they told us that they were offended so much by our poll that they had to cut their contracts with us, and that’s how Dozhd lost its audience, and that’s how Dozhd lost the main part of its advertisers. Some of them left because our audience had collapsed, and some left because they were worried about doing business with us.”

Dozhd still creates content, but according to Dzyadko, no one is seeing it. There are only several independent news organizations left in Russia, and the majority of journalists are employed by the state.  Dzyadko argued that journalists are willing to give up writing about sensitive topics, telling the truth of what is happening and investigating the government because they are afraid for their financial security.

“These people, especially young journalists, they are afraid of making people from the government mad,” Dzyadko said. “And they have their apartments to rent, they have their kids to feed, they have their plans to go on vacations. So they just compromise. They compromise once, and then again, and again and again, and after they compromise on a little, the next time they are ready to compromise on a thing which is bigger.”

Now that Donald Trump is the president, Dzyadko wants American journalists to be wary of tactics that could lead them to make the same mistakes that Russian journalists made in the first term of Putin’s presidency.

“During the first months of his presidency, we saw several attempts coming from Donald Trump and coming from his administration to somehow use Putin’s manners and his politics in the US,” Dzyadko said.

Dzyadko noted two examples of American journalists’ responses to Trump. He criticized television executives and anchors for attending an off-the-record meeting at Trump Tower where Trump reportedly scolded and insulted them, and he praised New York Times journalists for declining to attend a similar meeting. Trump eventually agreed to meet with staff of the New York Times on the record, and nothing bad happened.

“Journalists of New York Times showed that if they don’t compromise in order to get in the future some information from the sources and in order to not get bad relations with the White House, the world will not collapse, and the government will find a way,” Dzyadko said.

“Journalists must work for their audience and not for the government,” Dzyadko continued.

Dzyadko also observed that the way Trump is fighting with CNN and other television stations looks exactly like the way Putin fought with a television station which he eventually took under state control in 2001.

Dzyadko added that the Russian government has enacted ridiculously specific anti-terrorism laws that it uses to penalize news organizations, and that Russian courts almost always rule in favor of government officials over journalists.

“If you are reporting on the Islamic State, you have to mention that this organization is forbidden in Russia. If you forget these four words, you can be shut down because of anti-terrorism policy,” Dzyadko said.

Finally, Dzyadko cautioned Americans against the type of passivity he sees among the majority of Russians. He believes they are content getting their information from the state media because they like what they are being told. “If you hear every day that everything’s fine, you’re fine,” he reasoned.

Instead of becoming complacent, Dzyadko insisted that the people of the United States must reject so-called alternative facts. “Your hair is black,” he said to a student attending the lecture. “If I say it’s blonde, that wouldn’t be an alternative fact, that would be a lie.”