Vienna, November 28 – “Novaya gazeta” continues to insist that its decision to end its contracts with two writers for Agentura.ru was the result of the current economic crisis, but one editor at the paper acknowledges that the paper will now have less expertise to bring to bear on its coverage of Russia’s powerful security services.
This case calls attention to two unfortunate consequences of the economic crisis: on the one hand, the reduction of news coverage in general as various outlets cut back on the number of investigators and writers, and on the other, what appear to be especially sharp reductions in those covering things the Kremlin has no interest in being exposed.
Agentura.ru is, according to its website, “a Russian internet resource devoted to the problems of special services, intelligence agencies and the struggle with terrorism.” It was founded in 2000 and until May 2006 it was supported by the Relkom Company. Since that time, its writers have worked unpaid, depending on their other positions.
The website posts articles based on the systematic study of open sources about Russian and other security services. It has been cited by a large number of Russian news outlets and by such international ones as “The New York Times,” “Le Monde,” “Liberation, “L’Express,” “Newsweek,” and the Associated Press (www.agentura.ru/press/about/).
From January 2006 until two weeks ago, this resource had continued to operate largely on the basis of its partnership with “Novaya gazeta,” which employed and regularly published Andrey Soldatov, the chief editor of Agentura.ru, and Irina Borogan, chief deputy editor of the site.
On November 13, the editors of “Novaya gazeta” informed Soldatov that he was being dropped from the paper’s payroll and that Borogan’s contract was not being renewed, and they dropped a link to the site from their page. The paper said that it was taking this step as part of broader cost-cutting moves, but Soldatov and Borogan did not think that was the whole story.
Agentura.ru writers posted a statement on November 20 suggesting that more was likely involved. Its writers said “a clear understanding why “Novaya gazeta” decided so suddenly to end all cooperation with the project.” The paper’s editors had not met with them; all information came from the personnel department (www.agentura.ru/press/about/novayastop/).
As a result of this action, the statement continued, “’Novaya gazeta,’ one of the few independent publications in the country in fact is ceasing to cover the special services and publish investigations [on them and] ‘both the suddenness and the form in which the separation happened gives reason to suppose that it was taken not for purely economic reasons.”
And the site suggested that some of its recent stories – including ones on the intelligence consequences of the Georgian war, official involvement in the murder of Politkovskaya, and the FSB’s cooperation with Chinese and Kazakhstan intelligence services – may have been a more significant factor.
The newspaper’s editor has now responded. He argues that “the declaration of A. Soldatov and I. Borogan only confirmed the correctness of the dismissal of a number of people who are concerned about their image than about their work.” The editor said that the paper would continue to cover intelligence issues.
The paper’s editor ended his response with the following words directed at Soldatov: “Andrey, dropping you from the staff naturally does not give me any satisfaction. But to speak about censorship in relation to yourself is possible only if the paper does not publish one of your fine texts.”
And he asked that Soldatov see this declaration for what it is: an offer to continue to cooperate with the paper, albeit in a non-staff role (www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2008/88/31.html).
Because of the importance of the issues involved, the London-based media watchdog “Index on Censorship” asked Maria Eismont, head of the Russian Independent Print Media Program at the New Eurasia Foundation in Moscow, to look into the matter (www.indexoncensorship.org/2008/11/27/rouble-trouble-russia-politkovskaya-novaya-gazet/).
Sergey Sokolov, the deputy chief editor of “Novaya gazeta,” told her that the dismissals in this case reflected the decision of the investors to reduce the funds they supply to the paper. “It has nothing to do with professional performance, adding that the firings “will certainly affect the paper but not catastrophically.”
Even without Soldatov and Borogan, he continued, the paper will continue to prepare articles on the special services, “just like we always did.” But Roman Shleinov, the head of the paper’s investigations unit, was less sure: The job cuts will mean that the remaining journalists will be forced to write on a broader range of issues, many of which they know less about.
And Shleinov said that it seems the situation will “only get worse,” a comment that may be about the impact of the economic situation on the paper and Moscow media outlets in general but also about the consequences of its coverage of sensitive issues like those involving the Russian security services.
While Shleinov and Eismont do not say so, covering any country’s intelligence services, let alone those of Russia, requires particular expertise, given that these agencies generally try to throw a veil of secrecy over all their activities, making any reporting about them particularly difficult.
Eismont makes another point that may shed even more light on the matter. She cites the comment of the paper’s chief funder, Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch. “For me,” he said, “supporting ‘Novaya gazeta’ … is not business: from the business point of view, they are completely unprofitable. It is an investment in the development of a civil society.”
And the Moscow investigator points out: “Novaya gazeta” has never functioned as a business enterprise – the revenue from the few advertisements it carries is not enough to cover any significant part of the paper’s expenses, and it seems that its staff have never believed that it’s a viable business model.”
That observation, of course, does not allow her or anyone else to draw a final conclusion about why “Novaya gazeta” let Soldatov and Borogan go. Instead, and like so much in the murky world at the intersect of politics and economics in Moscow, it simply opens the door to more questions. But at the very least it underscores why the work of Agentura.ru is so important.